It’s always nice to have a posse keeping an eye out for stray information on your pet topic of fascination. So it was with great delight that I recently opened an email message from Marissa Smith, a friend of mine who has reliably given moral support and often physical backup for wolverine work in Mongolia, to find a 400+ page Manchu-to-English dictionary and a rundown of all the mustelid words she’d found in perusing that dictionary. Her detective work bridged a gap that I’ve been trying to fill for the past several years, ever since a discussion with a historian working on the dynamics of the fur trade during the Qing Dynasty in China. The Qing, who ruled China (and Mongolia) from 1636 to 1911 and were notably interested in cultural and environmental conservation, were Manchu, and many of their records were kept in Manchu, which makes the language relevant to understanding wildlife management and environmental protection during that era. I asked this scholar whether he’d run across any accounts of wolverine pelts in his research, or whether he could even tell me the Manchu word for wolverine. He had no idea. The best he could do was offer the fact that there were two descriptors of otters: a relatively well behaved “river otter,” and a “mountain otter” that had a reputation for being crazy and aggressive. At the time, I speculated that maybe the mountain otters were actually wolverines (he was not impressed with this hypothesis).

Finally, after several years of wondering about this – and remaining attached to my mountain otter idea – I can report, thanks to Marissa, that the Manchu word for wolverine is ongnika. The stem ong- appears to relate to being rude, which appears to be related to being from the countryside, since ong– is the root of a word that means pasture. This is in keeping with many other terms for wolverine which reference some idea of being rude, boorish, or uncultured.

Ongnika and related words, from “A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary,” Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 85, by Jerry Norman, 2013

The –nika portion of the word is more obscure. Both ni and ka are, according to a Manchu grammar from the 19th century, grammatical suffixes, but ni is used to form the genitive noun case, and ka seems to be used as part of a compound verb form indicating recent past tense. It’s unlikely that these two suffixes would be used together. The other option is to take nika as a whole, in which case, according to this particular dictionary, it means “Chinese.” This leaves us with the perplexing possibility that the Manchu word for wolverine refers to a rude or rural Chinese person. I really hope not, because while it would open some very interesting perspectives on perceptions of wolverines, I’d prefer not to have my species embroiled in some kind of stereotype-slinging feud between the Manchus and the Chinese. There may be another explanation, and my exposure to Manchu grammar is about a week old at this point, so this is all off-the-cuff. If anyone has any greater expertise, please weigh in.

At some point I’d like to compile a list of all the terms for wolverine from Siberian languages, as I tried to do for North American languages some years ago, so if anyone has any information on this from any of the other Siberian/Turkic/Tungusic languages, let me know.

In the meantime, though, as I searched around for information on Manchu grammar, I was surprised to learn that Manchu has only about ten living native speakers. It’s one of those languages that we consider highly endangered. On the long list of things that are at risk in this world, languages get consideration by only a limited number of people, most of them either speakers of those languages, or linguists. I’d like to make a quick case here that you too, as someone concerned about wildlife, should care about the loss of indigenous languages. As was apparent as I pored over the dictionary, a language contains in its structure and vocabulary a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the environment, about how to survive in that environment, and about how people were supposed to orient towards and interact with that environment. Below are some examples of terms specific to life in the wolverine’s habitat, which I found as I looked up the words for “mountain,” “snow,” and “ski.” They tell us something about the specificity of Manchu environmental knowledge (a term just for the forests that grow on north-facing slopes, for example, or the multitude of terms for types of snow and snow crust, or the wealth of mustelid terms), technologies that they created for exploring and navigating that environment (hiking boots, crampons, skis, snowshoes), approaches that people should take to environmental conditions (a special term for an adept skier, or the fact that “risking one’s life” is synonymous with “going out in a snowstorm”), and some insights on worldview (the fact that the word for “male otter” is the same as the word for fame, or the fact that the death of an emperor was referred to, literally, as a mountain collapsing).

The large number of words related to mustelids, and specifically to sable, illustrates the importance of fur within the Manchu world, an importance which extended to the management of the empire, since tribute was frequently paid in sable pelts. I didn’t find any clarification on the river otter vs. mountain otter distinction, but there were a charming number of terms for different age classes of both otters and badgers, as well as a number of terms related to hunting and trapping techniques, the handling of pelts, and the ways mustelid fur was used on garments. The only other animal with the same degree of related terminology as mustelids, in this dictionary anyway, is the tiger. The fact that a bunch of weasels assume the same linguistic status as the mighty tiger is a testament to the role of mustelids within the Manchu world.

