Dmitry Pruss has a Facebook post (in Russian) about a fish of great historical importance to the Pacific Northwest, Thaleichthys pacificus, which is known in English by a name conventionally written eulachon (/ˈjuːləkɒn/) but which, as that Wikipedia article says, is alternatively spelled oolichan /ˈuːlɪkɑːn/, ooligan /ˈuːlɪɡən/, and hooligan /ˈhuːlɪɡən/ and which is also called the candlefish. In the Etymology section it explains:

The name “candlefish” derives from it being so fat during spawning, with up to 15% of total body weight in fat, that if caught, dried, and strung on a wick, it can be burned as a candle. This is the name most often used by early explorers. The name eulachon (occasionally seen as oolichan, oulachon, and uthlecan) is from the Chinookan language and the Chinook Jargon based on that language. One of several theories for the origin of the name of the state of Oregon is that it was a corruption from the term “Oolichan Trail”, the native trade route for oolichan oil.

The OED entry, under Forms, says (unusually parsimoniously) “Also ulikon, ulicon, ulken. etc.” (the citations also have Oolaghans, Oulachan, ulichan, and olachen, among others; cf. 1953 Beaver Mar. 40/2 “Oolikan, olachan, eulachon, uthlecan, hollikan and hoolican—spell it as you wish”); the etymology is “< Chinook jargon ulâkân.” Dmitry writes:

Но русскоговорящих ихтиологов ввело в заблуждение написание eulachon, которое было похоже на написание греческих слов в английском, и поэтому в русском языке укоренилось псевдо-греческое написание “эвлахон”.

But Russian-speaking ichthyologists were led astray by the spelling eulachon, which looked like a Greek word in English guise, so the pseudo-Greek spelling эвлахон [evlakhon] has become normalized in Russian.

It turns out that James Crippen actually mentioned this odd word back in 2008 (“In Alaska it’s said (and usually spelled) ‘hooligan’”), but there were so many weird spelling/pronunciation matches in that thread I immediately forgot about this one.


  1. My first instinct was to see if the Chinook Jargon blog has anything on it. As it turns out, it does, from only four months ago. It begins:

    I’ve seen so many half-assed etymologies published for the English words that come from Pacific NW languages, I figure I’ll see if I can hold a candle(fish) to their absurdity.)
    Or more optimistically stated, let’s try to grease a trail to a better understanding.
    Let me make it clear, I’m talking about the etymologies that appear in dictionaries of the English language; they seem not to have a habit of employing folks who have specialized knowledge when it comes to PNW languages and history.

    Many fun details follow.

  2. Great find! Here’s a sample of the details:

    The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of CW lists úlx̣ən separately from the words of Grand Ronde elders, who perhaps had little experience with this fish once the people were removed from their traditional coastal lands and largely confined to inland reservations. Notice, if you will, that this pronunciation of the word has “plain” L, just as you might imagine from the common English spellings; this is Cowlitz tribal member Joe Peter’s pronunciation.

    The other speaker cited in the úlx̣ən entry is Emma Luscier of Shoalwater Bay, Washington. She pronounced the word as iúlx̣ən, with an initial /i/. Now, because it’s assumed that this fish’s name is Chinookan, we infer that the u– is the usual feminine (singular) noun prefix, and that –lx̣ən is the noun stem that actually means ‘smelts’. Chinookan also has a prefix i- for masculine (singular) nouns, but it doesn’t allow a word to be both feminine and masculine at the same time; so GR 2012 says Emma’s pronunciation is a grammatical absurdity. To be fair, she was not a speaker of Chinookan, but she had plenty of experience of relatives speaking numerous languages of the region, so she added an i- to any word that she knew to be Chinookan.

    I would modify GR 2012’s comment about Emma by pointing out that her iúlx̣ən is the single best documented match for Lewis & Clark’s spelling “eulachon”. So, in this case, maybe she wasn’t adding a spurious masculine i-. Maybe instead the root of the word starts with a vowel: –úlx̣ən. And maybe us linguists aren’t the only people ever to come up with a confusing analysis of this word:

    “Eulachon” might then be just another of the countless Chinookan nouns that (sometimes) dropped their gender prefixes when they were taken into Chinuk Wawa. Thus we could wind up seeing variation between iúlx̣ən and úlx̣ən, both pronunciations seemingly documented by the different English spellings of the word, and thus both apparently legitimate CW.

  3. marie-lucie says

    Having spent several years in OOLICHAN country, I despise the word “eulachon” and have never heard “yoo” as the initial syllable. I say OOLIk∂n like all the people I know who eat the fish itself or the rendered grease (which I like better than butter as a complement to mashed potatoes – although different places have their own methods (and desired results) for processing the oil).

