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The Straight Dope

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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!

--Rngrjeff, via AOL

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 in 1932 on Detroit's WXYZ, 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 (1981) by David Rothel, 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 soon was 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 we figured the wily Amerinds couldn't be BS'ing 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's 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."

Let's see, what else? 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." Buszard-Welcher, who knows about these things, says not so. Alternative theories are that tonto is Spanish for "fool," or that Lone Ranger scriptwriter Fran Striker transmuted the name Gobo, a character in an earlier serial. We cannot definitely answer the question. We chip away at the unknown one word at a time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

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