Sunday, April 11, 2010

I'm Skookum

When I was growing up in the Green River Valley, south of Seattle, I often heard the word "skookum."  I remember hearing my Uncle Gould and a few other adults use the term in conversation.  It always felt like a word from the Pacific Northwest, like it may have sprung from our neck of the woods--because there were a couple of places named Skookumchuck).  I grew up hearing the word all the time, but it has fallen into disuse.  What a great word!  Misuse would be better than disuse.  The word was often used as a synonym for copacetic--a word you might hear Cab Calloway or some other hepcat use, and a word I associate with the 1920's to 1950's era.  World Wide Words seems to confirm that: 

COPACETIC/kəʊpəˈsɛtɪk/  - Fine, excellent, going just right.

The Wikipedia says "Skookum is a Chinook jargon word that has come into general use in British Columbia and Yukon Territory in Canada, and in the U.S. Pacific Northwest."  And that it has three meanings: 

1.  a word in regional English that has a variety of positive connotations;
2.  a monster; similar to the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, often seen in these parts (the NW);
3.  a souvenir doll once common in the United States in tourist areas.

It has a wide range of positive meanings, and that is how I always remember it being used.  I never heard it used to refer to a Sasquatch or kachina dolls.  

A Frequently Asked Questions list from Skookum Tools Ltd. says the word has "meanings from 'good,' to 'strong,' 'best,' 'powerful,' 'ultimate,' 'brave' and 'first rate.' Something can be skookum meaning 'really good' or 'right on! 'excellent!', or it can be skookum meaning 'tough' or 'durable'. A skookum burger is either a big or a really tasty hamburger, or both, but when your Mom's food is skookum, it's delicious but also hearty. When you are skookum, you've got a purpose and you're on solid ground, in good health/spirits etc. When used in reference to another person, e.g. "he's skookum", it's used in respect with connotations of trustworthiness, reliability and honesty as well as (possibly but not necessarily) strength and size."

The same FAQ also claims that skookum house means jail or prison, or, "the big house."

I have been to at least three places--two in Washington (the river, and Skookum inlet on Puget Sound)and one in British Columbia--named Skookumchuck, most notably including the river you drive over on a road trip to California.  Skookum can mean "turbulent water or rapids"  and Chuck is Chinook for river or lake.

A quick internet search turns up a brewery, a social service agency, a "bay trading" company, a clothing manufacturer, and a few other businesses that have appropriated the name, including most appropriately one business that makes gear for steelhead fishing (that should be another post probably--the story of the singularly northwest fish known as steelhead).  There seems also to be a breed of cat known as skookum, and at least one rock band.  And how could I forget--Skookum Inlet on Puget Sound produces some of the best oysters I have ever eaten...

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