    Oolichans are still an important foodstuff among native people in spite of the supply being largely depleted compared to is superabondance in past centuries. It was not only the “saviour fish” in very early spring, caught in long nets through the river ice, and eaten roasted, dried or smoked, but the grease, processed so as to last a long time, is full of ingredients which kept all ages in good health in the cold and humid winters of the area. In older times, the grease trails joined together the people of the estuaries with their processed oolichan oil, and those of the interior who lived too far from the oolichan fisheries but could supply meats, furs and other goods. Today some families specialize in preparing the oil at the fishery where they maintain camps for the purpose, and exchange it with neighbours and relatives, including those who live away. But older photographs of the camps, such as the one at “Fishery Bay” on the Nass River, show places crammed with huts and drying frames set up for a few weeks, while the permanent villages were almost deserted.

  4. Fascinating — thanks for all that great background information!

  5. The authors of the spelling did mean Greek, and Russian -х- is, more or less, correct.
    eu- for you- is unexpected:) But then if it were yoo, we would have thought it is -ch- as in cheese.


  6. marie-lucie says

    Oolichan linguistics:
    Although the various spellings and pronunciations mentioned above give the impression that the name of the fish is basically the same in the languages which name it, giving the impression that the original name must have been borrowed from the Chinook language of the Columbia River valley, the actual situation is quite different.

    In the Nass River valley, still home of the largest oolichan run in the area, the abundance of this food source in most years meant that several ethnic groups could come and share peacefully in the enormous harvest. On the other hand, less abundant years meant that different groups might fight over the oolichans and the grease. Both of these circumstances could lead to multilingualism and borrowing. In this region, the Nisqa’a (still the owners of the valley and especially of Fishery Bay) call the fish itself by the Tlingit word saak, but in derivatives such as the word for “to fish for and process the fish”, the morpheme meaning “oolichan(s)” is -?u, a cognate of the more archaic Southern Tsimshian ?üah (once spoken on a remote island; the initial consonant is a glottalized fronted “w” rather than a true vowel). Even among the Nisqa’a, the specially shaped oolichan net is daGa’aL (stressed on the middle “a”), a Wakashan word for this net, allegedly invented by a woman from a Wakashan tribe, perhaps for fishing with the Nuxalk, a more southern Salish people whose territory still includes a large oolichan fishery. There again, the words for “oolichan grease” are quite different: Nisqa’a has t’ilx (where x = ç), and Nuxalk sluq’.

  7. From the BBC:

    The little-known hiking trail that built Canada

  8. marie-lucie says

    One of the many such trails “in olden days”. Thanks maidhc!

    The beautiful photographs show why there are not many modern roads between the Coast and the Interior of BC! A high altitude road (the Coquihalla Highway) was built some years ago, in order to avoid a lower but narrow road and thus save time for long-distance travel, but the new road proved inconvenient for the anticipated truck traffic, because it goes up and up for long distances, and then down and down, overtiring the engines and requiring rest stops.

  9. How is Coquihalla pronounced?

  10. marie-lucie says

    Co-kwee-ha-lla (stress on “ha”)

  11. Thanks! (As a quondam Californian, my instinct said “Cokee-HA-ya.”)

  12. The little-known hiking trail that built Canada

    If you follow the link, and then follow the teased link at the bottom of that page to “The birthplace of the American vacation”, you’ll be momentarily confused. The mountain scenes that illustrate the two, one in the Canadian Rockies and the other in the Adirondacks, are nearly identical.

    More on topic, there’s a further link there to an article that describes the making of eulachon grease, which involves fermenting them for several days in a stink box till their eyes turn red and the blood drains out the bottom, then cooking them at a precise temperature to release the grease.:

  13. marie-lucie says

    Grease and grease
    Although both the Nass River and the Bella Coola one (farther South) have oolichan runs and use basically the same process to make grease, their concepts of the best grease are quite different. On the Nass River, the t’ilx is a pale, thin oil with a gentle taste. The Bella Coola sluq’ is thick, as dark as coffee, and has (allegedly) a very strong taste (I have not tried it).

  14. John Cowan says

    BBC Travel is sooo much better about matters linguistic, even though usually subordinated to matters geographical, than BBC Science.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Sounds like the one person in all of the BBC who knows something about languages happens to work for BBC Travel.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    The BBC is pretty flaky in its science coverage; like almost all non-specialist news outlets*, it tends to gullibly paraphrase press releases, with little or no checking with any actual experts who don’t have a stake in the press release itself. I have on occasion actually contacted them in my professional avatar to complain about this when their coverage was likely to raise false hopes in desperate sufferers from incurable eye conditions. To be fair, this has often worked. They are merely careless, not actively hostile to the concept of objectivity, unlike the vile Daily Mail (for example.)

    * Unfortunately, it’s easier to list the exceptions than the examples. The Economist is pretty good …

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