Tag Archives: Word Etymology

Word Etymology and Historical Misinformation

I have been pondering something for a few days now.  I have decided that I need to write about it.

During the month of October, I work at what has been ranked as the best pumpkin patch in Arkansas, (at least by some people and organizations) Arkansas Frontier Living History Pumpkin Patch.

I am in charge of “Indian Village” me-and-the-skins-at-ar-frontier

One of the things that I always tell my audiences when I am presenting is that while the family history is that my Grandmother’s grandmother was native American (Grandma thought Cherokee or possibly Choctaw, but didn’t know for sure) I am not culturally native American.  I tell them that I have learned from books, from taking seminars put on by the American Indian Studies department of a southern California college, and from people who are culturally native American.

Over the course of the four years that I have worked at the pumpkin patch, I have learned a few things from people who are more in the tradition and culture than I am.

A few days ago, one of our visitors, “Linda” was from Oklahoma.  She was  visiting family here in AR, and one of her relatives was on a school visit to the pumpkin patch.  After the school went on to their next activity, she lingered to talk to me.

When I was a baby, my dad carried me around town and the local college in a “Papoose carrier”, as he put it.  I share this with the students as being the closest that I come to the native American culture.  Linda suggested that I use the term “cradle board”   rather than “papoose carrier”.  She told me that “papoose” is not the best word to use.

I asked why.  She told me that “papoose” was the white man’s word, and it is better not to be used.

She went on to say that I should never ever use the word “squaw”.  Now, while I had heard that the term squaw was sometimes used in a derogatory way – indicating someone who was not married, only living with someone, I had not heard of it being a word with such negativity as she seemed to indicate.  Again, I asked about it.

She told me that the word “squaw” came from the “squalling of women while they were being raped by white soldiers and traders.”

Now, I absolutely had never heard of this.  When I got home, I started to do a little research.

I’ll start with “Papoose”.  Papoose is an English loanword.  What is a loanword?  It is a foreign word that enters the English language with little or no modification or change in either the spelling or the meaning.  Some examples found in English include “Faux Pas” – French;  “Kitschy” – German; “Modus Operandi” – Latin; “Taco” – Spanish; “Samurai” – Japenese; “Prima donna” – Italian; and “Alter ego” – Latin, to name just a few.

In the case of the word “Papoose”, its origins are said to be Algonquian.  Specifically from the Narragansett tribe.  It was first recorded by Roger Williams.  He wrote a book, A Key Into the Language of America, published in 1643.  On page 28 he lists the word “papoos” as meaning “a childe” and he lists “Nippapoos” as “my childe.”

So, the idea that the word “papoose” is a white man’s word?  About the only thing that has changed is the addition of an “e” at the end of the word.

Today?  The word is also used to mean a “child carrier”.  And for some, it is considered a derogatory term, according to at least one of the sites I looked at.  No explanation was given for why some consider it derogatory.  Perhaps because it is now believed that it was a “white man’s word,” as Linda believed.

The term ‘squaw’ is much the same.  It is another loanword. There is nothing in the word etymology history that indicates the term came from squalling women who were being raped, as I was told by that very sincere lady from Oklahoma.  Again, Roger Williams records, on page 138, that ‘Segousquaw’ is a ‘widdow’, and on page 27, ‘Squaws-suck’  is ‘woman-women’.

This is a reference a hundred years and more before the time period that Linda referenced.

As I was doing more research, I ran across a wonderful essay, Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors, by Marge Bruchac.  It may be found on the nativeweb site, at http://www.nativeweb.org//pages/legal/squaw.html  In this essay, she includes the history of the word, variants, history of the introduction to the English language, and more.  I encourage you to read it.

In the process of researching, study, reading, I have come to a conclusion that disturbs me a great deal.  The history and culture of native Americans – First Nations, as they are being called in some areas – is being wrongly taught – by the native Americans themselves.

Linda was very sincere in her belief that the word “squaw” came from the squalling of women being raped, that it was a white man’s word, a derogatory word.  She had been taught that.  She is teaching that to others.  And – she is wrong.  The word “squaw” was never a white man’s word.  Was never, at least originally, derogatory.  And certainly did not come from the cries of women being abused and raped.

So, what does this mean?

A generation or more of people are being taught their own history – wrong.  The implications of this are staggering.

If you believe that something was done as a result of rape, if you believe that anytime you hear a certain word, it is meant as an insult, how easy will it be for you to work out problems with the people using that word?  And what if they have no idea that that word is considered derogatory?  Although I have not used the word in my presentations, I certainly had no idea that the word “squaw” had such a negative emotional impact until Linda told me.  And that emotional impact is an impact that should never have happened. If history had been taught accurately, if additions had not been added, the word ‘squaw’ would be respected for its true meaning.

People who already believe the worst will find it harder to find common ground, to work together, to understand each other.  And being taught a false history will make it more likely that the worst is believed.

How much of this erroneous teaching is politically motivated?  How much simply accidental misinterpretation?  How much is deliberate?

I don’t know.

I do know that I have begun to wonder how much of the history that I have been taught has been full of misinformation.  How many of the things that I think of as fact, are actually false teachings, perpetuated year after year. And have I, all unknowingly, taught others false history?

I hope not.  But that is one of the reasons why I research, study, and read.  I hope others will study history, as well.

If there are lies in what we are taught, we need to search them out and make them known.  We do not need to perpetuate lies and call it history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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