In the old Lone Ranger series, what did “kemosabe” mean?

SHARE In the old Lone Ranger series, what did “kemosabe” mean?

Dear Cecil: If you would return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear, you might recall that Tonto, the faithful Indian companion to the Lone Ranger, called his boss “kemosabe.” I heard somewhere that kemosabe was the word, in some Native American tongue, for chicken sh — uh, guano. Considering the Lone Ranger’s habit of sending Tonto into town to get information, and the townspeople’s habit of beating the stuffing out of Tonto while the Lone Ranger was back in camp, this translation could make sense. I suspect, however, that kemosabe was the creation of some scriptwriter or the creator of the Lone Ranger stories. Jay Silverheels is no longer with us to tell, and would Clayton Moore know? Unca Cece, since you are a fighter for Truth, and for all I know, Justice and the American way too, please tell us the Straight Dope! Ranger Jeff, via AOL


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

“A fighter for Truth, Justice, and the American way” — boy, I’ve really got you guys trained, don’t I?

As for Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore … c’mon, Jeff, get with the program. The radio program, which is where the Lone Ranger originated. It all began on Detroit’s WXYZ in 1932, where owner George W. Trendle was trying to develop a hit show to keep his station afloat during the Depression. According to Who Was That Masked Man? The Story of the Lone Ranger by David Rothel (1981), Trendle had the basic idea for a Western with a Zorro-like hero. WXYZ staff brainstormed the key elements of the Lone Ranger’s shtick, including the mask, the white horse, the signature line “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” and of course the name “Lone Ranger.” Hokey, sure, but it worked. The show quickly became popular and was soon heard nationwide.

The term kemosabe — there are lots of spellings, but this one’s as good as any — seems to have been the contribution of Jim Jewell, who directed “The Lone Ranger” (and another famous serial, “The Green Hornet”) until 1938. In an interview with Rothel, Jewell said he’d lifted the term from the name of a boys’ camp at Mullet Lake just south of Mackinac, Michigan called Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee. The camp had been established in 1911 by Jewell’s father-in-law, Charles Yeager, and operated until about 1940. Translation of kee-mo sah-bee, according to Jewell: “trusty scout.”

We know Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee existed because we have photos and newspaper clippings to prove it. (Actually David Rothel has the photos and clippings, but we’ve taken a proprietary interest in this.) What about the translation, though? No disrespect to Yeager, but just because some wily Amerind told him it meant “trusty scout” doesn’t mean we can rule out “chicken guano.”

We consulted the nation’s Native American language experts. (Yeah, they’re mostly white folks too, but I figured the wily Amerinds couldn’t be BSing all of them.) Initial investigations into variations of “trusty” turned up nothing. But then Rob Malouf, a grad student in linguistics at Stanford, had a brainstorm: “According to John Nichols’ Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe, the Ojibwe word `giimoozaabi’ means `to peek’ (it could also mean `he peeks’ or `he who peeks’).

“He who peeks”? Sounds like something you’d get arraigned for in Perverts’ Court. But Rob continued: “There are several words with the same prefix [“giimooj,” secretly] meaning things like `to sneak up on someone’. … It is quite plausible that `giimoozaabi’ means something like `scout’. … `Giimoozaabi’ is pronounced pretty much the same as `kemosabe’ and would have been spelled `Kee Moh Sah Bee’ at the turn of the century.” Bingo.

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.”

How about Tonto? According to Jim Jewell, there was an Indian storyteller at Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee who would get rowdy when drunk, leading the other Indians to call him “tonto.” The commonly told story is that this is Potawatomi for “wild one.” Laura Buszard-Welcher, who knows about these things, says not so. Alternative theories are that tonto is Spanish for “fool,” or that LR scriptwriter Fran Striker had transmuted the name of a character in an earlier serial, Gobo. Sorry we can’t give you the definitive answer, but have patience. We chip away at the unknown one word at a time.

Hey, fool

Hey, Cecil:

Tonto certainly is Spanish for “stupid” or “fool.” And Tonto, who was not so tonto, responded by calling the Lone Ranger “qui no sabe” (with an Indian accent), which roughly translates from Spanish as “he who knows nothing” or “clueless.”

— David Holmstrom, via the Internet

Cecil replies:

This is funny, David. Very very funny. But wrong. I must have heard from 50 people claiming that kemosabe comes from a Spanish phrase meaning either “he who knows more” or “he who knows nothing,” signifying that Tonto was either sucking up or mouthing off to the Lone Ranger. No proof was offered for these assertions; the writers had simply “heard” or “liked to believe” them. Well, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU LIKE TO BELIEVE, GODDAMMIT! I DEAL IN THE FACTS! Sorry, but one must be firm.

To review: we have the testimony of the guy who introduced the term to the show, plus that of two experts in Native American languages, that kemosabe means “(trusty) scout.” This is as close to a definitive answer as you get in my business, so I say case closed. As for Tonto, “fool” and “wild one” are sufficiently close in meaning for me to believe that the name was originally a Spanish insult.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can review other colorful if implausible kemosabe theories:

(1) In the language of the Yavapai Apaches in central Arizona, k-nymsav-e means “white man.”

(2) In the language of the Tewa Indians, kema means “friend” and sabe means “Apache.” These terms may be found on back-to-back pages in an obscure Tewa dictionary; one scholar speculates that a Lone Ranger scriptwriter may have stumbled across this dictionary while doing research for the show. Scriptwriters do research? It is to laugh, lady.

(3) The same scholar, clearly somebody who needs to find more constructive things to do with her time, spent an afternoon coming up with possible etymologies of kemosabe in Cree, Southern Paiute, Osage, and Navajo.

(4) I’m told that in the Genus III edition of Trivial Pursuit, an answer on one card claims that kemosabe means “soggy bush.” Trivial Pursuit, you’ll remember, also claims that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure you can see from space (also crapola), so take it for what it’s worth.

(5) In an old Gary Larson cartoon, the Lone Ranger looks in an Indian dictionary and discovers that kemosabe is “an Apache expression for a horse’s rear end.”

Yuk yuk yuk. Now get outta here.

Cecil Adams

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