Patrick Taylor, the LH house etymologist, posted on Facebook about the word sasquatch. The basic etymology is known; to quote the AHD (Patrick’s bailiwick), it’s from “Halkomelem (Salishan language of southwest British Columbia) sε´sq’əč.” But how is the Halkomelem word formed? Patrick looked it up in the Dictionary of Upriver Halkomelem, by Brent Douglas Galloway, and showed in his post the entry for sasq’ets (“a stl’áleqem creature resembling a huge (six- to nine-foot tall) wild hairy man, the name was first borrowed into English apparently after being spelled by J.W. Burns, a teacher at Chehalis Indian school on Harrison River where sasquatches were sighted fairly often”). Unfortunately, it’s too full of special symbols for me to try to reproduce here; if you can’t see the FB post, maybe you can see this Google Books link to p. 558 of the dictionary, which has the entry. Here’s what Patrick had to say in his post (for some reason I can’t get a link to the post itself; the “April 7 at 1:48 PM” link there, which I used above, only shows the image from the dictionary):

Recently I became curious about the etymology of the word Sasquatch. Most dictionaries say that the word came into English from Halkomelem, a Salishan langauge of southeast Vancouver Island and the nearby islands and mainland coast. The Halkomelem word can be written as sásq’ets. But is there any more to say about the word in the Halkomelem cultural context? Does sásq’ets mean anything else besides “Sasquatch” in Halkomelem? I discovered that Brent Douglas Galloway in his Dictionary of Upriver Halkomelem (UC Publication in Linguistics 191, 2009, p. 558) breaks down sásq’ets as follows… The first part is possibly sasq’-, an intensive/augmentative reduplication of seq’, “to crack”. Is this in reference to the creature’s splitting and breaking of trees? The second part is possibly -ets, “on the back”. I wonder what the sense of “on the back” could be—“behind itself” maybe? That is, the meaning would be “(the one) leaving a trail of broken trees”? However, typical descriptions of Sasquatch often mention broad shoulders, too, so perhaps the thought was “snapping trees across its (strong) back”? I wanted to write Galloway about this but he died in 2014. Still, I believe this etymology deserves wider currency.

I agree, so here it is.


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’ve probably said this before, but it’s such an unlikely piece of information that I’ll say it again: Maud Menten, one of the great names in early 20th century biochemistry, was a speaker of Halkomelem, which she learned at school in Harrison Mills from her First Nations friends.

  2. You mentioned it here, with more detail, but it’s well worth repeating — I, for one, had forgotten, and it’s a great story.

  3. I should do the research myself, but my first question is, how do you get from Halkomelem (spoken around Vancouver) to Chehalis (spoken less than half way from Portland to Seattle)? The two languages are probably not mutually intelligible.

  4. I learn from Wikipedia that Halkomelem is pronounced (by English speakers) /hɒlkəˈmeɪləm/, i.e. hall-cuh-MAIL-uhm.

  5. it’s too full of special symbols for me to try to reproduce here

    Well, that sounds like a challenge. How does this look?

    <sásq’ets>, df //C₁έ=səqʼ=əc or sέ[=C₁ə=]qʼ=əc//, EZ [‘sasquatch’], POW, ASM [‘a stl’áleqem creature resembling a huge (six- to nine-foot tall) wild hairy man, the name was first borrowed into English apparently after being spelled by J.W. Burns, a teacher at Chehalis Indian school on Harrison River where sasquatches were sighted fairly often (John Green: On the Track of The Sasquatch, etc.)’], possibly root <séqʼ> split, crack, possibly <R7=> augmentative, possibly <=ets> on the back, phonology: reduplication, syntactic analysis: nominal, attested by AC, BJ, (12/5/64), Elders Group, EB, example: <(lhxwále:, x̱ethíle) sasq’ets>, //ɬixʷ=έ·lə, x̣ə(ʔa)è=ílə) C₁έ=səqʼ=əc//, /‘(three, four) sasquatches’/, (semological comment: the people classifier (=á:le~ =íle) is here used for sasquatches, EB’s grandmother used these forms in telling a story about sasquatches), attested by Elders Group, EB.

  6. Looks great! I didn’t say it’s too full of special symbols for you to try to reproduce. Me, I’m lazy.

  7. John Cowan says

    I was curious about stl’áleqem, and it means ‘supernatural (creature)’ (not clear if it’s an adjective or a noun). In either case, Hičajqri influence seems beyond question here: H stlaa ‘ordinary, mundane, (of pastry) filled with vegetables only’ + ləkəm ‘beyond’, with epenthetic glottal stop. Someone should send this example to Ed Vajda, as it’s evidently another example of a cross-Beringian family.

  8. Savalonôs says

    I wonder if the uvularity of q’ (or its ejectiveosity) some out contributes to the decision to bring it into English with a /w/ sound mysteriously appearing.

