Friday, June 20, 2014

2251 Slanguage

The other day I was reminded once again how the sounds in languages trip us up sometimes. Of course that's pretty much what language is, sounds. Not only that, sounds evolved from our prehistoric rumblings and mumblings, so it's no wonder one grunt can be mistaken for another hoot.

Take the word Skagway. As in Skagway, Alaska. On the face of it not a name you'd think would be suitable for a town. Skag has one of those negative connotation sounds. Like a combination of slag and skank. Slag being the stuff left over when your desired metal has been smelted from the raw ore. "Slag comes from being smelted." Doesn't sound like your basic chamber of commerce slogan. 

Skank, of course, refers to any number of unattractive bipeds. Usually those we'd rather not associate with in polite company. "Oh look, Uncle Fred invited a skank to the family Thanksgiving dinner." 

Well, put all of that out of your head. “Skagway” has a noble tradition. And obviously non-European with its negative slanguage associations. The word Skagway derives from a Native American Tlingit idiom, which figuratively refers to rough seas but literally means “beautiful woman.”

The figurative meaning came about because the mythical (and beautiful) woman Kanagu transformed herself into stone at Skagway bay and is, according to legend, responsible for the strong winds that blow though the channel. So the rough seas caused by these winds are referred to by her nickname, which sounded to early European settlers like Skagway.

No intimation at all that Kanagu was a mythical woman of ill repute and no suspicion that the stone referred to was ever smelted for any ore.

Skank, Slag and Skagway. Just languages and cultures colliding. Or my weird brain hitting the rough seas of early insanity.

America, ya gotta love it. 

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