Wild West Words: Salmon, Blizzard, Yankee

Department Heritage

Salmon

Most species of Atlantic and Pacific salmon spend their adult lives in the sea, but migrate to fresh water to spawn and die. This remarkable migratory behavior makes salmon anadromous fish. Anadromous, a word appearing in print in 1753, consists of the Greek prefix ana, “up” and dromos, “running.” Etymologically, salmon “run up” the river to complete their life cycle.

Swimming upstream, migrating salmon launch themselves airborne to surmount falls and cataracts. Humans in the northern hemisphere, where salmon thrive, have observed these high-profile acrobats for millennia, and, in some languages, the creature’s migratory behavior is emblemized in a name.   

Salmon most likely comes from the Latin verb salire, “to leap.” Several European languages share similar words for the fish. In Provençal, it’s salmo; in Spanish salmon; in Portuguese salmão,  and Italian has salmone and sermone.  

Salmon species of tzhe Pacific Northwest are named chinook (from the Columbia River Chinook natives who relied on them for food); sockeye (from a Salish word sukkai, meaning ‘fish’), and dog (from the prominent canines of spawning males).

Blizzard

Blizzard is the word we North Americans reserve for our continent’s winter storms: those shrieking tempests of horizontal snow that blind motorists, strand livestock and wildlife, and leave country dwellers snowbound for days.

Though most American English speakers can describe a blizzard, the word itself is elusive, leaving confusing etymological tracks. 

An early citation of blizzard appears in the 1834 autobiography of Col. David “Davy” Crockett, Tennessee frontiersman.  Crockett writes, “A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast; and supposing he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead, and give him and his likes a blizzard.” So Davy Crockett knew the word, but to him, the meaning of blizzard was “a volley of abusive words.” 

Other early senses of the word include “a sharp blow or knock” and “a hail of gunfire or arrows.” Snow was never implied in any of its several early incarnations. 

But in the 1850s as immigrants and explorers pushed westward, they encountered savage Midwestern winter storms which, by at least 1859, were being called blizzards. Evidence of this comes from the diary of a Kansan named L.B. Wolf who wrote on December 1, 1859, “A blizzard had come upon us about midnight... Shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up.”

Then, on March 14, 1870, the Midwest was pounded by a particularly ferocious spring storm. An Estherville, Iowa newspaper editor described this “blizard” in The Northern Vindicator. Eleven years later, in 1881, a publication called the New York National reported, “The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely blizzard.  It designates a storm of snow and wind which men cannot resist, away from shelter.”

So it appears that journalistic efforts during the last half of the 1800s promulgated this new meteorological sense of the term.  Adopted by other local journalists, the word ultimately became the standard American name for a sustained winter storm.

The curious thing about this now-familiar word is that no one has been able to positively identify its source. One speculation has blizzard deriving from the German Blitz, meaning ‘lightning.’

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the word may have been coined by English speakers to imitate the sound of fast and furious movement, whether of bullets, epithets, or the gusting of a winter gale.

Yankee

The origin of Yankee has been much discussed throughout the last two centuries. Writers, historians and word scholars have proposed various etymologies for the term, but none of these has been authenticated. 

Today, Yankee is a nickname for a native New Englander or, more generally, an inhabitant of the Northern states. There are no glaring negative associations with the moniker, but when Yankee emerged in the 1700s, it was indisputably derogatory.  

 British General James Wolfe, writing in 1758 of the American colonial troops under his command, called them Yankees, adding, “They are the dirtiest, most contemptible cowardly dogs you can conceive.” When British lexicographer Francis Grose defined the term in his 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, he wrote, “Yankey, or Yankey Doodle.  A booby, or country lout: a name given to New England men in North America.” In the face of such defamation, American colonists turned the word on its head and embraced it as a term of pride.

Some word watchers have guessed that the word arose from Algonquin native’s attempts to pronounce the word English, resulting in such constructions as Yengees and Yinglees.  

As the Dutch were among the earliest settlers in the New World, some propose that Yankee comes from Jantje, the diminutive of the common Dutch name Jan. By far the most plausible assertion makes Yankee a variant of Jan Kaas, meaning “John Cheese,” a disparaging English nickname for Dutch immigrants. 

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