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shameless pleading

 

 

 

 

Kemosabe

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.”

17 comments to Kemosabe

  • carlaxness

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

  • 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).
    Greetings.
    Richard

  • 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” suggested 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).
    Greetings.
    Richard

  • 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.

  • 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”

  • 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.

  • 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.)

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