March is well underway, and for many folks across the United States, the snow is finally melting, though turning into a dirty, sloppy mush as it goes. Up in Alaska, the Iditarod is also underway, but with its own kind of mush–and march, as we’ll see in the origin of this term for traveling through the snow, especially by sled dog.
In the 16th century, the French began exploring, hunting, and trapping in North America. In the snowier stretches
of Canada, they adopted dog-sledding for transportation and hauling. The practice, of course, predates the French, as evidenced by ancient Native Americans in Siberia and North America. When the French drove their teams of dogs, they commanded Marchons!: “Go!” or “Run!” Marchons is the first-person plural imperative form of the French verb marcher, which we will revisit.
Apparently, Canadian English smushed this Marchons! into “Mush on!” Some linguists refer to this particular phonological process as the “Law of Hobson Jobson.” Here, English takes up marchons but modifies it to fit the existing sound and sense of the English language. Eventually, the on fell off, leaving English just with mush.
Now, marcher has another imperative form in French: marche, a second-person singular imperative. Those French voyageurs may have issued Marche! to their huskies, which might also explain mush‘s trail into English. The Oxford English Dictionary first records such mush from an 1826 journal entry of Smithsonian explorer Robert Kennicott included in James Alton James’ 1942 The First Scientific Exploration of Russian America and the Purchase of Alaska, used to advise U.S. Senator Charles Sumner on that very purchase:
One sees only a large cloud moving along the track, out of which came queer cries of…Marche! Yeu! Chah! etc. The voyageur, be he English, Gaelic, Norwegian, or French, always addressed his dogs in a rubbaboo sort of a language they call French here.
In another entry, Kennicott records the mushing command as mouche.
As we saw, mush likely goes back to an imperative form of the French verb marcher. This verb, which could also simply mean “to walk,” gives English and other European languages their words for a military march. The word originally signified only “to get around on foot” but also “to trample.” The ultimate origin is unknown, but Baumgartner and Ménard posit a *markon, a possible cognate to the French marquer and the English mark. Middle English indeed had a sense of march meaning “to border” or “lie upon,” much like something marks a boundary. If this the case, we can take the word back to the Proto-Indo-European *merg-, “boundary, border.”
Now, the earlier sense of trampling has led some to propose the Latin marcus, a “hammer.” The connecting sense is that a certain manner of walking or trampling is like hammering the ground with one’s feet–which, I think we can all agree, definitely describes those Iditarod huskies and what they are doing to the snow beneath their paws.