Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Snake, a Worm, and a Dead End: In Search of the Meaning of "Teche"

I recently read about astronomer Johannes Kepler, who spent years forging a theory about the operation of the Solar System — only to admit to himself eventually that the data simply did not support his idea. 

Keppler had to throw out his beloved theory.

Johannes Kepler:
Never canoed on Bayou Teche.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So I suppose I should not feel too bad about spending the past five days fleshing out a theory about the origin of the word Teche, only to have to toss it after realizing it just didn't stand up to scrutiny.

I ought to explain that in my forthcoming book about the history of Bayou Teche, I grapple with the alleged origins of the word Teche. One of these etymologies — the one cited most commonly in popular and academic literature — holds that Teche derives from the Chitimacha word for "snake." The problem with this claim, I observed, is that there is no known Chitimacha word for "snake" that even remotely resembles Teche. (Some popular sources claim that the Chitimacha, or even the Attakapas, word for snake is "tenche,from which derived Teche; but there is no known evidence to support this assertion.)

Bayou Teche, photographed by the author, autumn 2011.

In short, I found this etymology dubious and searched for other explanations. And for the past five days I thought I'd found one — a good one.

Last week I drove to Louisiana State University to visit its Museum of Natural Science. I made the two-hour trip to examine Chitimacha Indian baskets, some of them a century old. All came ultimately from the Chitimachas' ancestral lands at Charenton, Louisiana (now inside the Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha), located about 25 miles southeast of my home.

While scrutinizing the baskets, the museum staff showed me a booklet of handwritten notes compiled by Mrs. Sidney Bradford, née Mary Avery McIlhenny, daughter of Tabasco sauce inventor E. McIlhenny. An avid basket collector, Bradford used the booklet around 1900 to record traditional basket pattern names.

Mrs. Sidney Bradford, née Mary Avery McIlhenny,
in her youth (ca. 1885).
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)

Glancing through the booklet, I noticed that under a drawing of one basket pattern she had written in pencil, "Tesh mich."

This, of course, is the exact pronunciation of the name of the bayou.

Beneath "Tesh mich" she had translated the phrase into English as "worm tracks."

Tesh as the Chitimacha word for "worm" (top);
The "T" may look like a "J," but note how Bradford
makes her "T" when writing "Taught" elsewhere
in the booklet (bottom).
(Courtesy Museum of Natural Science, LSU)

Previously I'd been unable to find a Chitimacha word that sounded like Teche. I'd consulted Daniel W. Hieber's Chitimacha-English dictionary (a work in progress accessible here via the Internet), Morris Swadesh's 1950 Chitimacha-English dictionary, and the published research of noted anthropologist John R. Swanton. But I did so without success. This confused me because according to any number of present-day sources Teche is supposed to mean "snake," and its application to the bayou is said to derive from a well-known tribal legend:

Many years ago . . . there was a huge and venomous snake. This snake was so large, and so long, that its size was not measured in feet, but in miles. This enormous snake had been an enemy of the Chitimacha for many years, because of its destruction to many of their ways of life. One day, the Chitimacha chief called together his warriors, and had them prepare themselves for a battle with their enemy. In those days, there were no guns that could be used to kill this snake. All they had were clubs and bows and arrows, with arrowheads made of large bones from the garfish. . . . The warriors fought courageously to kill the enemy, but the snake fought just as hard to survive. As the beast turned and twisted in the last few days of a slow death, it broadened, curved and deepened the place wherein his huge body lay. The Bayou Teche is proof of the exact position into which this enemy placed himself when overcome by the Chitimacha warriors. (Source:

Yet Bradford had translated Tesh not as "snake," but as "worm." 

Perhaps, I thought, the word Teche didn't come from the Chitimacha for "snake"; perhaps it came instead from the Chitimacha for "worm." A snake and a worm are similar in shape: both are writhing, legless, elongated creatures. Perhaps someone long ago garbled the original story in translation and in doing so the worm became a snake?

Chitimacha basket maker Christine Paul (ca. 1900).
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)

Swanton's published writings seemed to support my budding hypothesis. Aware of Bradford's interest in Chitimacha basketry, Swanton wrote in 1911 about some of her specimens, "All of the designs are tci'cmic, or 'worm-track' designs. . . ."

Here, Swanton rendered the Chitimacha word for "worm" not as "tesh," as Bradford did, but as "tci'c," and elsewhere "tciic."

Well, I thought, tci'c and tciic still vaguely remind me of Teche.

I sensed I remained on the right track when I read Swanton's note that "[the letter] c in Chitimacha words used in these [basket] descriptions is pronounced the same as English sh." In other words, tci'c and tciic were pronounced "tshesh" and "tsheesh" — extremely close to the modern pronunciation of Teche!

