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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.”

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