As others kept their eyes peeled for wildlife, I kept mine peeled for – what else – a good etymology. On the Alaska cruise my wife, some close family, and I recently enjoyed, this effort entailed not staring down binoculars, but bottles. Yes, I’m talking about hooch.
Among other things, of course, many of Alaska’s historic towns are famous for their old saloons, where grizzly pioneers once guzzled hooch.
This term for alcohol, particularly liquor such as whiskey made cheaply and often illegally, is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1897, right in the gullet of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Hooch, the OED explains, is shortened from hoochinoo, taken from Hoochinoo, the name of a small native tribe who distilled it. The tribe dwelled on Admiralty Island right by Juneau. Alaskan hooch had quite the notorious reputation – the OED‘s earliest citation, M.H.E. Hayne’s Pioneer of Klondyke, describes it as “weirdly horrible” – and which reputation was often grossly transferred or contributed to Alaskan natives themselves. Apparently, soldiers, and later gold miners, picked up the term after the Alaska Purchase and it became especially popular during Prohibition.
Hoochinoo itself could be made from berries, flour, or sourdough starter with the aid of yeast and molasses. The name Hoochinoo, however, is made from the Tlingit, Hutsnuwu (Xootsnoowú), “grizzly bear fort.” Tlingit – whose initial Tl– is pronounced much like the final sound in the Nahuatl origin of tomato, tomatl, as we’ve seen – is the language of the selfsame people native to southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
“Grizzly bear fort” is apt, as on Admiralty Island today, brown bears (over 1600) far outnumber natives (over 600). The bears also outnumber the speakers of Tlingit, estimated at around 500. I think I need some hooch.