I was having a nostalgic look through the blog of the late lamented Ray Girvan, a valued contributor to the Hattery back in the day, when I hit on this post about an obscure but apparently real expression:

I remember from childhood a cowboy comic where an Indian character shouted “Onhey!” as he attacked. If I ever recalled it, I just assumed it was made up. To my surprise, it turns out to be authentic (or at least sourceable to period accounts). It turns up in a number of accounts of the Battle of Little Big Horn, as in that reportedly told by White Bull to Stanley Vestal:

White Bull said, “I saw a mounted soldier waver in his saddle. I quirted my pony and raced up to strike him and count the first coup on this enemy. Before I could reach him, he fell dying from his saddle. I reined up my pony, jumped down and struck the body with my quirt. I yelled, ‘Onhey! I have overcome this one.’ I took the man’s revolver and cartridge belt.

He gives another example of use and continues:

It all sounds plausible enough for closure for the moment, though both of these sources come via Stanley Vestal; it’d be nice to see independent confirmation. I don’t know what language it would be; “Sioux” covers three main languages (Lakota, Western Dakota and Easten Dakota) with multiple dialects.

So I thought I’d bring it here and ask if anyone knows anything about it; I’m sure Ray’s shade would appreciate answers.


  1. Looking over the treatment of exclamations in the New Lakota Dictionary, 3rd edition (2022), of the Lakota Language Consortium, you can find the following:

    VIMP now, come on now! (a signal to act). Usage: a defective verb; used in calling attention of one or signaling the start of an activity, often followed by imperative, or by a statement of fact (takes all imperative endings, except that women use howé for both singular and plural)…

    hókahé INTERJ 1 Welcome! exclamation for greeting a visitor, often in reply to háu; used by both sexes. 2 Ready! Let’s do it! Usage: exclamation for the start of a race or a joint effort.

    hona ( + na) INTERJ alright, let’s do it. Usage: woman’s word, expresses indifferent agreement; with ktA expresses “let’s”. · Hóna nuŋwé-uŋyíŋ kte. – Hóna. Let us go swimming. – All right.

    hó ye INTERJ very well! alright! let’s do it! Usage: man’s word, expresses indifferent agreement. Variant: hóye. · Kákhi uŋyíŋ kte. – Hó ye. Let’s go there. – Alright. “Hó ye” eyé. “Alright” he said.

    na PVP indicates an informal command spoken by a woman (often omitted).

    The abbreviation PVP stands for post-verb particle.

    Ablauting kta, kte (notated as ktA by the dictionary) is a post-verb particle indicating potential or intention.

    I have the dictionary right here beside me. I’ll continue skimming and see if I find anything else.

  2. From an interview with Chief Joseph White Bull in 1939, published in June, 1971 in American Heritage, “Echoes of the Little Bighorn,” by David Humphreys Miller:

    My cousin Bad Soup [Bad Juice] was stripping the soldier I thought had been the leader and held up the buckskin coat. He looked in the pockets of the coat and brought out some papers with pictures on them [maps]. In one of the pockets he found coils of long yellow hair. But the dead leader had his hair cut short.

    “ Onhey! ” Bad Soup cried. “That man there was Long Hair Custer. He thought he was the greatest man on earth, but he lies there now. And he cut his hair so he would not be scalped!” [….]


  3. PlasticPaddy says

    What is the word for counting coup in your dictionary? This is what the “brave” was doing, although he seemed to be slightly annoyed when the opponent died before he could complete the action.

  4. jack morava says

    This is an opportunity to say that the creators of


    use `Aho’ as a kind of generic indigenous greeting or exclamation (and that the show is IMHO well worth watching).

  5. I think it might be a form of the following:

    wáŋ hé wáŋ INTERJ Here! Look! Gee! Say! Usage: expression of surprise used by men on seeing smth for calling attention.

    This appears to be a reinforced form of wáŋ:

    wáŋ 1 Look! Why! Here! Say! Gee! Usage: introductory expression of surprise or calling attention (used by men; women say )… 2 exclamation calling people at a distance (often pronounced very long)…

    The character ŋ indicates nasalization of the preceding vowel in this rather long-established orthography (not the velar nasal).

  6. Yes, that sounds plausible.

  7. I’m curious how the phrase ‘count coup’ came to be adopted in English. Various websites explain it, but the meaning is hardly transparent (to me, anyway). I think I first came across it in Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star.” I remember looking it up and being less than fully enlightened by the explanations I found, and not at all enlightened by why it was rendered that way in English.

    My suspicion was that use of a cryptic phrase was meant to suggest a practice mysterious to outsiders. Or perhaps the first English speakers to adopt the phrase didn’t altogether grasp its meaning either. I felt there was a touch of the ‘noble savage’ trope about it, but perhaps I’m too cynical.

  8. Something of interest on that question here, from the Smithsonian ethnological reports:

    The next group of figures illustrates the custom of gaining and afterwards counting coups or hits, the French expression, sometimes spelled by travelers “coo,” being generally adopted.

  9. The following must be the etymology of what is reported as onhey (at least when taking coup, if not perhaps for the other use quoted, when finding the hair), from the New Lakota Dictionary (2022), p. 66:

    aŋhé INTERJ interjection used when taking a coup. Variant: áŋ hé. · Eháŋni tȟóka wičháktepi čháŋ, tȟóka kiŋ hená awičhápȟapi čhaŋ, “áŋ hé” eyápi ké Long ago when they killed enemies and they took coup on them, they would say “áŋ hé”.

  10. That looks right–Thanks!

  11. Yes, that’s terrific!

  12. Typo! Please correct cyápi to eyápi. These old eyes can’t tell a c from an e… (eyápi, 3rd pl. of eyé “say”.)

  13. Done!

  14. Thanks!

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