Where does the word “Eskimo” come from?

“There’s a plausible etymological connection between Eskimo and the Spanish word Cimmaron”


In September the Ottawa Citizen printed an editorial saying it was no longer appropriate to have a Canadian Football League team called the Edmonton Eskimos. Right on!

But the editorial went on to repeat the myth that “Eskimo” means “eater of raw meat” in an Amerindian language. Why is that a distinctive characteristic let alone insulting? Lots of people eat raw meat, and smart restaurants call it steak tartare.

The definitive negating authority for an Amerindian origin is R. H. Ives Goddard III, senior linguist in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Here’s his conclusion:

“In spite of the tenacity of the belief, both among Algonquian speakers and in the anthropological and general literature…that Eskimo means ‘raw-meat eaters’, this explanation fits only the cited Ojibwa forms (containing Proto-Algonquian ashk- ‘raw’ and po- ‘eat’) and cannot be correct for the presumed Montagnais source of the word Eskimo itself…”

In any case, Europeans almost always gave their own names to people and places new to them, as they did for American “Indians,” and for Lachine in Quebec when they thought they’d arrived in China.

In 1977, in the erroneous belief that “Eskimo” is pejorative, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Barrow, Alaska, officially adopted “Inuit” as their designation for all Inuit/Eskimos, from Russia to Greenland. The Canadian government has adopted the word, as have most of the world’s news media.

But acceptance is not universal, and problems persist, along with the mistaken myth that “Eskimo” is disparaging.

There’s an immediate problem because Inuit/Eskimo peoples generally refer to themselves by the name for their own community—as do the Welsh and the Scots while also being British.

Inuit/Eskimos in Canada’s central Arctic, for example, call themselves Inuinnaq. Greenlanders call themselves Kalaallit or indeed, as Greenlanders.

Some Yupik in Alaska and Russia object to being called “Inuit,” which is not a word in their language. But they accept “Eskimo.” American vice-presidential aspirant Sarah Palin’s Alaskan husband is quite definitely “half Eskimo.”

The word “Inuit” also creates a recurring problem with mistaken English usage. “Inuit” is plural, and it also serves as the adjective. But one person is an Inuk.

So if not Amerindian, where, then, does the word “Eskimo” come from? I believe it dates from ancient times in Europe, as used by transatlantic mariners from the Iberian Peninsula — today’s Spain and Portugal.

There’s a plausible etymological connection between Eskimo and the Spanish word Cimmaron, deriving from Latin Cimmerii and Greek Kimmerioi.

Almost 3,000 years ago the Greek poet Homer referred to a mythological northern people called Kimmerioi who lived in perpetual mist and darkness. This fits for people living through a northern winter, which is certainly a distinctive characteristic. We may note, incidentally, that linguistically C and K are interchangeable, as with cereal and kerosene, both from the same root.

I think we may compare Homer’s reference to the Kimmerioi with the mythology of the unicorn. There must have been enough travel into the High Arctic in prehistoric times for a few narwhal tusks to arrive in southern Europe and Asia for people then to invent an image of the animal they might have come from.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization’s chief of Arctic archaeology, Pat Sutherland, has found considerable evidence of Norse contact with Inuit/Eskimo people during the medieval warm period from about 800 to 1300 (when the ancestors of modern Inuit/Eskimos arrived from Siberia, displacing the Dorset culture and people known to us as “Paleo-Eskimos.”)

The Norse gave the name Skraelings to the people they met and that word still means foreigner in Icelandic.

But were the Norse the only people from Europe to give Inuit/Eskimos a name?

Harvard professor Barry Fell has written convincing books suggesting that there was transatlantic traffic thousands of years ago, notably by Phoenician sailors, and Plato wrote of land far beyond the Pillars of Hercules, known to us as the Straits of Gibraltar. We may assume, though, that these mariners wanted to keep potentially valuable information about where they had been to themselves.

Classic evidence of the desire for secrecy is the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Two years after Columbus returned from the Caribbean, Pope Alexander VI ruled on the meridian dividing Spanish and Portuguese spheres of interest. He established it half way between the Cape Verde Islands, already Portuguese, and the islands Columbus said he had found. Evidently, the Portuguese kept quiet about the area now called Brazil that was known to them, but not to the Spanish representatives.

Further support for my theory comes from the fact that there’s the apparently ancient loan word in Inuktitut Puatiki or Portugee for a black man. Centuries ago, the Portuguese mostly manned their ships with black African crews, and oral traditions would have carried this word forward.

The word “Eskimo” will endure in literature written before 1977 and it served Inuit well for selling art around the world.

So I think it’s a pity that it has wrongly come to be thought of as pejorative. It’s the only useful generic word for circumpolar Inuit/Eskimos. To cite a similar example, the Romans and the Greeks called the Celts “Welsh,” meaning “foreigner,” and the Cumri of Wales readily accept what other people call them.

Carrying forward my speculation about European origins, I believe the word Canada has a similar linguistic origin. To discourage competition, sailors in ancient times almost certainly wanted to say there was nothing there where they had been. With the same interchange between hard and soft C, we have ca nada meaning just that.

In any case none of this makes acceptable the cultural misappropriation of Eskimos for a football team in Alberta.

Colin Alexander was formerly the publisher of the Yellowknife weekly newspaper, News of the North. This commentary first appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on Dec. 11, 2013.

Share This Story

(0) Comments