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.”

5 comments on this post.
  1. carlaxness:

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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.

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