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The Evolution of a Word Husky”

Taissumani: 2007-09-28

By Kenn Harper

Everyone knows the word "husky" as a name used for the dogs that Inuit and other northerners use to haul sleds. And everyone knows the adjective "husky" describes someone who is stocky or robust. Most would think that the two words are related, especially since the husky dogs are known to be strong and tireless. But, in fact, the two terms are not related at all. The adjective, "husky," is derived from the word "husk," the dry and often tough outer covering of some foods, like corn. The Oxford English Dictionary defines husky as "tough and strong (like a corn-husk); big, strong, and vigorous."

It is simply a coincidence that the husky dog is also tough, strong and vigorous. But the derivation of the word is quite different.

When white explorers and whalers first encountered Inuit in the Arctic, they didn't use the word "Inuit" to name them. Rather they used a word that is generally said to have been borrowed from an Indian language, the word that came to be standardized in French as Esquimau (Esquimaux in the plural) and Eskimo in English. Its meaning was said to be "eaters of raw meat." But the word had many variations before it finally settled down into the English or French forms that became standard.

Arctic literature abounds with various permutations of the word. Consider these:

In 1743 Isham, writing about his time in Hudson Bay, used the spelling Ehuskemay. In a word list that he compiled on an expedition in the late 1870s, Heinrich Klutschak noted the word "eisiki" as meaning "man." The engineer of the whaleship, Camperdown, wrote in 1861 that Inuit men were called Ossaki on the Baffin coast. Other variations were Uskees (certainly a short form), Uskimay and Usquemows.

The addition of the initial "h" may have been a dialectal innovation from Newfoundland. Some Newfoundland dialects (as well as some English ones) add the consonant "h" at the beginning of a word starting with a vowel. In 1924 Mason wrote that "Esquimaux" were called "Huskemaw" in Labrador. Husky was almost certainly an abbreviation of this word or one of its variants.

In 1830, writing of northern Quebec, an observer wrote, "There was a cry that the river was full of Hoskies (Esquimaux)." A magazine article in 1889 noted that "The Indians were terribly afraid of the Esquimaux, who up there are called Huskeys." Packard, writing of Labrador in 1891, referred to "the Eskimos, by whalers called ‘Huskies'."

Even Inuit used the word when talking with whalers or explorers. The much-maligned Greenlander, Adam Beck, while himself maligning the abilities of the interpreter Carl Petersen, a Dane, told Charles Francis Hall, "Carl Petersen no speak Husky quick – not good Husky speak – small speak Husky!"

All of these terms were used for the people. How then did the name migrate from the people to the husky dog? Simple. The Huskies (the people) used dogs. They were the dogs of the Huskies, the Huskie's dogs, and eventually simply the husky dogs.

For a time the two terms co-existed. Mason wrote in 1924, "On the Arctic tundras the ‘Huskies' use long runner-sleds with the little short-legged ‘husky' dogs who can run all day over the iron-like crusted snow."

But eventually the explorers' and whalers' name for the people became standardized as "Eskimo" (eventually to be replaced with Inuit) and the connection between the two words was generally forgotten.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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