Words related to wolverine habitat (plus a caution on how not to behave around sleeping tigers….):

kulkuri suru: a white horse good in mountain terrain

olongdo: long boots used for mountain climbing

sa: 1. silk gauze, tulle; cf. cece; 2. a dense forest on the north side of a mountain;

saban: a piece of leather with an attached iron cleat (tied to boots or shoes to assist in mountain climbing or walking on ice)

senggin: 1. forehead; 2. the place where the foot of a mountain and a river meet;

urimbi: (-he) 1. to collapse (said of a mountain or hill); 2. to die (said of the Emperor)

alin: mountain

farsambi: to risk one’s life, to act carelessly, to brave (rain, snow)

kordon: a person good on skis or snowshoes

mere nimanggi: snow that has frozen into small beads the size of a grain of buckwheat

nimanggi: snow

nimari yanggaJi: a small bird with snow-white feathers – when it sings it is supposed to snow

sulhumbi: to become soft and mushy, to be soft (said of earth or snow)

suntaha: snowshoe, ski

undan: spring snow that has frozen on the surface and for which snowshoes are required

undaSambi: to hunt on frozen spring snow

ungkan: frozen snow on the top of grass

hujimbi: 1. to rouse a recumbent tiger by shouting

Mustelid terms:

algin: 1. fame; 2. the male otter

haihūn: a name for the otter

haihū: 1. soft; 2. staggering, weaving from side to side

imseke: the young of the otter

lekerhi: 1. Latax lutris: sea otter; 2. otter skin

mederi dorgon: sea otter; cf. lekerhi [author’s note: lit. “sea badger.”]

uki: a female otter

aihii: female sable

baltaha: the hair under the chin of a sable

cakiri: 1. half-cooked, half-done; 2. sable or fox pelts speckled with white hair

desihi: a kind of trap attached to a tree over a stream, used to catch sable and various other small animals

gathiiwa: a jacket made of weasel or sable fur

gina: 1. a trap for sable and squirrels, a deadfall; 2. sheepskin decorated with gold leaf

hara: 1. a short autumn coat of sable or lynx;

hayahan dahii: a court garment trimmed with sable, lynx, or black fox

kiyamnan mahatun: an ancient-style hat adorned with golden cicadas and sable tails

lunggu: a male sable

muhi: 1. a sable (or other animal’s) tail attached to the front of a fur jacket below the lapel

sahalca: pelt of a black sable

seke: 1. Martes zibellina: sable; 2. sable pelt seke furdehe: sable jacket

ufuhu wehe: pumice: a very porous stone found in streams and that can be used for dressing sable hides

ulbimbi: to jump from branch to branch (said of squirrels, sable, etc.)

abadan: an old badger

dorgon: Meles meles: badger

huren: 1. the ridge of the nose; 2. a hole on a stove near the cooking pot where a light (hiyabun) is placed; 3. a badger trap

indahfin manggisu: a name for the badger

manggisu: badger

nanggu: a trap for badger and raccoon-dogs

ulgiyan manggisu: a name for the badger

yandaci: a young badger

sanggiyan ulhu: ermine

sanyan ulhu: Mustela erminea: ermine, stoat

ulhu: 1. squirrel, ermine; 2. ermine pelt

ulhu alban: tax on ermine pelts

ayan jelken: a species of weasel

jelken: Mustela sibirica: Siberian weasel

kurene: weasel

silihi: a name for the weasel

solohi: Mustela sibirica: weasel

suwayan solobi: weasel [author’s note: “suwayan” means “yellow”]

ayan barsa: beech marten

harsa: Martes fiavigula: yellow-throated marten




“Wolverine” in the Languages of North America

I recently found myself in a library with a large collection of resources on native North American languages – several shelves of dictionaries and grammars, old and new, of everything from Haida to Navajo, Salish to Koyukon. Thinking of the recent (re)discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains of Oregon, I pulled down a thick orange dictionary to see whether the Nez Perce, the people who originally inhabited those mountains, had had a word for wolverine. And there it was: “se·’pin’isé·pin: ‘carrier of snowshoes.'”

I spent the next several hours pulling every dictionary in the section off the shelves and looking up the diverse ways that the nations of North America refer to Gulo gulo. Some of the dictionaries contained some interesting ethnographic insights as well, and in a couple of cases they permitted the reader to track back through the language to figure out the words’ derivations. In one case (Blackfoot), the dictionary provided an entirely inexplicable but very intriguing wolverine reference. It was an hour well spent, though I pity the librarian responsible for reshelving all 25 dictionaries. I later did some more searching online; links to online dictionaries are provided in the text.

Here’s a partial list of the discoveries, arranged by linguistic family, with my own observations in italics. I’ve used the language family terms in the map below so people can assess where the different words were spoken; I’m not current on the inevitable politics of naming and grouping these languages, so I apologize for any terms inappropriately used, but I wanted to provide the reader with some reference points. In the interest of being a super-linguist dork, let me add that I tried to track down all of the correct symbols involved in transliterating these languages, but WordPress has a limited repertoire. I glossed the rest as best I could. “Respect names” refer to words that were used in cases where people did not want the animal to know that they were talking about it, eg, after having recently killed one, or in times of other potential spiritual peril.

