Bear with me on this dear readers.
Two adventurers from Chicago and Milwaukee paddled their canoe from the Mississippi River towards the muskeg in search of caribou and moose during a raging blizzard in Northern Canada. They didn’t see any life except for a few chipmunks, a raccoon and a skunk. The set up their teepee only after they found building an igloo too complex. Once their wigwam was up they ate. One of them had brought along nutritious snacks such as pecans, squash, avocado, tapioca pudding, papaya, potatoes, Oh Henry chocolate, dried tomatoes and even pemmican from the Cree in James Bay. “Okay, let’s move on,” said one of them after a pipeful of tobacco for one and a Cuban cigar for the other. “This blizzard’s bound to turn into a hurricane.” Once on their way, they saw the strangest sight. An animal that looked like a cougar. And argument ensued, “It looks like a puma, ” said one of them. “No, it looks more like a jaguar, ” said the other.
Winter arrived so they built a toboggan using the slabs of mahogany they had brought along. One of them was so proud of their sleek new black sled he took the rest of the day off and relaxed on his hammock, honking the Roy Orbison tune Blue Bayou, while his more industrious friend took the time to patch up his tom moccasins and poncho. The one dozing on the hammock didn’t have to do such work. He had a new pair of Eskimo mukluks and parka that made the winter winds feel like a summer Chinook.
The one who had been napping awoke, stretched, yawned and said, “I’m starving. I dreamt I was a shark and I was feeding on piranhas.”
The above story, my friends, was my extremely long winded, whimsical and not too clever way of introducing this week’s topic: Native words that have been adopted by the English language. English is such a mongrel tongue. Maybe that’s the reason why it’s the truly international language.
Author Jack Weatherford says in his book, Native Roots, that the English language contains 2,200 words taken from the Native languages of America. Two hundred of which are in common use. The above tale has about 35 words of South and North American origin. Five, I’m positive, are Cree. Muskeg (Mischekw), Mississippi (misisiipii or Chesippi) Chicago (Shikaakw), pemmican (Pimikaan), Eskimo (Ischiimeu) and moccasin (Mischin) The now politically incorrect word squaw (iskwaau) is also Cree. Other words such as savannah, potato and hammock (hammoc) come from the Taino. Bayou is Choctaw, cigar is Mayan. The word toboggan is M’ikmaw. Poncho is from the Mapuche of Chile. Canoe is Carib or Arawak. Another word, which I always thought came from merry old England, Dory, is from the Mosquito tongue. Caucus, says Native Roots, is from the Algonquin for group meeting. The word blizzard first appeared when Davey Crockett (“King of the Wild Frontier”) used it, without explanation, in 1834. Weatherford assumes it was already commonly used at the time. The word okay has two possible origins. It first appeared in print in the Boston Atlas and was defined as “oll korrect.” Weatherford believes it may have come from the Choctaw word “oke” which means “it is” or “it is so.” Weatherford continues, “Okay pops up as frequently in German or Spanish as in English, and it has even entered common speech in Arabic, Russian. Okay may become the first truly international word understood in every country of the world.”
Another interesting word Weatherford shows the origin of is “bootleg.” He writes that bootleg came about when Indians were forbidden to bring alcohol into reservations; they would smuggle in bottles in their boots.
Hmm. That gives me an idea…