Monday, February 11, 2008


Dangers of Autodidacticism

Fanny Hardy Eckstorm (1865-1946), Indian Place Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast (1941; rpt. Orono: University of Maine at Orono Press, 1978), pp. xiv-xv:
The method favored by these pundits was to break up a place-name into syllables, quite at random, and then to match the individual parts to anything above the earth that they could find in print, regardless of dialect and grammatical structure. It was the method of two young children who announced that they were studying Latin all by themselves. "I see a volo!" cried one. "I see another volo!" exclaimed the other, with a vigorous smack of the fly-swatter. A "volo" was a fly, as they proved by showing in an old Latin book, "volo, volare, to fly."
I've owned Eckstorm's treatise for many years. It has more than casual interest for me because the author was a native and resident of the town where I grew up (Brewer, Maine) and because I'm acquainted with some of the places whose names she explained.

I recently looked at the book again because I was curious to see if any of the place-names in it resembled Mus-sa-lun-squit, which is supposedly the Indian name of the area near Sandy River in Farmington, Maine, where I own some land.

Ben and Natalie S. Butler, The Falls: Where Farmington, Maine, Began in 1776 (Farmington: Farmington Historical Society, 1976), p. 7, state:
Before white men came to the area, the Indians who named this early wilderness considered it an ideal hunting ground They called it Mus-sa-lun-squit, which freely translated meant, "A place where you can go and get plenty of moose, deer, fur, and so forth — whole canoe full."
I suspect the Butlers had no other source for their statement than Thomas Parker, History of Farmington, Maine, From Its Settlement To the Year 1846, 2nd ed. (Farmington: J.S. Swift, 1875), p. 8, note:
The game in the Sandy River Valley attracted the attention of the Indians, and hence they gave the river the name "Mus-sa-lun-squit," which they subsequently, in their quaint English, translated to the whites as meaning—"A place where you can go and get plenty of moose, deer, fur," &c.;—literally, "GoodHunting Ground."—Farmington Chronicle, No. 65.
Presumably Mus-sa-lun-squit is an Abenaki name, because the Abenaki inhabited this part of western Maine. Eckstorm doesn't cover place-names of western Maine, but in her index p. 260 she says that edali- is the stem meaning "there is" or "a place where." Among her examples of place-names with this stem are Edali-q'saga-holdemuk in Bucksport ("where one crosses over"), Edali-t'wakil-amuk in Winterport ("place where you have to run up hill"), etc. But perhaps I'd better stop now, lest I say something as stupid and ridiculous as "I see a volo!"

I haven't consulted David L. Ghere, "The 'Disappearance' of the Abenaki in Western Maine: Political Organization and Ethnocentric Assumptions," American Indian Quarterly 17.2 (Spring, 1993) 193-207, or Gordon M. Day, Western Abenaki Dictionary, 2 vols. (Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994).

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