As a further note, many of these languages are endangered – most have fewer than 1000 speakers, and some have fewer than 50. I love languages as much as I love wildlife, so this kind of thing hits me hard. It hits me even harder when the wildlife component meets the language component – much of what is known about a given environment can be expressed so much more eloquently in the language that has evolved in concert with that environment. We can’t all learn an endangered language but, politically, we can at least support the rights to self-determination and education that help keep these languages around. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have fifty ways to say “wolverine” – we’d only have one. And that would be as much as a loss as the disappearance of the animal itself.

The language families of North America. From Wikimedia Commons.

Na Dene/Athabaskan

Ahtna: Nałtsiis

Also tl’akoltseni (hunting name), nunyae (respect name for wolves, wolverines, and bears; means something like “carnivorous creature.”)

The plant coltsfoot (petasites) was referred to as nałtsiis ke’, “wolverine’s foot,” and soft or rotten wood was referred to as nałtsiis tsedze, “wolverine’s wood.” The latter is interesting since denning female wolverines sometimes shred rotten wood as bedding material for their kits.

Deg Xinag: Niłtreth

Dena’ina: Nełchish (in the outer and upper inlet regions of S. Central Alaska); Idalsha (in the Inland and the outer inlet regions).

Also recorded were a number of nicknames, unfortunately not explained or elaborated upon: bank’ilkizi, vank’ilikidzi, ghusha, dghusha, veghusa, yes hughen’i, tl’uqelttseni, yun’eh ch’agheyula.

Dene Suline (Chipewayan): Naghai

Eyak: Kena’a. Eyak is now extinct.

Gwich’in: Nätröh, Natrayah

Holikachuk: Niłtseth

Koyukon: Nełtseel

Also: Neełkkaa’k’edenaatlkkele, derived from a stem kket, which means “to slip or to slide on snow.” The author of the dictionary speculates that this is due to the ‘twisted’ appearance of the wolverine’s tracks, although it might also mean that the Koyukon, like some of my friends, witnessed wolverines sliding happily down hills, apparently to amuse themselves.

Hubaagheyee from a stem baa, meaning ‘edge.’ This was a respect name used by women when there was a dead wolverine in the house, in order not to offend it. It meant something like “the one whose fur trims the garments.”

Nełkkaak’edenaatlkk’ele, derived from a stem kk’et, meaning “pair.” This literally means “the one that keeps its feet paired,” most likely referring to the wolverine’s two-by tracks. This was also used for martens, which make the same kind of tracks.

Dzehkenh, the white patch “on a wolverine’s neck,” derived from dzeh, meaning ‘earring’ or ‘ear base.’ (I’m assuming this refers to the throat patch, although it could also refer to the mask or a lighter patch of fur that sometimes runs along the back of the neck)

Doyonh, a respect name meaning ‘rich man’ or ‘master.’ Allegedly this word comes from Russian. It was used after a hunter had killed a wolverine, in which case the carcass would be set up in a sitting position and a feast brought and arranged before it. The hunter and village men might later come and eat the foods that had been offered; women were apparently prohibited from eating these offerings – although evidently not from hunting, since a woman was also cited as having killed and set up a feast for a doyonh. Wolverines were considered to have a strong -yeege’, or protective spirit, and only the hunter was allowed to actually consume the head meat if the animal was eaten. The skinned carcasses were usually cremated, sometimes with an offering, and the cremation spot was considered so powerful afterwards that it remained haunted. Merely passing by the place, even without knowing, was enough to cause rheumatism or other ills. (all ethnographic info from Sullivan 1942, cited in Jette and Jones, 2011)

Upper Kuskokwim: Niłtresh

Navajo: nothing reported for wolverine. Na-hash-chid is reported for “badger” in a Code Talker’s Dictionary from World War II. The Navajo are Athabaskan-speaking people who are far to the south of the core Athabaskan territory in the boreal forest; allegedly the Navajo arrived in the southwestern US relatively recently, perhaps around 1400 CE. Although Navajo territory is not wolverine habitat, I was interested in whether there might have been a carry-over word, since the northern Athabaskan languages offer such a rich array of variations for wolverine. It might be a bit of a stretch, but given the relationship of the badger to the wolverine, and the similarity of the Navajo word to the many other Athabaskan words for wolverine, perhaps this was a carry-over from former boreal days? Likewise, the word for badger in Apache, another southern Athabaskan language, is Naganshitn.

Tanacross: Nahtsith

Lower Tanana: Néłtréeth

Upper Tanana: Nahtsia. This dictionary also informs us that Nahtsia ch’uudelnih, “Wolverines are mean.”

