June 26th, 2009

Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon was a mixture of English, French, Spanish, and Indian tongues that was spoken throughout a wide area that radiated out from Puget Sound and reached north to the Gulf of Alaska and south to Northern California. The language developed as a lingua franca for trade communication. It went back to the eighteenth century and was spoken by both native Indians, called Siwash, a corruption of French “sauvage”, and Bostons, who were generally preoccupied with their own corruption. The high public culture of the northwest scarcely knows that Chinook existed, but in country taverns, construction sites, farmyards, fish boats, log camps, and the names of high schools and their sports teams, Chinook words still creep in. Some Chinook words appear in standard American English dictionaries.

Chinook jargon uses a small number of words, about five hundred. Each of these was loaded and over-loaded with a rich set of meanings. There are only a few examples of paragraphs written out in Chinook and those look suspiciously like contrived set pieces, but in practice, words of Chinook were mixed randomly into the speaker’s language wherever and however they might convey meaning to a listener. Consequently, Chinook has an expressive vocabulary, but its grammar is made up as you go along.

After English was firmly established as the universal language in the region, there was no pressing need for Chinook. Spanish is coming back in the old Chinook area, but both French and Spanish were gone for a century and a half, and by the mid-twentieth century, only isolated handfuls of native Americans were not fully conversant in English. For several generations now, Chinook words are used because the speaker either prefers the Chinook phrase, or can’t think of an English equivalent. Over the years, Chinook was adopted by speakers out of the mainstream dominant culture who spent most of their time outdoors in the weather and natural world: commercial hunters and fishermen, construction workers, and farmers. Native Americans were the natural core of this group, but many Bostons were absorbed also. Chinook gave this subculture a private vocabulary tailored exactly to their lives. Under the homogenizing influence of media, education, and social and geographic mobility, even this remnant of Chinook is now disappearing.

A few Chinook words

Skookum. English dictionaries define skookum as “marked by strength or power” or “highest quality.” As the term is used, these definitions are close. When something is skookum, it is perfectly suited to its purpose. In the rough environments where the term is used, fitness is almost always characterized by strength and durability.

Boston. White man, or specifically American white man. King George man referred to an Englishman. Why Americans were associated with Boston, not Washington, Baltimore, or Chicago for that matter, is not known.

Chuck. Water, liquid. Skookum chuck are rapids on a river. Salt chuck is salt water.

Iktus. Clothing, the gear you carry around with you. A thing. Iktus can carry a disagreeable connotation and is often accurately translated as excrement or crap, although it does not specifically mean that. If you understand crap the way it is often used as an all purpose noun that can be substituted for anything anywhere including pleasant things, you are close to the essence of iktus.

Cheechako. New comer. Tenderfoot.

Cultus. Bad. Bad smelling. Lazy. Worn out. Useless. All purpose negative. Cultus iktus is excrement.

Kloshe. Good. Enough.

Keelally. Shaman, medicine man, physician.

Klootchman. Woman, female, wife.

Hyas. Big, important.

Tenas. Little, unimportant.

Tyee. Chief.

Siwash. Indian. Derived from French “sauvage”. Not derogatory, although it is sometimes used with that intent.

Lumpechuck. Any hard liquor. The Indians did not use the “r” sound and substituted “l”, transforming rum to lum. Pe was an all-purpose conjunction. Chuck was water. So Lumpechuck was rum and water, or British naval grog. Lumpechuck then evolved to mean any hard liquor.

Piah. Fire.

Piahchuck. Any hard liquor. Literally “fire water”.