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. Continue reading “Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)”

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