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shameless pleading






No Klingon ever called me Tonto.

Dear Word Detective: What, please, is the origin of Tonto’s phrase “Kemo Sabay”? Thank you — Eoin Bairéad, Dublin, Ireland

I must say that I really like everything about your question — its brevity, the revelation that people in Ireland sit around watching The Lone Ranger, everything. Hi ho, as they say, Silver! But before we cut to the chase on the question of “kemosabe” (which is the usual spelling), allow me a short digression. While discussing your question with a friend of mine, I suddenly had a blinding revelation. My insight was that the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion Tonto, as played by Jay Silverheels in the TV series, was (ready for this?) the behavioral model for Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series. Think about it — am I right or am I right? Wow. I should teach courses in Television Theory.

Meanwhile, back at your question, there’s been a bit of debate over the years as to what, if anything, “kemosabe” means, not to mention what language it is in the first place. According to the New York Public Library Book of Answers (Prentice Hall, 1990), what Tonto meant by “kemosabe” was “faithful friend.” I don’t know exactly where the NYPL got their information, but it always struck me that it was Tonto himself, not the Lone Ranger, who was the “faithful friend,” having to save the Ranger’s bacon nearly every week. Maybe if the Lone Ranger hadn’t been wearing that silly mask he wouldn’t have gotten himself into so many jams, eh? Seems to me that Tonto’s job description usually boiled down to “untying knots.”

The NYPL also notes that “kemosabe” is an actual word in two Native American languages. In Apache, it means “white shirt.” Who knows — maybe Tonto also had to do the Ranger’s laundry and was actually constantly reminding him to avoid grass stains. In Navajo, on the other hand, “kemosabe” translates as “soggy shrub.” If this seems an odd thing for faithful friend Tonto to call the Lone Ranger, perhaps he was just repaying the Ranger’s long-standing insult. “Tonto,” after all, is a Spanish word meaning “stupid.”

34 comments to Kemosabe

  • carlaxness

    Strictly speaking tonto means fool in Spanish, estúpido is stupid.

  • Ms Bobbie Smith

    In a conversation about this Lone Ranger movie I heard the best definition of the word Kemosabe – it means lunkhead and is the reason that the Lone Ranger shot Tonto.

  • Richard

    Lone Rangers’ friends, hello. Back in the 50s, Lone Ranger comics published in South America gave the expression “Kemo Sabay” together with the translation “Viajero leal” (loyal traveler), used by the Indian character to address the Ranger.
    So, the translations “faithful friend” or “loyal scout” sugeested seem fit. Another element of the story is that in Castilian “Tonto” was called another name, of positive value (perhaps “Lobo” (Wolf), if my memory is right).

  • Hughe

    The Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson had a great Lone Ranger panel showing the Lone Ranger in his old age looking up kemosabe in an English /Apache dictionary, only to learn that Tonto was calling him a “horses ass” all those years.

    • Scott

      I love the Far Side cartoon and the one with the Lone Ranger finding out what Tonto was saying all those years was one of my favorites!

      Despite all the research into the origins of the sayings and names, I am sure the intended meanings were meant to be endearments, not insults; at least, not intentionally.

  • sunsworn

    It means one who looks in secret in Ojibwa which is where they got the word for the radio show from.

  • Brian K Wostal

    I was watching a 1950 Lone Ranger Epidode,
    “Outlaw of the Plains”. When asked, Tonto said that Kemosabe meant “Trusted Scout”. :-)

  • John caron

    It is coming from the Arabic which means ” How beautiful”

    “Kem hu sabih”

  • Steve Burnham

    I had always imagined (purely a personal theory) that kemosabe was derived from the Spanish “quiene mas sabe”. Sort of meaning ‘he who knows most’. Maybe?……

  • Vickie

    “White shirt” makes sense as the Lone Ranger always wore white. I’m sure Tonto was not considered “stupid” by the Lone Ranger, even if that was the translation of his name.

  • carlos

    Actually, KEMOSABE comes originally, from the Spanish “El Que Mas Sabe”, which means “he who knows much”. run together by English speakers who don’t know Spanish, into “El Kemosabe” or just “Kemosabe” as opposed to (his foil Sancho Panza) Tonto, which means “stupid”.

  • Anonymous

    I always thought the pet names given by the friends, especially hard working, tough, men in those days were funny light insults on purpose. My dad always called his good buddies playful mean names and they always kind of picked on each other. I always thought kimosabi was a shorten version of “quien no sabe” (one who doesn’t know). It kind of goes with Tonto and adds a playful, equaling the playing field, vibe considering Tonto’s name.

  • Ms.Harley

    I thought it meant “WRONG BROTHER”. -what about that????

  • Frank Tillman

    I think they are all wrong. I’m going with the corruption of” quien no sabe” as meaning “stupid”. In my listening to local corruption of foreign languages, it fits perfectly.

  • John

    The “white shirt” comment could be in reference one of the lone ranger’s outfits.

  • freddi with

    I recall that the pronunciation of the word(s) Tonto used to speak to his friend was “quien sabe” which means “who knows”. Thus referring to the lone ranger as a kind of mystery man as supposedly no one knew who he really was. (Please excuse my fractured Spanish -I don’t know how to make the accent marks on my computer keyboard.)

