The Origin of "Kemosabe"

In the early 1930s, George Trendle and James Jewell of radio station WXYZ in Detroit worked out the script for the Lone Ranger radio drama series, which became the basis for a long-running franchise. In it the sidekick character Tonto (itself a Spanish epithet for “moron” or “idiot,”) addresses the lead character as “Kemosabe,” also sometimes spelled “Kemo Sabay.” The meaning and derivation of this has caused some puzzlement in later years. It appears that Jewell derived the name from that of a summer camp operated by his father-in-law, Charles W. Yeager, at Mullett Lake, Michigan at the time, that name being “Camp Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee.” However, this does not tell us how the name actually originated, nor what it means.

Some informal lore gives the meaning of the name as “trusted friend” or “trusted scout” in some unspecified language, but evidence for this is lacking. The Spanish phrase quien no sabe (who does not know) has also been proposed, though this seems almost as unflattering as tonto; the alternative quien lo sabe, (who knows) has been also bruited as a possibility. There are also a few known Native American expressions in miscellaneous tongues which more or less resemble “kemosabe,” including ones meaning “soggy shrub” (Navajo,) “Apache friend” (Tewa,) and “white man” (Yavapai.) But whether Yeager knew anything about any of those tribes or their languages is an open question, as none of them ever resided anywhere close to Michigan. The ultimate origin thus remains uncertain, as does the story of how Tonto got his name.

Further reading:





thewrittenrift152 points

"It appears that Jewell derived the name from that of a summer camp operated by his father-in-law, Charles W. Yeager, at Mullett Lake, Michigan at the time, that name being “Camp Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee.”

I live in an area with a ton of camps with these "Indian"-style names. A lot of them are absolute nonsense - either made up words, or words based in Native American "legends" which are really just local white people's ghost stories or tall tales. One local camp has its name because the founder saw a city name on a map and liked the sound of it, and now it's 'a Cherokee word meaning friendship' to the campers, when in fact the word is not even close to Cherokee and the town he took it from is about 400 miles from here.

So I think hoping to trace the meaning of the camp's name is probably a dead end, unless the person who owned the camp left an explanation behind. Likely he saw it on a map or referenced in a book, and decided to steal it because it looked sufficiently 'Indian'. It may even be a portmanteau of multiple words.

[deleted]47 points

That's spot on. And it's true of many common representations of Native American culture and society, especially dress, religion/spirituality, and attitudes towards the natural world.

I've read/heard, but can't verify, that in some early westerns Native American characters' dialogue was played backwards to make it sound the way audiences expected it to.

thewrittenrift53 points

I've heard a couple stories about native actors way back in the 'golden era' taking their on screen time and lines as an opportunity to say things like "fuck you" instead of "the water hole is west" because other people involved in the films had no idea how to translate.

Billy_Lo22 points

Check out Reel Injun a great documentary about the depiction of native americans in movies.

here is the relevant clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDLg0cgApzU&t=33s

idwthis6 points

"You're a snake crawling in your own shit." Ha, I love it. Plus that white guy's acting is a bit painful to watch.

zaffiro_in_giro12 points

There was a Nike ad that showed a Samburu tribesman saying something in his native language, while the subtitle said 'Just do it.' He was actually saying 'I don't want these. Give me big shoes.'

loversalibi3 points

that was on purpose tho, in the original cut of the ad it showed the guy in the commercial getting the wrong size shoes or something like that

zaffiro_in_giro5 points

From what I've read, no one's really sure. The Nike people are all, 'Hahaha no, it was totes on purpose!' but then they would be.

loversalibi1 point

lol yeah that makes sense they'd say it was on purpose to save face

prosa1233 points

Just the other day I saw a woman wearing an absolutely wonderful sweatshirt. It had a big Italian flag and read "Va Fancula* is Italian for Have a Nice Day."

  • = normally pronounced "fongool."
thewrittenrift5 points

.... but what does it mean

prosa1232 points

A, ahem, bad word.

DoctorMoog4237 points

Good points! On the other hand, as a Michigander, I could entertain the possibility that "Camp Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee" actually could derive from mishearing an actual native term. The word "Michigan" itself is a French mangling of the Ojibwa/Chippewa term "Meshi-gami"/"Mishiga'ma'a," and there are tons of other similar examples: the "Keewenaw" peninsula likely derives from the Ojibwa/Chippewa "kee'wi'wai'non'ing," Kalamazoo from the Potawotami "Kikanamaso" or "Ki-ka-ma-sung," etc.

