Increase your vocabulary and understanding of how English works by learning the origin of commonly used words

At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

A Winter Garment Word & its Cozy Origin

Parka is one of the few words that has made its way into North American English from the Nenets language spoken by peoples who live on the arctic coasts of Siberia. The old but no longer politically correct name for these people was the Samoyed. Samoyed is a nasty racist insult, as you’ll learn below. Nenets, pronounced nyenyets, on the other hand, is the people’s name for themselves, and like many a racial term throughout the earth, the literal meaning of Nenets is “human beings,” with the implication, also widespread across this planet, that if you are not a Nenets (male) or Nenka (female), then you are not a human being. Ouch!

Samoyed was the Russian word for these peoples and their group of languages. It had entered Russian as a word by the 16th century, and is certainly never used by these peoples themselves or by educated Russians today, since Samoyed means 'self-eater' or 'cannibal' in Russian! Many English speakers forget or never knew that Slavic languages like Russian descend from the same ancient source as English, namely a language called Indo-European or sometimes Proto-Indo-European. In the word Samoyed, the Russian root samo ‘self’ is directly related to the English word same and the Russian verbal root yed- ‘eat’ is a cognate of the English verb to eat.

When the Russians first encountered them, they were struck by Samoyed clothes, in particular by the deerskin garment with a hood worn by men and women. The Samoyed or Nenetsky word for this outer windbreaker was parki.Russian speakers borrowed the word and later in Russian parka denoted the deerskin or pelts from which the garment was made. In the 1740s, Peter the Great of Russia sent explorer Vitus Bering to map and reconnoiter Alyeska, the land across the arctic strait. Bering and those Russian fur trappers who came after him for the next hundred years saw Aleutian Inuit people wearing a similar garment, and called it a parka. Inuktitut, one of the Inuit languages, borrowed the word as purka to mean a skin or outer coat. And then English borrowed it back again as parka.

The other pertinent borrowing in English is, of course, the name of the Samoyed dog, with its long white hair, curling tail, and pricked ears, originally bred by Nenets people to herd reindeer and pull sleds.

Bill Casselman, November 17, 2016

Copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016

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