Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)

A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit: VintageValentineMuseum.com)
A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit: VintageValentineMuseum.com)

While making my case for a Creek/Muskogee origin of “how,” I also mentioned that an 1872 document uses the stereotypical “ugh” to represent speech at a Creek Indian council. (See here.) But this witness (Michael Johnston Kenan) was describing events that occurred almost half a century before he wrote them down in 1872. So it seems likely that the omnipresent “ugh” had distorted Kenan’s memory of the actual Creek expressions.

Where did this odd little syllable come from? Was it an attempt to represent an actual word from a specific Indian language?

My working hypothesis is that “ugh” sprang from the fertile imagination of James Fenimore Cooper, who used it in his fiction to signal an essential difference between Indians and non-Indians. The popularity of Cooper’s tales helped make “ugh” the most widely recognized (and most demeaning) marker of “Indian” speech.

Origins of ‘ugh’

It’s worth mentioning that “ugh” first popped up in the mid-1700s to represent an inarticulate sound of disgust or horror. (We still use it that way today, of course, but you won’t find an “ugh” in Shakespeare, Milton, or Dryden.) For several decades on either side of 1800, “ugh” also represented the sound of a cough, as in this 1846 example from Edgar Allan Poe:

‘How long have you had that cough?’

‘Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!’

My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.

That’s from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” But the “ugh! ugh!” cough died out at about the same time Poe did.

‘Ugh’ and Indians

By this time the Indian “ugh” had come into its own, and it has never left us. Cooper, who may have introduced it in 1826 in The Last of the Mohicans, spelled it with an initial “h” — “hugh!” Later authors must have dropped the “h” to avoid confusion with the name Hugh.

Unlike most writers of frontier adventures, Cooper takes note of the variety of Indian languages. His Hawkeye speaks fluent Mohican, can get by in Delaware, and doesn’t understand a word of Huron. Still, Cooper makes no effort to associate “ugh” with a word in a language. “Ugh” is just a noise that Indians make, as if by instinct. Non-Indians, even those who speak an Indian language, never say “ugh.” It is the “usual and expressive exclamation” of Cooper’s Mohican heroes, Uncas and Chingachgook. Likewise for the devilish villain Magua, a Huron, “ugh” is a “never-failing” expression. *

After the success of Cooper’s tales, the stage was set for other writers to assign their Indians a crude, monosyllabic “ugh ugh” languge — not much improvement over the grunts and howls of wild animals. This tendency was in full swing by the 1870s, when the U.S. Army made renewed war on the Indians of the Great Plains. Popular histories of the era quote imaginary Indian speeches littered with “ugh! ugh!” outbursts, whether the speaker was a Massachusetts Pequot of the 1600s or a contemporary Sioux from the Dakotas. 2

By the early 20th century this idea of the Indian as “a poor blundering moron, talking most clearly when he talks his broken English” had already passed into folklore. 3

Hollywood largely took it from there, peopling thousands of westerns with bellowing, inarticulate redskins. Delmer Daves (who made an early attempt to break the mold with his 1950 movie Broken Arrow) derided these stereotyped figures as “‘Ugh Ugh’ Indians.” 4

Not that everyone who associates “ugh” with Indians is a confirmed bigot. Some of us non-Indians actually seem to think it’s a kind of endearment (as in the caption of this recent picture of a Portuguese man in a Hollywood Indian costume), while others are naive enough to think it’s a genuine example of “Indian language.” Many an “ugh” has been uttered by white children playing Indian at summer camp, often with the encouragement of their adult caretakers. As these games become “traditions” in their own right, it can be hard for us to give them up. We may even imagine that we are paying tribute to Indians in this way.

If my hypothesis is right, then James Fenimore Cooper, inventor of the “ugh,” has a lot to answer for.

I’m grateful for help in testing the hypothesis. If you find any old “ughs” out there, kindly post or link to them here.


* James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), pp. 60, 276.
2 See e.g. Charles H.L. Johnston, Famous Indian Chiefs (Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1909), an openly white supremacist book aimed at young readers.
3 Charles F. Hockett, “Reactions to Indian Place Names,” American Speech 25 (2) (May 1950): p. 120.
4 Christopher Wicking, “Interview with Delmer Daves,” Screen 10 (1969) no. 4-5, p. 63.

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10 thoughts on “Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)

  1. I am reminded of the film director in either the forties or fifties who wanted complete authenticity in his Cowboys and Indians western—so much so that he hired a tribe of Native peoples to speak their lines in their original language. However, when he heard the end result, he didn’t think it sounded “authentic” enough, so he had the soundtrack run backwards, meaning that the Native peoples were heard on the soundtrack in reverse.

  2. This article by a Canadian Mohawk author may be another version of that story. Seems that when Harold J. Smith (who starred under the name Jay Silverheels as “Tonto” on “The Lone Ranger”) used to play in westerns as a Big Chief, he was sometimes directed to address his warriors in authentic Indian language. The results were highly amusing to Mohawk moviegoers. As Drew Hayden Taylor tells it:

    …[A]ll his family and friends from Six Nations would go to Brantford to see his movies when they were released. They would sit in the audience enjoying Jay’s success. And then, when this big scene came on, the theatre would erupt in laughter….

    Like many of us who are not very proficient in our ancestors’ tongue, most of us learn common words or short phrases first, rather than the whole lexicon of the language. So there was Crazy Horse/Sitting Bull/Geronimo, speaking in stilted Mohawk, encouraging his savage warriors to “pass the salt. What time is it? It’s raining. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Dog. Cat. I love you. Hello. Goodbye.” And so on.

    I don’t know if this story is true, but if it isn’t, it should be.

  3. My wife is Calif Mission Indian of the Desert Cahuilla. Her family like the humorous term “Indian-Chinese”… Stand for Ugh-Lee. Ex: “That is one Indian Chinese car!” = “That is one ugly car.”

    1. In the Stone Age Cavemen used the term Ugh while dragging there women by the hair into the cave. Soon after they used the word Ugly after waking up next to there cave woman in the morning! True story! It has to be true cause it was on the internet.)

  4. Here is an interesting article on the origins of ugh called “Indians Do Say Ugh-Ugh”: https://archive.org/stream/ERI… The article hypothesizes that many word in various Native American dialects end in an “ug” or “ag” sound which may have given early European settlers the impression that Native Americans were repeating ugh.

    1. Thanks, Chris. The article is interesting, but I think the author overplays his hand. The only evidence he offers is that -ag is a common suffix in the Ojibwa/Chippewa language, spoken in the upper Midwest and Canada. That doesn’t help explain why white writers claimed to hear “ugh!” in the speech of Indians in New England, the South, or the Great Plains — all places where Indians would have found Ojibwa to be an unintelligible foreign language.

      The case would be stronger if he could show that “-ag” or a similar suffix was also common in other Indian languages. But he doesn’t even attempt to do that.

  5. That assumption would make more sense if one could show uses of “ugh” in early modern writing. But as mentioned in the post, there are no “ughs” in Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, et al. It first appears in the mid-1700s to represent a noise of disgust, horrified surprise, or physical distress. So it wouldn’t have been pronounced with early modern English phonemes (except maybe when read aloud in parts of Scotland).

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