The story of that fabled first Thanksgiving, where the new arrivals from England and the Native people of the land came together for a shared supper, handily glosses over the fact that the Puritans were wont to help themselves, uninvited, to the Native people’s winter supplies of corn. But those Puritans and their descendants swiped something else that lasted far longer than that Thanksgiving meal: some of the words of the Native Americans.
It was a matter of necessity. Here these Puritans were, recent transplants from a world away, with no linguistic frame of reference for much of what they were encountering. Take that gourd that, once you cooked it, was quite tasty. The Native name sounded like “isquontersquash” to the early European Americans. Eventually it was shortened to that Thanksgiving staple called squash. Pecan, another standby of many a Thanksgiving pie, is also rooted in America’s indigenous languages, as is persimmon.
Fittingly, given that the Puritans settled where they did, the name Massachusetts comes from the Native American term for “near the small big mountain.” The origin of the name Connecticut is from the Native American “at the long tidal river.”
And what about those four-legged creatures that roamed this new world, the likes of which the Europeans had never before encountered? The “raughroughoun,” or “aracoun,” was one. Its name would be shortened to raccoon, an adept scavenger that’s rifled through garbage cans after many a Thanksgiving feast. The tiny chipmunk and the mighty moose both owe their names to Native American languages.
So does that creature with the shockingly awful smell: the “segankn,” better known as the skunk.
Such words were music to the ears of America’s first great lexicographer. Noah Webster (1758-1843) was determined to set Americans apart from England. While his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language excised the ‘u’ from words such as color and labor, it also featured only-in-America words such as skunk.
As the immigrants to America ventured farther afield, to both the south and west, they continued to absorb words native to America. Lewis and Clark noted at least 500 such terms as they made their way inland to the Pacific coast. The man who sent them on this momentous errand in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, was back in Washington, D.C., which is situated on the Potomac. The linguistic source of the river is Algonquian—”Patowmeck,” which has been translated as “something brought.” In terms of linguistic heritage, the language of the Native Americans brought a new dimension to the language of English.