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Whaler words Yakkie”

Taissumani: 2009-02-13

By Kenn Harper

Last week I wrote about words that had been borrowed from English into Inuktitut so long ago that their origins are largely forgotten. This week I want to write about a word that was commonly used by whalers to describe Inuit, but has also passed out of use, and out of general knowledge.

Whalers used at least four words to refer to Inuit. One of them, the least common, was the word "Inuit" itself, which shows up only occasionally in whalers' diaries. Many whalers of course used the word "Eskimo" or its variant French-inspired spelling "Esquimau" in the singular or "Esquimaux" in the plural. All three spellings were pronounced the same.

Another word which whalers commonly used when talking or writing about Inuit was "Husky." I wrote a previous column about that word ("The Evolution of a Word – Husky," Taissumani, Nunatsiaq News, September 28, 2007).

But perhaps the strangest word was "Yak" or "Yakkie." References to this word, as a term describing Inuit are quite common in whaling literature. Here are a few examples:

Joseph Rene Bellot, writing about the search for Sir John Franklin, wrote, "Dr. Kane tells me that the scurvy appears occasionally among the Huskies, or Yacks, as they are still called, in consequence of the little variety in their food."

A surgeon on an 1824 whaling voyage wrote, "In the popular language of the nineteenth-century whalemen, male natives were referred to as Huskies and the word is evidently a corruption and abbreviation of Eskimo. The women were known as Koonas and the natives in general as Yaks."

Benjamin Sharp, a participant on one of Robert Peary's expeditions to northwestern Greenland, made a distinction between what he said whalers called the Inuit of southern Greenland and what they called those of the far north. He wrote of a man he met, "He was a fine-looking fellow, this ‘Yak,' as the whalemen call these Arctic Highlanders, in contra-distinction to the ‘Huskie' of southern Greenland." I have not seen this distinction in any other source.

Bernard O'Reilly, in his strange work, "Greenland and the Adjacent Seas," published in 1818, said (incorrectly) that Yak derived from Uskee (his version of Huskie). An anonymous reviewer, probably John Barrow, writing in the Quarterly Review, tore O'Reilly‘s work to shreds and lampooned him for his etymological guesswork, writing: "From Uskee comes (we know not how) yak, and from yak, yankee – of doodle Mr. O'Reilly says nothing."

The Greenlandic Inuk traveller, John Sakeouse, on his deathbed in Scotland, referred to himself as a Yakkie. Other Inuit who worked closely with the whalers may have referred to themselves and their fellow countrymen as Yaks or Yakkies when talking with whalers. The Inuit camp, Kivitoo, about forty miles north of Qikiqtarjuaq (Broughton Island) was known to all whalers simply as Yakkie Fiord. It was a popular place where whaling ships would take on fresh water and meet with the Inuit, or "Yakkies" to trade.

But where did this strange appellation come from? The answer is simple. Today, the English word "yack" is a verb meaning to talk incessantly. But in the dialect of lowland Scots spoken by most of the whalers in the 1900s, it had a different meaning. It meant to speak unintelligibly. (Whalers weren't generally well-educated and so were not big on spelling, so the disappearance of the letter "c" from "yack" is irrelevant.) Of course the language of the Inuit was unintelligible to most whalers. To them, the Inuit were "yacking." And so it was logical that they should be referred to as the Yakkies or Yaks.

Today, this strange word is unknown to anyone not familiar with the scattered writings left by the Scottish whalemen who visited the eastern Arctic.

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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