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.

Had to buy the beverage package, didn't I? "Hooch." Ink ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Had to buy the beverage package, didn’t I? “Hooch.” Ink, ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


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.

Hooch_Ink, Ballpoint, Orange Highlighter - Scribblem ∫ r ∫


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.

"Mush." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Mush.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


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.

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