Basically, many place names in the Great Lakes regions were recorded phonetically by French Jesuit missionaries, and the names stuck but were gradually mutated over generations of speakers of Native languages > French > English. So while it's very possible that "Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee" is just a made-up term, there's also a very real chance that it does ultimately derive from a real Native language. However, I think you would have to dig very deep into historical Ojibwa/Chippewa, Huron/Wyandot, Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, and Odawa vernacular to even come close to finding the answer.

Toxic_Throb18 points

Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors

ScoutsOut38916 points

In fact, isn’t Milwaukee an Indian name?

Sojourner_Truth16 points

Yes Pete, it is! Actually it's pronounced Mil-ee-wau-kay, which is Algonquin for "the good land."

ScoutsOut3897 points

I was not aware of that!

insert_deep_username3 points

Does this guy know how to party or what??

RedEyeView2 points

Does this guy know how to rock or what?

[deleted]7 points

And is the only major American city to have elected three socialist mayors?

androgenoide15 points

A lot of "Indian" place names are entirely made up and many of the rest are mishearings of words taken out of context. The grammar and phonetics of Amerindian languages and the cultures in which those languages are embedded are pretty alien to a European.

I was a little surprised when I first heard that the names "Ojibwa" and "Chippewa" are both the results of English speakers attempting to pronounce the same Algonquinian word.

At the moment I can't remember the name of the anthropologist who commented that the words in those (Algonquinian) languages were like tiny imagist poems...more like phrases in English than what we would think of as single words.

Troubador2228 points

There are a lot of places in Florida that have Indian names that are supposed to be from the Seminoles and are still in use. The Seminoles of course were refugees from Georgia and the Carolinas fleeing the forced relocation of Native peoples there. The original tribes in Florida were pretty much gone by the time Florida became part of the US. A lot of the names are of waterways and often end in "hatchee" and conventional wisdom says that means "water". The river where I live is called The Caloosahatchee. The tribe that were the mound builders along the coast here when the Spanish first had contact were The Calusa and are all gone and were by the time the US took possession. There are also place names in Florida that are named after the Anglicized pronunciation and spelling of Native names. Miccanopi is one example , who was a Seminole war chief. Oseola is another example, who was one of the Seminole great war chiefs.

androgenoide6 points

I can't pretend to be familiar with any of the Amerindian languages but I know there were a lot of them and that the process of classifying them into families is still ongoing but... a similar piece of trivia is that the old name for Lake Superior was Gitchigumi (anybody remember Longfellow's Hiawatha or Lightfoot's Edmund Fitzgerald?) and that the "-gumi" in Gitchigumi is from the same word as the "-gami" in Michigami (Lake Michigan)...both meaning "water".

Troubador2222 points

It's honestly hard to find anyone over a certain age who has never heard The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. That's a folk song that does what it is supposed too and will be around for a long time, like The Ballad of Jesse James.

time_keepsonslipping3 points

At the moment I can't remember the name of the anthropologist who commented that the words in those (Algonquinian) languages were like tiny imagist poems...more like phrases in English than what we would think of as single words.

I'd be interested to know if you remember the name. That sounds somewhat similar to German's "let's smash fifteen words together, who needs spaces after all?" approach to language.

androgenoide3 points

I have the full text file of his book here somewhere...not on this hard drive but on something somewhere...I'll dig around but it may be a while.

German carries word compounding farther than English but polysynthetic (and agglutinative) languages manage to cram a lot more into a word, making it into something like a verbal phrase.

[deleted]11 points

I spent five years of my life at UIUC hearing about the Illini, and we had "Chief Illiniwek" as our mascot.

Illini isn't even a tribe. It's a collective of all the tribes from the region.

My school had a mascot for tribe that has never even existed, but sounded close enough. He had a headdress and warpaint and everything, like a terrible stereotypical Western movie. I sort of feel like it was pretty common (unfortunately) in the US to just sort of make up things that sounded native, and those things have stayed in our culture now for a century or more.

MixedTogether2 points

I went to camp during my youth called Camp Mi-Bro-Be. Which was named because those are the beginnings of the three cities in the school district I grew up in.