  • Pedro

    It’s just a play on words..”que mas sabe” ie “know it all’ as opposed to “tonto” ie “know nothing” seems like an inside joke using Spanish words

  • Elephant

    That is so wrong!! Tonto is a very nice name!! And Kemosaby means “trusty scout” !!!!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Wow….what a great variety of answers.

  • Anon~

    I literally have Native American friends who have told me that being called Kemosabe is VERY offensive because it means ‘a horses a$$’. Take that as you want, but they weren’t joking.

  • Anonymous

    Tonto does not translate to stupid…silly yes not stupid


    Tonto said kemosabi means trusted scout in an episode of lone ranger

  • nightgaunt492015

    The Lone Ranger wore light blue, not white. He used disguises when out from behind the mask. We never saw his face fully and it has a direct connection to the Green Hornet too. Both in set up, family name of Reid and creators.

    The Professor from Gilligan’s Island was a good model for Spock not showing much emotion and so on. When we first saw Spock he was emotional and Number One was a raven-haired unemotional female, a computer on two legs.

    As for “kemosabi” we are not told where it comes from.

    I don’t recall what tribal nation Tonto came from or what his real name was.

    The word Kemosabe is from an Algonquian language similar to Ojibwe (a complex of related dialects extending from the northern Plains across the Great Lakes into Eastern Canada). … The word in question has been explained as ‘scout’ or ‘spy’ or even ‘masked man’. In the Odawa or Ottawa dialect of Ojibwe the word has the form giimoozaabi.
    Meaning and etymology of \”kemosabe\” – English Language ……

  • TomE Eckert

    It seems Tonto and Kemosahbee have different spellings and meanings. Just watched B/W episode, Tonto finds Ranger near death. Sees ring, now pendant worn by Ranger and calls him Kemosahbee. The near-dead Ranger has a faint recollection of the word. Ranger asked Tonto and he says what he, Tonto, meant– “Trusted (trusty) Scout.”
    I also seem to recall that they show the Ranger’s full face just before and as Tonto puts the mask on after making it from the dead brother’s vest.
    Sorry did not get the title but guess it was the 11th or Outlaw of the Plains??

    Big Fan – TomE. Milw. WI.

  • Carole

    My husband was of mixed ancestry with a portion of Cherokee Native American (possibly grandmother). He always referred to me as Kemosabe when I corrected him. One day I asked him what it meant and he smiled slyly and said “ONE WHO KNOWS”. There you Go–Something to Chew On!

  • Diana E Saenz

    Tonto mean dumb in Spanish as in can’t speak. And just as in English tonto also means stupid.

    • admin

      According to Merriam-Webster:

      Ton·?to | \ ?tän(?)t? \
      plural Tonto or Tontos

      Definition of Tonto
      1 : one of various subgroups of the Apache people
      2 : an Indian of any one of several Apache subgroups

      So The Lone Ranger may be calling his companion a generic, not-so-disparaging name.

  • James R Charles

    “Kemosabe” is a word derived from a camp in northern Michigan. The Lone Ranger show originated in Detroit, Michigan on WXYZ radio. The other definitions provided are completely inaccurate.

  • Mildred Haga

    I know that Tonto means stupid, but I have read somewhere that in Jay’s own native language it meant something else??

  • freddi with

    If you listen closely, you can hear how Jay Silverheels pronounces the word that everybody thinks is kemo-sahbee. You can hear the “n” as in “quien” part. In fact I remember among my mother’s piano sheet music, an advertisement for a song called “Quien Sabe” with English in parenthesis: “Who knows” which in the Lone Ranger’s case makes perfect sense – nobody knew who he really was. Closing comment of the episodes: “Who was that masked man?” Get it?

  • Karen Guilfoyle

    But the Spanish word meaning stupid/fool, is spelled tAnto.

  • Greystone the Great

    All this negative talk about two of the greatest, and probably the real first American fictional western heroes, shows you are missing the mark. “Kemosabe” has a couple of meanings. “Trusty Scout” and “He who knows much.” The name “Tonto” comes from the Apaches. it might mean “Stupid” in Spanish, But not in reference to the Apache. It actually means, “Man of great awareness like the eagle, who’s sees all from above.”

    These two fictional characters deserve everyone’s respect.
    They fought for truth and justice. And stood up against evil men, helped those in need, and asked for nothing in return.

  • KC

    Lots of great and enjoyable opinions. The Lone Ranger was based on a real character, Bass Reeves. Tonto is fictional. Therefore, I would not put too much faith into what “Tonto” means, what “kemosabe” means, or what tribe Tonto came from. Just like Tonto being fictional, the “foreign” words describing him and the Lone Ranger are quite possibly fictional as well. Great show and “theme song.” I grew up watching his blue outfit in black and white. I always thought it was white too, until I got a color TV and then saw later colored episodes.

  • Jim LeSire

    My Spanish-speaking wife says she always assumed Kimosabe was a curruption of the Spanish term, “Quien no sabe,” which means “He who does not know, or he who knows nothing.”

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