Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Tolo: The Coolest Regional Word Ever

This week I took a donation at the museum of a dress that was worn to a school dance in the 1950s. It had three cool stories attached to it. 1) The owner bought it at local department store Frederick & Nelson, and it was a big deal because it was the first thing that her parents allowed her to buy on her own and charge to their account. 2) Her Catholic school had modesty rules about dresses, so her mother had to add a strap around the shoulders to pass the censors and 3) She wore it to Tolo.

If you were not raised in Seattle, you are probably thinking "What on earth is TOLO?" and if you were, you are thinking "Doesn't everyone call it that?"

Tolo is a dance where the girls ask the guys, and it is a regional word in the truest sense. People from here don't know it by any other name, and it draws blanks stares from just about everyone else. The reach of its usage extends only to Western and Central Washington-- apparently not making it to Oregon or B.C. or even to the far East side of the state. But within it's area it is totally pervasive. When I was growing up, absolutely every single school called it that and when I got to college in Indiana I was shocked to find out it wasn't called that everywhere. My Seattle transplant parents had talked about "Sadie Hawkins" but I just assumed that was an outdated term from an older generation.

It turns out "Tolo" is a word from the Pacific Northwest trade language Chinook Jargon. It was used among Native tribes centuries before the arrival of Europeans, and then added French and English words once those groups showed up. Up until the early 20th century the language was still very much in use by people from all parts of Seattle society, with even the wealthy elite bragging about their knowledge of Chinook Jargon as proof that they were "real" Seattleites.

Some ladies who are taking control

"Tolo" means "to win" or in some contexts "to take control." At the turn of the 20th century there was a women's organization at the University of Washington called the "Tolo Society" that sometimes organized events and dances. It is thought that that is how the term came into use for a girls-ask-guys dance.

Not all Tolos are reverent, rule-abiding occasions
If you want to know more about Chinook Jargon (and join me in bringing back fun words like "skookum" and "iktus" into everyday speech) wikipedia has a pretty good page on the subject, and you can find some of the info on Tolo on this discussion board here. MOHAI also has a really cool interactive feature about the language in our core exhibit at the new museum.

And yes, all the included pictures are of yours truly attending Tolo in high school.  

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