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shameless pleading

Iditarod / Mush

Mushy stuff.

Dear WD: I would like to know the origin of the word “Iditarod.” I understand that the word for road in Latin is “iter,” hence my confusion. Hope you can help. — Sally Lennard.

Marcel Proust I’m not (in case you were wondering, what with my languid gaze, dissolute habits and all), but your question unleashed a veritable torrent of reminiscences for me. I remembered Eskie, the Alaskan Husky that a friend of my parents had bestowed on our suburban family when I was young. I remembered trying to get Eskie to pull a toboggan loaded with my friends, all of us shouting “Mush! Mush!” with absolutely no effect. And then I remembered that Michael Raynor, a faithful reader, has been asking me to explain the origins of “mush” for the past two years. So now I have two questions to answer.

Unfortunately, “Iditarod,” the name of an annual dogsled race in Alaska, has yet to make it into any dictionary I own. However, since I am writing this column just as this year’s Iditarod gets started, I decided to do some poking around the World Wide Web in search of an answer to your question. According to one Web site I found, “Iditarod” comes from the Native Alaskan word “hidehod,” which means “distant or distant place.” Sounds good to me.

As to “mush,” the command supposedly used to get the dogs to actually pull the sled (yeah, right), the Oxford English Dictionary maintains that it comes from the French “marchez,” the imperative form of “marcher,” to advance. Maybe my dog Eskie flunked French. Incidentally, although travel by dogsled is indeed known as “mushing” up in Alaska, I’ve also learned that most sled drivers do not actually say “mush” to the dogs. They say “hike” to get the dogs going, “gee” for a right turn, “haw” for a left, and “easy” to stop. We learn something new every day, don’t we? I think I’m gonna try this method on the next New York City cab driver I encounter.

1 comment to Iditarod / Mush

  • George Cheek

    Iditarod means “river with many mouths,” in Athabaskan. The river flows into the Innoko, which proceeds north to join the Yukon at Holy Cross. I suppose the word for the mouth of the Iditarod would be “braided;” it’s really hard to figure out where the channel is, although shallow draft steamboats once went up it. It was a good landing, which created quite a town at the site until some time in the teens, when it was flooded out and everything moved overland to the “flat” place where most local gold mining took place. There already was a horse=drawn streetcar line to what later became the town of Flat.

    When I was growing up mushers (what we called ‘em) used a variety of ways to start their dogs. None were “mush.” The two most common were “okay” or “all right,” to the lead dog or, far more common, slipping a rope that trailed off the end of the sled and was tied to something solid, like a tree or building. Once they were in harness, the dogs began throwing themselves against it to pull and getting them to run was pretty easy.

    That probably is a lot more than you want to know.

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