Give thanks… for Native American loanwords!
Since I’ve only been in the US a year and a half, so far I’ve only experienced one Thanksgiving – but I must say that given it’s a holiday seemingly mainly devoted to eating delicious food and enjoying spending time with family and friends, it’s one I especially enjoy. The atmosphere in the days before the last Thursday in November is akin to the lead up to Christmas in the UK – everyone’s travelling home to see their families, feeling in a festive mood and looking forward to devouring some serious chow.
Although the day has actually only been a federal holiday since 1863, when it was declared so by Abraham Lincoln, the idea is to remember the three-day long feast held by those known as the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth in 1621 to give thanks for a successful growing season. (It’s actually likely to have been held sometime around Michaelmas, rather than November, but never mind, we’ll forgive them for getting the date wrong.)
One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow – who incidentally, before he boarded the Mayflower, went to my old school in Worcester, England, so he ought to know – writes that the feast was attended not only by fifty-three Pilgrims, but also ninety Native Americans. And it seems that alongside a successful harvest, the Pilgrims – and their descendants since then – should also thank those ninety men and women for loaning them a great many words to help them describe their new life in the New World.
The life of pie – and other delicious things
First of all, alongside dishes with European names such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, a Thanksgiving table may also be graced with a pecan pie (and don’t be surprised that there are two desserts – most Thanksgiving feasts in the US seem to offer a choice of several kinds of pie!) The word pecan comes from the Algonquian family of Native American languages – specifically, from the Illinois word pacane. The name of the tree it comes from, a hickory, is another borrowing, this time from the Virginia Algonquian word pawcohiccora. It’s one of many terms that the first settlers had to borrow from American Indians, since they had none of their own words to describe so much of what they found and saw in their new home.
On the savoury side, a popular side dish to this day on a Thanksgiving table is some form of squash – perhaps glazed butternut, for example – which is another word taken from a Native American term, this time from the wonderful Narragansett word asquutasquash.
And for a non-meaty alternative to turkey (although perhaps not one enjoyed on the first Thanksgiving), there is always sockeye salmon – the word for which comes from the vocabulary of a group of people in the northeast US and the current British Columbia, the Salish. They called it sukai, meaning ‘fish of fishes’.
Another popular dish – and one that still baffles some British tourists on their visits to the US – is so-called grits, made of hominy, or coarsely ground corn. Although grits comes from the Old English grytte meaning bran or mill dust (mmm, delicious…), hominy is a derivative from the Virginia Algonquian word uskatahomen (which clearly didn’t trip off those English tongues fluently…) Personally, I find it a little bland on its own – a bit like semolina – but mixed with cheese or shrimp it can be lovely.
Another Pilgrim corn dish still to be found on North American tables to this day is corn pone, unleavened maize bread in the form of unleavened, oval cakes or loaves – the recipe was taught to them by the North American Indians. Pone is simply the Algonquian for bread. And meanwhile, although its cheap nature means it’s more associated with the frugal Depression era than a Thanksgiving feast, succotash is another borrowed word (from Narragansett msiquatash) to describe sweetcorn and lima beans mashed or mixed together.
Not just food…
And it wasn’t just plants whose names had to be borrowed and adapted – the early European settlers also came across plenty of animals that their own vocabulary just couldn’t describe. Imagine coming across an opossum or a moose for the first time – not to mention a skunk… all words taken, almost without any changes, from the Virginia, Narragansett, and Massachuset variations of Algonquian.
Many other Native American words have also found their way into our everyday language – not just obvious ones such as moccasin, totem, and tomahawk but also more surprising terms such as caucus (from the Algonquian cau’-cau’-as’u meaning ‘advisor’). So on Thanksgiving, it’s good to remember that as well as sharing their food with each other, the first European arrivals and the North American Indians also shared their language… another thing for which we can be thankful this 27 November.