Bill Casselman

Wordlore & Etymology that may make you laugh, as well as wonder at the bounty of language!

  At the Wording Desk

Be Careful Using the Inuit Greeting Chimo! in Japan

Chimo! (CHEE-mo) is a widespread and ancient Inuit greeting that may be accompanied by a gesture of salutation as well, namely, moving the left hand in a circle on the area of the chest over the heart. Variants as heard by white explorers include teyma, tima, and timah. Some early explorers were told that chimo came from an Inuktitut root that meant ‘trade, barter’ and that the only greeting implied in the word when spoken to white southerners was ‘let’s trade.’ Even if that is true, today chimo is exclusively a warm greeting and is used in our North as a toast before drinking. But it is more likely that chimo is the Inuktitut word saimo [sa.i.ˈmo], a word of greeting, farewell, and a toast.

The number of discrete sounds utterable by the human vocal apparatus is finite. Consonant and vowel repertoires vary from language to language, but it only takes learning three or four new languages, before the student begins to hear words that sound the same in two languages but have quite different meanings.

I heard about such a mix-up concerning chimo from my friend, Canadian broadcaster Vicki Gabereau.

Vicki had an acquaintance who liked the cheerful sound of Chimo and so this female friend named her dog Chimo. The dog was obedient and learned to respond to his name when called by his owner. When the lady got a job in Japan that was to last several years, she did not want to be parted from her dear Chimo, and so decided to take her pet with her to Japan, which she did. Things worked out well as Chimo had the run of a little fenced yard beside the lady’s residence in quite a posh suburb near Tokyo. Now Chimo was good-natured but frisky, and occasionally jumped the fence. But the lady had only to call him by name, and eventually he would come trotting home and jump back inside the little yard.

The lady did notice that when she called him loudly, any Japanese neighbours who might be in hearing distance would turn away and avoid her. This happened every time she shouted,“Chimo! Chimo!” Then people of the neighbourhood began crossing to the other side of the street or roadway whenever she came along. It was months until a Japanese friend explained that the way she pronounced chimo made it sound exactly like a Japanese word for ‘pubic hair.’ She had been running up and down the street for months shouting “Pubic hair! Pubic hair!”

Her Japanese neighbours had been too polite to inquire if she was merely crazy or was having a late but joyful puberty.

Chimo had long tenure as a Canadian place name too. An Innu community on the Koksoak River just south of Ungava Bay was called Fort Chimo from 1831 until 1981 when the name was changed to the traditional one, Kuujjuaq. Koksoak means ‘big river’ in western Inuktitut. But would anyone concerned with keeping their private parts dry ever go skinny-dipping in the Koksoak River?

Bill Casselman

April 03, 2016

Click the home page of this site (top left of screen)

to send me an email.