A General Glossary of the Chinook Jargon
and an 
Introductory Phrasebook of Useful Chinook
and other regional words and usages
of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest

Chinook-English Site Index
English-Chinook Site Index
This site is also an introduction to the history and cultures of the societies and times associated with the Jargon, and with the peoples and lands of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, being the territories in which the Jargon was known and used, and in which its remnants and memory survive, even though its popularity and widespread knowledge have long passed.  Still, there's lots of people out there who know some. Never really a full-developed language but rather formally defined as a pidgin, the Jargon had very few words - 800 at most - drawn from half a dozen tongues, including English and French as well as major native languages of the Northwest.  But it was said that someone skilled in the Jargon could say anything, or rather, anything that was actually necessary.  "If you can't say it in the Jargon, it's not worth saying."
Even relative newcomers to the Northwest find themselves picking up peculiarities of the local argot still in use in local English, but remain unaware of the origin of the terms, despite their innate connection to the place and its history.  The three most prominent Jargon words that survive in regional English are skookum, saltchuck (or simply 'the chuck') and (high) muckamuck.   If you're from the Northwest, you probably know what these words mean, or at least have an idea (if you're not and/or you don't, then please explore this site to find out..... )  In fact, some people said that it was impossible to tell a lie in the Jargon - but "English, now that was a language made for lying in!".  Ideally, Jargon was typically spoken sparingly, with a few carefully chosen words that could pack a powerful punch, sometimes laden with puns and wit, despite its sparse vocabulary and often-vague syntax.  Meaning was often clarified by gesture or tone, since certain Jargon words had a wide range of possible meanings.  Context was everything.  It was known for a raucous, even rowdy, flair for conversation-ability and phraseology, despite a preference for economy of words.  There was no real "proper prononciation" as Jargon speakers came from all ethnic backgrounds; and not much in the way of formal grammar either.
Other words that turn up locally, or become familiar to residents over time, include hyak (swift), hyas (big), hiyu (many), tenas (small), mowitch (deer), moolack (elk), tillicum (people, or friend) and klootchman (woman) - but it's not always obvious even to those familiar with "the Wawa" when a word or phrase has Jargon origins.    Even in the old days, ordinary speech (in any language, from English and French to Hawaiian and Chinese to the local Salishan and Wakashan languages) was often just peppered with Jargon words; only rarely were whole conversations held in it, these usually when people didn't know any of each other's languages.   But even when they did speak the same language, many frontier-era people of all origins sometimes preferred to speak the Jargon to each other; this includes old establishment families with pioneer roots. Because of its simplicity and limited vocabulary, it could and would not convey meanings that could be said in other languages; but equally so it became invoked as an instrument of colonization, with the Jargon being used for everything from court proceedings to evangelization as well as household speech and the working language of canneries, placer mines, and logging camps.  It also functioned as a language of intertribal community and nearly replaced the traditional native languages in some areas until efforts to resuscitate these older, more complex languages began.  Identified very strongly with native culture, the Jargon nonetheless was intrinsically a product of the heady mix of all cultures in the Pacific Northwest, and is as much a non-native legacy as a native one.
"The sticks", "hooch" and "Big Smoke" (a nickname for Vancouver) all have Jargon roots, or at least roots in the frontier culture of which the Jargon was the common speech.  Jargon words also survive in large numbers also in the vocabularies of many native languages, notably Jargon words adapted from the French spoken by the voyageurs of the fur trade.  With increased immigration to the region from other parts of North America and the rest of the world, the Jargon traces in local English are fast-disappearing.  Or are they?  Yaka skookum wawa - "them's strong words".... For most that used it, however, it was a fluid and useful part of daily life, and an augment to their own native speech, whether that might have been a local native tongue, English, Chinese, or any of the  gaggle of European tongues that arrived with colonization.  Although primarily perceived as a language of native culture, and indeed having its origins long before colonization began, the Jargon was as much widely used among non-natives for many years, even being spoken by many in preference to English, apparently because of its pithiness, directness, and potential for gamey-ness. 
From the turn of the century to the Great War, somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people - maybe more - in the Northwest spoke or at least knew some of the Jargon.  Today, the total number of surviving Jargon speakers is unknown, but it is far from extinct, with a small concentration of speakers in Grand Ronde, Oregon and a scattering of relatively isolated individuals of all ages throughout BC and the Pacific Northwest.   People who know at least some Jargon - common words like those above, even if they don't know what the Jargon itself is - still number in the thousands, and they're from all ethnic backgrounds.

Parts of this Site:

Greetings & Salutations | Common Phrases | Money, Trade, & Travel | Time & the Elements
Food & Domestic Life | Fun & Games | Critters & Livestock | People
The Body | Numbers | Interrogatives, Prepositions, & Interjections
Verbs & Concepts | Adjectives & Abverbs | Grammar & Prononciation

French loan-words | English & other loan-words
Chinook-English reference (by category)
Kamloops Wawa Word List - NEW

Jim Holton's Chinook Jargon Book (draft)

George Lang's Chinook Jargon Website

Dakelh (Carrier) Chinook Jargon Website

Jeff Kopp's Chinook Wawa Website

Chinook Night Before Christmas
Chinook Lord's Prayer & Hymns


Bridge River-Lillooet Country | BC History & Scenery | Chinook Jargon Main Page | Clevens & Periards | Poetry

e-mail: mikecleven_at_gmail.com