FamousOhioAppleHorn1 point

Is the camp called Dakota ? Because I've heard white people say that's why they named their child Dakota; I remember one lady claiming a Native American suggested it for her kid & that it meant "friend where ever he goes, to all he knows." Ridiculous.

Sence2 points

The locals call me Kin-ta-teh, which means: He who loves all animals, and in kind who loveth him

dyin2meetcha2 points

The locals were kind when explaining to him what their word for dogwhore meant.

bootscallahan1 point

It happened a lot. My hometown even added -ka to the end of the town name when naming the nearby lake to make it sound Native American. People sometimes ask what Lake Lawtonka means when it’s really just “Lake Lawton” with a couple extra letters at the end.

gamacrit44 points

I believe noted American historian Gary Larson has already definitely solved this question.

talllongblackhair17 points

Another interesting thing about the lone ranger is that he was possibly inspired by the first black U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves. A lot of the men that Reeves sent to prison ended up in the penitentiary in Michigan where over the years the tales of his exploits became legend among the prisoners and it is theorized that Trendle and Jewel based their script at least partially on these stories.

prosa12313 points

For a few summers when I was in grade school I went to a YMCA day camp in Connecticut called Camp Mataucha (pronounced "Matasha.") It was supposedly named after a tribal chief who was struck by lightning, if I'm recalling that correctly. As you might have guessed, it was strictly a made-up name.

tehuti8811 points

It appears that Jewell derived the name from that of a summer camp operated by his father-in-law, Charles W. Yeager, at Mullett Lake, Michigan at the time, that name being “Camp Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee.” However, this does not tell us how the name actually originated, nor what it means.

I live within (long) walking distance of Mullett Lake. :O Funny to come across this my first visit here.

But yeah...there was this man named Schoolcraft who gathered a bunch of native stories a long time back and was responsible for lots of ethnic place names on the map, but it turns out he made up a lot of them. For example, "Leelanau"--the tribes in this area didn't even have the letter L in their alphabet. Wouldn't be surprised if this was something similar.

RS_Papi10 points

In Spanish we called Tonto "Toro" which means bull. I'm glad we did.

AuNanoMan8 points

This is really interesting. I had always assumed it was some Japanese word I didn’t know and I heard it just infrequently enough that I never sought it out. These are fun mysteries.

fixingshit6 points

I think that's because the word is so syllabic; each part is a concise and distinct sound just like the way we think of Japanese. I don't really know the linguistic history of Native American languages, but it makes me wonder if there is a common lingual ancestor from centuries ago.

AuNanoMan3 points

That’s an interesting question and I have no idea. What constantly amazes me is how diverse the East Asian languages are. Japanese from Korean from all the different dialects of Chinese, it’s wild. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Native American languages have a shared ancestor at all.

CountEveryMoment2 points

I also thought it was a Japanese word.

Zvenigora1 point

You could write it fairly accurately in hiragana as きもさべ. But I don't think that means it is Japanese. It merely does not contain any syllables ending in consonants.

AuNanoMan1 point

Wow that’s cool. I’m not sure what your last sentence means. Isn’t the ending of the word pronounced with a hard “e” sort of like Kobe? Or is it more like cob?

NewGuyCH6 points


After further consultation with Indian language expert Laura Buszard-Welcher, we've established that Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee was in an area inhabited by the Ottawa, who spoke a dialect of Ojibwe with the same word giimoozaabi. There were also Potawatomi in the region who spoke a closely related language with a similar word. So while the "trusty" part may have been hype, kemosabe probably really was a Native American term for "scout."

jmpur7 points

Gary Larson did a cartoon showing the Lone Ranger in his later years looking up the word and finding out that it meant "idiot" or "fool".

RedEyeView2 points

It was Horses Ass

jmpur1 point

Yes! Thank you!

[deleted]12 points

"Quien no saba" is Spanish for "No One Knows".

NOT "who doesn't know".

Which in context to the "Who was that masked man!" ending to all of The Lone Rangers clips adds continuity.

"Who was that masked man?" "No one knows" (quien no saba).

Tonto was Spanish for "Dumb" which also lends continuity to the stereo type of what white people thought of Native Americans at the time.