I believed I had just about nailed down the origin of Bayou Teche's name. I had strong evidence, I felt, that the name came from tci'c and tciic, the Chitimacha words for "worm," which Bradford had rendered as Tesh. Moreover, tradition held that a giant snake had formed the Teche, and does not a worm twist and turn like a snake? Could not someone have confused the two creatures when translating the myth into English? Finally, was not the winding shape of the bayou reflected in the very "worm track" pattern of the Chitimacha baskets?

Chitimacha basket with "worm track" pattern.
(Source: Swanton, Indian Tribes
of the Lower Mississippi Valley [1911];
colorized by the author)

Then my hypothesis unraveled. Consulting noted linguist Jack Martin of the College of William and Mary, who specializes in Native American languages of the South, I learned that Swanton had used "Americanist phonetic notation" when writing out Chitimacha words. This phonetic system did not correspond to the present-day phonetics taught in elementary schools or used in standard dictionaries. In fact, when Swanton wrote tci'c and tciic, I found out, he meant for them to be pronounced not "tshesh" and "tsheesh," as I thought, but "chesh" and "cheesh." This, I had to admit, didn't sound so much like Teche anymore. 

Still, I countered, why would Mrs. Bradford have written Tesh in her booklet as the tribal word for "worm"?

I double checked the booklet: Yes, it definitely read Tesh. But as I leafed through the booklet's other handwritten pages I saw that she had rendered the same word elsewhere as chi, chie, chis, and chish. These sounded little like Teche, but very much like "cheesh," the correct pronunciation, as Professor Martin had explained to me.

Indeed, Swadesh, using a different phonetic system when he compiled his Chitimacha dictionary in 1950, wrote the word for "worm" as ǯiš. When translated into easy-to-read phonetics (for non-linguists like me), ǯiš would similarly be pronounced "cheesh."

Chitimacha basket maker Clara Darden (ca. 1900).
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)

In addition, Swanton, the professor told me, had noted in an unpublished paper that the Chitimacha name for the Teche was qukx — a word that sounded nothing like Teche.

In fact, the Chitimacha phrase for "Bayou Teche" was qukx caad.

I already knew the phrase qukx caad. Indeed, it was the very fact that qukx sounded nothing like Teche that caused me to question the popular etymology in the first place. Frankly, I had suspected that qukx caad was a recent folk etymology — that is, I thought perhaps someone, hearing that the Chitimacha had traditionally called the bayou (albeit in their own language) "Snake Bayou," had consulted a Chitimacha dictionary (perhaps one of those I myself was using), looked up the tribal words for "snake" and "bayou," and assumed that Chitimachas in earlier times must have used the same words, qukx caad, to indicate Bayou Teche.

Now, however, I knew my hunch was wrong: Swanton's unpublished paper from the early twentieth century proved that the Chitimacha had indeed traditionally called the waterway qukx caad — Snake Bayou.

But — and this is important — if the traditional Chitimacha name for Bayou Teche was qukx caad . . . then how did the word Teche fit into the story?

Chitimacha baskets (ca. 1900).
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)

I was back where I started: qukx and Teche bore no resemblance to each other, either in pronunciation or appearance. So where did the word Teche come from? And if the Chitimacha had not used the term, had it come from the early French or Spanish pioneers and cartographers? And if from them, where did they get it? Perhaps from the Attakapas, or the Houma, or the Choctaw? The latter seemed possible, for other nearby place names derive from Choctaw — for example, Atchafalaya and Catahoula.

What if Teche came to the region from the Afro-Caribbean world, I wondered, perhaps even from West Africa itself? Certainly there is precedent in words like yam and gumbo. (See my previous articles about the Afro-Caribbean origin of the word gumbo here and here.)

As I’ve previously stated, I enjoy historical detection. It's what drew me to my career in history. And while the detective work sometimes pays off, other times it leads nowhere — such as in this instance. Although my pursuit of this lead yielded no positive results, it serves nonetheless as a case study in how history is sometimes done.  Historians must do away with wishful thinking and, viewing their own work through the lens of objectivity, admit their errors, throw out their findings, and start over. As one educator noted:
"No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar."
But I have another hypothesis, one I won't discuss here, that remains feasible. And so I fall back on that idea, even as I keep looking for alternate explanations for the name of the bayou.


  1. I am also writing about the Bayou Teche (from the view of the snake) and I found this in Wikipedia: Alternatively, George R. Stewart asserts that it is, "probably a French rendering of Deutsch, the name by which the German colonists of the area would have named their stream. Cf. Allemand ['German']."[4]
    However, since everything is a guess, I will just make up my own history, to further confuse historians down the line. Nice blog sir. Barbara Gautreaux