Yellow sand verbena, an etymology

Flowers of yellow sand verbena, at Point Reyes CA.  Photo by Morgan Phillips

Flowers of yellow sand verbena, at Point Reyes CA. Photo by Morgan Phillips

OK, I know some of you by now are SICK of seeing posts on yellow sand verbena.  But stick with me here – today’s nattering is on the etymology of the Hanis and Milluk name for the plant, tlomqa’yawa.

An ethnobotanist asked me, does the word for yellow sand verbena (tlomqa’yawa) have an etymology?  Huh, I wondered.  Maybe.  Let’s pull up the big ol’ wordlist I put together and see what is hiding in there!  And, after poking around a bit, I think I may have found something.  Maybe.

The latter part of the word, –a’yawa, is probably the suffix listed in Frachtenberg’s grammar as -ayawa/iiyawa (vowels change because the Coos languages have vowel harmony, meaning a vowel in the word stem or affix will change its neighboring vowels.  The Coos languages are tricksy that way.  Also, about the appearing and disappearing and reappearing glottal stops -well that is a LONG post of its own to tackle on another day.  We’ll ignore it for now).  This suffix is basically the equivalent of the English affix -er.  Basically, add to a verb and it becomes a noun meaning doer-of-verb, like deriving ‘dancer’ from ‘to dance’.  In Hanis, you get taliyawa (dancer) from the verb tal (dance).  Interestingly, can add it to nouns on occasion; add it to nik’in (wood, log, tree) becomes nik’iniyewe, wood-getter.  So from this we can infer our word for yellow sand verbena might literally means doer-of-tlomqa.  Great….what the heck is a ‘tlomqa’?

What the heck is a tlomqa- is a good question.  We can’t be 100% sure – our main body of vocabulary is around 2500-2600 words (we’re excluding affixes here).  Frank Drew and Annie Miner Peterson – the two people from whom we get the word tlomqa’yawa  – never gave an etymology, and with out limited vocabulary that got recorded we cannot be sure we can know what tlomqa– is or was.  That said, there are a few similar words lurking in the wordlist.

One is the verb tlimq which means ‘to begin, to start’ (and it’s derivative, tlimqa, means ‘soon’).  So, is this the root to which -a’yawa was added?  That would mean ‘sooner, starter’.  Odd name for yellow sand verbena.  (I could see it maybe for Oyster Root, the flower of which closes up early in the day, but Oyster Root is not native to North America, so no).  A more likely possibility is the verb tl’imoq- which means ‘to scent, to have a smell’.  If this is so it morphed into tlomqa’yawa to mean ‘stinker, scenter’.  Now you might be wondering, wait, wouldn’t that be a word for skunk cabbage?  You would think!  (Skunk cabbage is yayox in Hanis, kimetl in Milluk – curiously Milluk may have borrowed this from Upper Coquille, or they may have borrowed it from Milluk).

Yellow sand verbena flowers have a strong scent.  Luckily a pleasant one.  Seriously, if you find some on the beach (like near Port Orford, Crissey Field down by the OR-CA border, or on Coos Bay’s spit)  get on your knees and smell the flowers.  Their scent is rich, strong and very lovely.  It occurs to me that few of our native flowers have a strong scent.  Yeah, skunk cabbage does (and weirdly I kinda like their smell, or at least it does not bother me – I guess cuz I grew up above a swamp of it.  Got used to it from birth) but few others do.  Plants like our native wild ginger, sweet-after-death, western sweet grass, Ceanothus – their scents are mostly in their leaves; not flowers so much.  (As an aside, once when I cut into cow parsnip as an experiment to eat it, I found the smell of its stalk so off-putting I did not eat it.  My nose found it quite revolting).  So, long winded way of saying most of our native flowers (unlike leaves or stalks) are not strongly scented.  But yellow sand verbena is. So maybe, tlomqa’yawa does mean ‘stinker, smeller, scenter’ – referring to the strong sweet smell of its flowers.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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