    Or could it be taboo avoidance with “Saskatchewan”~”Saskatoon”?

    A historical linguist might posit that an otherwise unknown para-Halkomelem substrate (“Sasquatchic”) which preserved an original /w/ in that position is the true source of the loan.

  9. The relations between Sasquatchic and Proto-Yetian will make an interesting study someday.

  10. @languagehat: That reminded me of a scene, and I can’t even remember what television show it was from. But the streetwise character is showing the naive youngster how the three-card monte scam works. After the senior character successfully “finds the lady,” there is this exchange:

    “I thought you said you can’t win at three-card monte?”
    “No, I said you can’t win at three-card monte.”

  11. Taylor’s rather creative etymology seems to depend on the connotations of =ets.

    The google version of the Halkomelem dictionary blocked the page for “=ets” at least for me. But there is a complete version here:

    There is still no entry for “=ets” though the dictionary does show other such suffixes. But If you search the file for =ets> (adding the greater-than sign to avoid other suffixes), you get 16 instances subsumed in entries for words that use the suffix. The broadest meaning given is “at the surface, at the top, at the back,” and meanings do circle back to “at the back.”

    But, the usages seem physiological and tactile rather than metaphorical or directional.

    For instance, analyzing q’alets by its parts might suggest that it would mean turn (something) back/or turn to face “behind itself” as Taylor puts it. But q’alets actually refers to the pry stroke in canoeing. The pry is not a stroke to take a canoe backwards or to turn it all the way around to go the other way. Instead, it’s a brief, demanding stroke that one uses to quickly move the boat sideways or change the heading by pushing water sideways to move/turn the back of the canoe itself. In English we do have a backstroke, which impels the canoe backwards. And we have a sweep stroke, which would be the most common way to turn a canoe back in the other direction. It’s telling to me (as the owner of a canoe livery) that they’re not using =ets to mean “back” in either of these ways we might. They’re using it more concretely.

    Q’alets is not the ‘turn (the canoe) back’ stroke, but the ‘turn the back (of the canoe)’ stroke

    Other citations suggest that it’s used to refer to the skin of the back that would be removed when you skin something, or to bark peeling away. Or that it may reference the spine or the uprightness of the back, as in the Halkomelem word for totem pole – “xathetstel’ – where the connotation of standing human body is given, or in the word for bow (the weapon), texwets, which seems to etymologize as ‘stretch spine’ or ‘stretch rod.’

    I’d suggest Taylor may have been a bit too creative in suggesting “leaves a trail of broken trees behind him.” Among other things, I’d expect the root of such an epithet to be tree.

    There’s no need to haul trees into this. Combine the elements of the word more straightforwardly and you get Cleave-back, Split-back, or maybe Brokeback, which sound like plausible epithets.

  12. Very interesting; thanks for doing such thorough spadework!

  13. Never mind. That was a different Chehalis, in BC.

  14. Annette Pickles says

    Since Sasquatch go around naked, perhaps the reference of “Crack-back” is to a furrow between the reportedly enormous trapezius and other back muscles—or to the deep natal cleft, a common feature of detailed descriptions of Sasquatch, as here:

    Near the end of our conversation, I asked him if there was anything else of notable importance that he could recall or that stood out in his mind and he mentioned the buttocks. The buttocks of the first creature was much larger than a human and very muscular. The witness indicated that it had a very large gluteal cleft that he had witnessed as it walked away from him on the tram road.

    And here.

  15. Could it be “back-breaker”, I wonder? Seems like a good name for a very large, strong and threatening creature.

    Brett: the same joke in the very good “Cabin Pressure”:

    DOUGLAS: Oh, I don’t know any of this stuff.

    MARTIN: Then how do you think you’re going to pass the exam?

    DOUGLAS: Luck.

    MARTIN: You can’t rely on luck!

    DOUGLAS: You can’t rely on luck.

  16. So “stl’áleqem” means “supernatural”? When I saw the word in the context posted here, it reminded me of the Chinook Jargon word “skookum”, which means “strong” or “powerful”. (That word is still occasionally used by people here in Vancouver, by the way, e.g. “You’re going to need a skookum joist in the roof there.”)

    Interestingly the Wikipedia article about “skookum” has a paragraph which starts “A skookum is a variety of mountain giant or monster similar to the Sasquatch or Bigfoot.” The reference given is a book “Weird Washington” which says “In the Chinook Jargon the word ‘skookum’ has different meanings. It can mean strong or powerful, and it can mean demon or evil spirit.”

  17. To answer Y’s question, there are a couple different dialects of Halkomelem, from Vancouver Island to what’s now called the Upper Fraser Valley. Traditionally, people from Cowichan would travel yearly to around Hope, where they had salmon fishing rights. There were different dialects (Hulq’umin’um is the dialect from Cowichan on the island) but it’s not like people didn’t travel before colonisation. Obsidian was traded from Oregon and even California to these areas too.

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