November 3, 2004

What is the meaning of the word kemosabe or Kemo Sabe?


“Kemosabe,” also spelled “Kemo Sabe” or “Kemo Sabhay”…
What is the meaning of this expression that became such a memorable part of the Lone Ranger series?

Fran Striker, who wrote the original Lone Ranger scripts,  was also the person who answered the fan letters to the Lone Ranger. He always started his replies with… “Ta-i ke-mo sah-bee” (Greetings trusty scout, according to him).

There have been numerous other suggestions regarding the meaning of this term: “Kemo Sabe” is often reported to mean “stupid white man.” However, I think the people who think that are actually confusing kemosabe with Tonto, which means “stupid” in Spanish.

Dr. Goddard, of the Smithsonian Institution, was reported as believing that Kemo Sabe was from the Tewa
dialect. He supported his contention by calling on the “Ethnogeography of the Tewa Indians” which appeared in the 29th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1916). It seems that in Tewa, “Apache” equates to Sabe and “friend” to Kema. 

Another souce states that kemosabe means “white shirt” in Apache.

A scholar from the University of California at Berkley thought that Kemo Sabe came from the Yavapai, a dialect spoken in Arizona and meant  “one who is white,”  since the Ranger always wore a white shirt and trousers in
the earliest publicity photos.  The Yavapai term is “kinmasaba” or “kinmasabeh.” 

Jim Jewell, who directed “The Lone Ranger” until 1938 said he’d lifted the term from the name of a boys’ camp at Mullet Lake just south of Mackinac, Michigan called Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee. The camp had been established in 1911 by Jewell’s father-in-law, Charles Yeager, and operated until about 1940. Translation of kee-mo sah-bee, according to Jewell was  “trusty scout.”

According to Rob Malouf, a grad student in linguistics at Stanford, there’s another possibility: “According to John Nichols’ Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe, the Ojibwe word `giimoozaabi’ means `to peek’ (it could also mean `he peeks’ or `he who peeks’). Rob continued: “There are several words with the same prefix [giimooj, secretly] meaning things like `to sneak up on omeone’…. It is quite plausible that `giimoozaabi’ means something like `scout’…. `Giimoozaabi’ is pronounced pretty much the same as `kemosabe’ and would have been spelled `Kee Moh Sah Bee’ at the turn of the century.” 

The Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary includes kiimootaapiwin ‘the act of peeking’ or ‘a Peeking (or Peeping) Tom.’.This recognizably employs kiimoot- ‘secretly’ and -aap-.’to see’. The -iwin is apparently the singular inanimate noun (NI) final. Cree is yet another Algonquian dialect continuum, but north of Ojibwe, so forms with a similar morphology and meaning are apparently fairly widely attested in Great Lakes region Algonquian, though the Potawatomi and Ojibwe versions are more consistent with Kemosabe in form.

In his book of humour and observation, noted columnist James Smart observes that the New York Public Library defines “Kemo Sabe” as meaning Soggy Shrub in the Navajo language. His entertaining collection is appropriately titled “Soggy Shrub Rides Again and other improbabilities.” 

An interesting side light comes from the son of Fran Striker, “It is usually assumed that Kemo Sabe is how the Ranger refers to Tonto. However, in many of the early radio broadcasts, the Ranger calls Tonto “Kemo Sabe” AND Tonto also calls the Ranger “Kemo Sabe”. 

Another suggestion has been that Tonto, (whose name means “stupid” according to some interpretations) responded by calling the Lone Ranger “qui no sabe”  which roughly translates from Spanish as “he who knows nothing” or “clueless.

The closest thing to Tonto in Ojibwe is perhaps dende ‘bullfrog’, with a nod to Michael McCafferty (p.c.) for suggesting it. A related form occurs in Potawatomi gchidodo (gchi- is ‘big’, -dodo is the ‘frog’ part). The form offered here has been respelled in modern fashion by David Costa (p.c.) from Gatchet’s fieldnotes.) In fact, in some Algonquian languages ‘bullfrog’ is actually something like tonto- or dondo-, but, unfortunately for our purposes, the word loses the n in Potawatomi, and changes vowels from o to e in Ojibwe. 
One of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons shows the Lone Ranger looking in an Indian dictionary and discovering that kemosabe is “an Apache expression for a horse’s rear end.”

Algonquian Languages
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply