kookum is not a common word in most parts of the country, but if you ask someone in the Northwestern United States or British Columbia theyll know exactly what it means. When choosing a name for her dolls, Skookum doll creator and Northwest Coast resident Mary McAboy defined Skookum as Siwash for Bully Good (The Origin of Skookum Indian Dolls, Playthings, March 1920). To those from the Northwest this explanation might make perfect sense, but unfortunately Im from the Midwest! When I asked some natives of Oregon and Washington what the word Skookum meant to them they said big or powerful. It is also used to mean excellent or very good.
In fact, Skookum Indian dolls were not the only product to borrow this name. In Mary McAboys time, there were the SKOOKUM brand apples by the Northwest Fruit Exchange who had their own doll called the Bully Kiddo, and even today many small or private businesses use this name.
Skookum is a word taken from the Chinook trade jargon. The Chinook Indians were a large tribe that inhabited an area around the mouth of the Columbia River. In order to communicate with other local tribes they developed a slang dialect called Chinook Jargon. It consisted mainly of Chinook Indian words. By the early 1800s many men had come from around the world to hunt and trade in the Northwest. As a result of their influence other languages such as English, French, and Hawaiian were absorbed into the dialect. Bully is an English word meaning excellent, well done, or very good. The word Siwash is also part of the Chinook Jargon and is a derogatory word for an Indian, meaning savage. So when Mary McAboy says Skookum is Siwash for Bully Good it translates to Skookum is Indian for very good.
Interestingly, in a 1914 publication put out by the Northwest Fruit Exchange, Vice-President and General Manager W.F. Gwin stated, All through the advertising we did in 1914, we carried the Indian idea; we explained to the public that SKOOKUM was Siwash for BULLY and that SKOOKUM apples were bully. Of course I know that literally and strictly SKOOKUM doesnt mean bully in Siwash, but that is the sense in which it has come to be used in this part of the country. Unfortunately he did not go on to reveal what Skookum did mean in this publication!
In the same year that Mary McAboy created her Skookum dolls, the Northwest Fruit Exchange had begun their extremely successful SKOOKUM apple advertising campaign in New York City. Just the name itself was a draw. The [SKOOKUM apple] ad caught the eye of nearly everybody in the cars, and many amusing comments were heard. One that was frequently heard was like this: SKOOKUM! What the dickens is SKOOKUM! (Money talks to Fruit Growers, Northwest Fruit Exchange) The advertising campaign became so successful that the word Skookum became a popular expression in the city. Large department stores and restaurants, among others, jumped on the bandwagon and added the Skookum image to their advertising. It was in vogue to be Skookum. And just as today, if something is in vogue in New York City it quickly spreads to the rest of the country. At least for a short while most of the country knew what it meant to be Skookum, but as with all trends it didnt last. Still if you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest you may be lucky enough to catch the natives commenting on what a Skookum day it is. And of course the word will never fade as long as there are Skookum Indian doll collectors like you. Happy Hunting!