August 08, 2009

Origin of "how" and "ugh"

Did Indians really say "how" as a greeting?Not exactly, but you've hit on one of those rare bits of frontier rubbish that actually has some basis in fact. There is no such thing as a universal Indian greeting--the original inhabitants of North America spoke some 500 different languages--but we do find variants of "how" in the native speech of many Plains Indians tribes, who spoke versions of a major language called Siouan. The Tetons said "howo" and "ho," the Dakota had "hao" and "ho," and the Omaha had "hau" (and maybe "ho" too, but I didn't find it in my Omaha dictionary.)Why Indians say “how” and “ugh”It appears that “how” and “ugh” have a southern origin. One or both come from Muskogee, the most common language of the Creek Indians. (One European who heard spoken Muskogee in the 1820s called it a “pleasing” language that “sounds similar to the Spanish.”* Thousands of people still speak it today in Oklahoma.)

What’s more, both “how” and “ugh” may be attempts by white writers to represent the same word. That word is spelled hvo in Muskogee, where the letter v is a schwa (ə), like the a in English sofa. So it’s not hard to see how hvo was englished into “how.”
Why Indians say ‘how’ (part 2)In a previous post about the stereotyped Indian utterances “how” and “ugh,” I noted that “how” appears to be derived from the Muskogee Creek word hvo (pronounced “haw”).

I could be wrong. Back in 1986, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope argued for another group of American Indian languages. Someone had asked Adams whether Indians ever really used “how” as a greeting. He replied that no, they didn’t, but that in several Siouan languages of the Great Plains (Lakota, Dakota, and Omaha), there is a word that serves as “a sort of all-purpose introductory adverb or interjection.” That word is variously spelled ho, hao, hau, or howo.

The resemblance to Creek hvo, another multi-purpose affirmative interjection, is striking. Even though the Creek language is only distantly related to the Siouan languages, much like English is related to Persian.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Indian Really Says "How."

Below:  "A 1950s valentine derives humor from Indian stereotypes." (Credit:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for noticing my posts on “how” and “ugh.” I went a little further here into the history of “ugh”; my hypothesis is that the writer James Fenimore Cooper invented it in the 1820s. At this point I’d really like help testing that theory by collecting examples of how “ugh” developed into a stereotype. Especially if there are examples that are earlier than The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Rob said...

Thanks for the link to your "ugh" essay. I didn't see that part during my browsing.

I'm already impressed with the examples you've found. Unless you can search Project Gutenberg or a similar database, I don't know how you'll find references older than Last of the Mohicans.

Anonymous said...

hau is also Lakota.

ugh is what a Lakota says when white people ask about "Native American spirituality".

Whatever. They're IN-TER-JEC-TIONS

Show excitement
Or emotion

dmarks said...

I saw an actual Native walk up and aay "How" once. I doubt I will see that again.

Rob said...

If you mean our society has turned legitimate Native words into stereotypical grunts to make Indians look uncivilized, Anonymous, you're right. This is another example of the white man's portraying Indians as crude, unintelligible, and animal-like.

P.S. I linked to your story about the Indian who said "How," DMarks.