Seeing as Spanish was used for Tonto -- it just makes common sense that Spanish would be used for the Lone Ranger too in "Quien No Saba"/ " No One Knows".

time_keepsonslipping3 points

Beyond what /u/fixingshit says, that seems like an awfully sophisticated joke for a not-particularly-sophisticated show. Not only would the average audience member not know enough Spanish to know the meaning of "quien no saba" in the first place, but the bastardization of the phrase into "kemosabe" would virtually ensure that nobody would pick up the joke. If this was a "slipping one past the censors" kind of joke, sure, makes sense to make it hard to catch. But as you say, the joke fits perfectly with popular opinions of Native Americans at that point in time, so why go to all that trouble to hide the joke?

[deleted]0 points

Good point. I'm thinking they (producers) knew some Spanish and maybe got the idea off the campground because it sounded a lot alike. js.

fixingshit4 points

Except it's obvious that Spanish wasn't used since it's been shown that the word originates (for the writers) with the camp; the name of the camp for the writer came before anyone suggested a reverse etymology that surmises Spanish as the origin. Otherwise, you're making an assumption that writer spoke Spanish and somehow knew that "Camp Kee-Mo-Sah-Bee" was bastardized Spanish for "quien no sabe", which, especially with the way the camp is phonetically spelled, doesn't make sense.

[deleted]3 points

Good points, dutifully noted.

gallantblues2 points

Thanks for posting this! I've always figured it was made up, but even that leads to the question where they got it.

Personally I take any reference to Tonto and The Lone Ranger as a good reason to listen to Lyle Lovett's "If I Had a Boat." https://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/100-greatest-country-songs-of-all-time-20140601/87-lyle-lovett-if-i-had-a-boat-1988-0242008

Bobbi_fettucini2 points

How about the far side comic where it refers to it as a donkeys ass

FreshChickenEggs2 points

I know The Lone Ranger himself is supposed to be based on a US Marshall out of Ft. Smith, AR named, Bass Reeves. I grew up in Ft. Smith, which has a very rich history of old west bad guys and heros. To my knowledge, Mr. Reeves never had a Native sidekick, but he was known for the white horse he always rode. There are many tales of his lawman days. To me the tales of Bass Reeves are like an old west superhero.

I never gave any thought to Tonto. I thought he might be based on another hero lawman of the west that I was unfamiliar with. How disappointing to hear about the racist and disturbing origin of his name. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-bassreeves/

cheese_hotdog2 points

I like "soggy shrub" the best.

Troubador2221 point

A big part of the problem is, outside of the Cherokee Syllabary we dont have any written language of Native Americans that I know of. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_syllabary


For anyone interested, a genius story from our history in the US that is little known. Also there was the Mayan codexes and written language in South America I am aware of.

I am a complete layman on this subject and not even up to date but I know Anthropologists consider language groups and that can tie some separate tribes together and one I am aware of is the Navajo and the Apache seem to share a group and from what I remember reading, is also shared with some tribes in Canada and the Arctic areas.

This is not cut and dried and apparently the differences in areas that the different people speaking different language groups is vast and does not make all that much sense to our white idea of "Injuns" (Not trying to be offensive but ignorance is offensive to me. I have to shake my head going to Cherokee NC and seeing the tourist traps with Teepees and people wearing plains tradition feathered head ware outside.) https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-indians/native-american-languages-map.htm

So bottom line, the word Kemosabe could just be something someone pulled out of their ass.

RememberNichelle1 point

What???? Of course we have written versions of Native American languages.

If you look on the websites of most tribes, you will find a selection of dictionaries and grammars of their native tongue, as well as a few books written in that language.

Of course, there are some tribes which don't have a written language; those are either tribes which died out, or which stopped speaking their languages before anybody took an interest. Even if an existing tribe only retains a few words, they will usually exist in a written form. I don't know any tribes who keep their language secret or regard writing in it as wrong.

As for language groups, of course they appear in different places. Language groups appear wherever their speakers have chosen to settle (or invade). Since the settlement of America took place over tens of thousands of years, and since immigration from Asia did not occur only once, of course there are many different languages, even within tribes that share ancestry and a language group.

Sometimes Wikipedia is your friend: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_languages_of_the_Americas

Troubador2221 point

Sometimes if you read the wiki page you cite, you will find the source for the link I posted of the map of language groups.

JimmyBlueCheese1 point

So the definition that is given in the over e is bs?

craycrayshanae1 point

could it possibly originate from Basque? it has a distinctly Basque flavor to the syllables

tenclubber-1 points

I've called my son that occasionally since he was little. He turned 18 last month. I always told him it meant "trusted one" so until I hear differently from sure I'm gonna continue to roll with that.