December 4, 2008

How can Maashkinoozhe mean ‘Ugly Pike’ when Maash means ‘flower’?



I am doing some research on the Muskellunge. Every web site I go to says the word was based on the Ojibwe word Maashkinoozhe and they say Maashkinoozhe means Ugly Pike. That does not make sense because Maash means flower in Ojibwe. I was wondering if you can tell me what the aborigional word for Muskellunge is?
~Submitted by Gary



Hi Gary,

I don’t know for sure, because I don’t speak Ojibwe fluently. And I am sure the Ojibwe weren’t the only native people who had a word to describe this fish. There are more than 300 native languages alive today in North America, and there were once more than a thousand.

Most native words used in our English names today aren’t literal like they were in the original language, and are much corrupted, especially if they were hard to pronounce, as Ojibwe is for English and French speakers. Often explorers talked to neighboring tribes about other tribes first, before approching unknown peoples, so they picked up totally different words in another language than those used by the actual tribe they are referenced to. Because the different tribes had different perspectives and different prejudices, the words for the same thing could have vastly different meanings.

Because the French got further out west before the English did, many English words based on Indian languages first came to the English speakers via bastardized French. Later, these got all jumbled together to form our modern names for different animals and other things when translated to English. 

I wasn’t clear if you are studying the fish or the tribe of indians known by the same name, but there is a fish that is in the pike family that is callled a Muskellunge by the Fish and Game Dept, commonly called a Muskie or Musky or Maskinonge by fishermen. It averages about 20 lbs (9 kg), but may grow to 6 ft (1.8 m) long and weigh 80 lbs (36 kg) or more, making it the largest fish in the pike family and is a food fish several local tribes probably fished for extensively because it is a good sized fish. 

The Ugly Pike is native to the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, Hudson Bay (Red River), and Mississippi River basins and lives in areas where there is heavy vegetation in the water.

The latin name for this fish is Esox masquinongy. Esox comes from the old name for pike in Europe and masquinongy comes from the Cree words “mashk” meaning deformed and “kinonge” meaning a pike. 

This fish has a lot of long needle-like teeth that it uses to grab ducks, frogs and snakes, as well as other fish. It also has weird eyes that turn inward rather than pointing straight out to the sides like most other fish, making it look sort of cross-eyed, or ugly. Also, where most fish in the pike family have 5 gill slits, this fish has 11, so these two things might have made it appear deformed to Cree fishermen used to seeing other species of pike. 

The Meskellunge is also a long, narrow fish, way longer than it is wide. The Ojibwe word “kinoozhe” literally means “elongated mask,” and probably refers to the shape of the fish.

Perhaps the flower part refers to the smell, as in a musky smelling perfume, which often comes from flowers. In the English word Muskellunge, the first part, muskel, refers to a musky smell and lunge is a scientific term for a family of fish to which this fish belongs. This fish is a bottom feeder with a strong oder that could be described as a fishy or musky smell. 

Maash may have referred to the general locations where this fish lives or to a particular plant it preferred to live near. A lot of bottom feeding fish will hide out around vegetation such as roots and floating plants like water lilies during the heat of the day and while hunting for prey. This fish is known to prefer areas with heavy vegetation, so that might be where the reference comes from–the long fish that lives in the flowers (water weeds, algae bloom, lilypads)? 

Maybe the Ojibwe word now used for flower referred to vegetation in general or a specific flower, and was just translated as flower, which we now take to mean any flower. Most of the time, native american words for things were very literal and complex, meaning whole sentences when translated, and meaning different things depending on how loudly or softly they were pronounced and where the accent was placed and in what context they were used.

Just as to, two and too all sound the same, but all mean different things in English depending on the spelling and context of the sentence. The word “No” shouted or pronounced with an exclamation mark is a command that means stop or quit, but when said softly, as in “No, thankyou,” means “I dont’ want any.” Many words could have multiple meanings in native languages, too, and since most weren’t written languages until recently, they were even easier for non speakers to misunderstand. 

Just as some English words have no equivalent word in native languages, many native words had no equivalent in English or French, so a general related word was often substituted in the translation.

Native phrases were often misunderstood and/or shortened when translated to other languages, especially when the translator wasn’t fully fluent himself, or in the interest of saving time. The natives might have tried to tell the guy who made up the European word for this fish (I think this was first translated into a bastardized French word in America) that it is the fish with a musky smell like such and such plant, or that lives by such and such plant, but that was too complicated for the translator to explain so he just said “flower” instead. Many of the battles fought during the Indian Wars and treaty negotiations that broke down were caused by faulty translations of what was actually said by one speaker to another.

It wasn’t uncommon for a translation to go through several languages before being translated to English. For example, when Lewis and Clark met with the Shoshone and were trying to barter for horses, Sacagawea translated from Shoshone to Hidatsa, which her husband, Charboneau, understood. He then translated from Hidatsa to French. Then a french guy in the party translated to English for the benefit of Lewis and Clark. You can see how things could easily get mixed up in the process.

Finally, any living language is constantly evolving and changing over each generation of speakers. Over time the Cree and Ojibwe words for this fish (and who knows what other tribes) got all jumbled together as it got translated over the ensuing generations, until finally most people understood Maashkinoozhe to mean the ugly pike. While used separately,
Maash and Kinoozhe don’t mean Ugly Pike, but when used together in the context of a discussion about fish, they do.

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