Tlingit: nóoskw


Central Alaskan Yupik: qafcik

Central and Naukan Siberian Yupik: qafsik

Seward Peninsula Inuit: qappik, qaffik

Malimiut and Nunamiut: qavvik

Western Canadian Inuit: Siglit, Caribou qavvik; Copper qalvik

Eastern Canadian Inuit: qavvik; South Baffin qaγik

North Greenland/Polar Eskimo: qaγvik

Greenland Inuit: qappik,”mythological animal” (the Greenland Inuit live in a region that has not, as far as we know, historically had wolverines. Perhaps they were hearing about this animal from other Inuit, and incorporated it as a mythological animal.)

Aluutiq: Alas’aamaakaq. Of which the dictionary writers observe, alas’aamaakamek tangeqsiilartua, “I have never seen a wolverine.”


Anishnaabemowim/Ojibwe/Chippewa: Gwiingowaage+g, Ogiinga’wage+g, Gwiingowaage+g, Ogwiinga’waaaage+g, Wiishkobijaaz+ag. Also listed are the words Ogwiingwa’aagewaayan+ag, “wolverine skin” or “wolverine bag.”

Blackfoot: Piinotoyi. This is straightforward. Next to this entry, however, was Issistsaaki, “wolverine in the form of a woman.” Reading further revealed Issistsaakiksi, “wolverine women,” and then the sentence Mátóomaitapiwa ámokskayi niitáí nikhatayi issistáakiiyi, áí pi’kakiiwa’ siyaawa, “The first people, those, they were the ones who were not afraid of the ones called wolverines, who became imposter women.” Will someone who knows Blackfoot PLEASE get in touch with me to explain what this is all about? I am very curious…..

Plains Cree: kihkwahâkew, “large wolverine,” kekwahâkes, “small wolverine” The text was unclear as to whether this refers to a size distinction, or whether these two terms refer to adults versus kits. Interestingly, Mongolians divide wolverines into “two kinds,” large and small, which they say correlate with sex and markings (males are always, in their view, larger and have distinct markings, while the females are small and dark. Kazakhs, on the other hand, have told me about large, dark males.) Nearby terms in the dictionary included “a grave,” “having a strong smell,” “s/he gives it a good talking to,” “s/he follows at a distance,” “being highly temperamental,” and “being hot tempered.” Because of the way the dictionary was structured, I don’t know whether any of these terms are actually related to ‘wolverine,’ but it was interesting since all of them are, in some sense, descriptive of wolverines or of habits or properties associated with them.

Rock Cree (Boreal forest): omiðacis, ominuthes (Robert Brightman, in his book Grateful Prey, recounts the story of a Cree man who named his snowmobile “omiðacis” because, like the animal, it had the ability to “go all over the place on the snow.”)

Innu: Kuekuatsheu (from which the word “Carcajou” derives….)


Assiniboine: Wícena. Also Mnáza, “A small animal wicked as a bear, similar to a wolverine.”

Lakota: Škecáthanka.

Plateau Penutian/Sahaptian

Nez Perce: se·’pin’isé·pin, meaning “carrier of snowshoes.” Also referenced was “Sahaptin wašapa-ni, “packer.”” Sahaptin refers to a number of Nez Perce related tribes of the Plateau region, including the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse, and Palouse, although – in typical fashion – the term ‘Sahaptin,’ meaning “strangers to the land,” was bestowed on these tribes by their enemies, so they are now advocating for the use of ‘Ichishkíin Sínwit’ to refer to the groups in question. Neither the dictionary nor Wikipedia were able to clarify where, exactly, ‘Sahaptin’ is spoken or which of these groups provided the word wašapa-ni.


Upriver Halkomelem: Shxwématsel, also used to refer to fisher or marten. Xwématsel means “lump on the back,” which seems more characteristic of gulos than of their martes cousins. The territory of the  Halkomelem covers a small coastal region and part of Vancouver Island; Vancouver did have its own wolverine subspecies, now probably extinct. Upriver Halkomelem were on the mainland; if anyone has information on whether the island Halkomelem had a word for wolverine, please let me know.

Salish: Cišps. The example sentence in the online dictionary is – typically – q˜o mawlx˜is t cišps, “The wolverine wrecked my tipi.”

Squamish: K’élk’ech


I didn’t find any words for wolverine in any of the Iroquoian (Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga) dictionaries I searched. I don’t know if this reflects the fact that the dictionary compilers didn’t ask about the word, whether wolverines never inhabited these regions, whether wolverines weren’t culturally important, or whether the word might have been lost since the species is no longer present (if it ever was in the first place; it may have been at the far northern edge of the Iroquoian range.) If anyone has information on this, let me know.


Tsimshian: Noosik, Noosü

Haida: Núusg