Native Americans and the word "heap"

Here in the UK I have noticed that the word “heap” figures quite prominently when someone is imitating a Native American for comic effect. It seems to be a synonym for “very” or “very much” - as in this example from Monty Python:

“Me heap want see play. Me want play start heap soon.”

What’s the origin of this? Is this done in the US as well or is it specific to the UK?

While I don’t know its origins, I do know that I’ve heard it plenty of times in the US.

Well a heap is a “big pile”, so it’s not a stretch to misuse it to mean “a lot”.

I’ve heard it used in American westerns.

It’s definitely an Americanism, and has been used in, e.g., novelists’ attempts to portray “Indian lingo” for at least a hundred and fifty years.

Originally it was probably a genuine translation of some Native American word, but I don’t know what.

I did a cursory Google search, and found it referenced in the 1912 novel “Good Indian” by B.M. Bower. Don’t know how much older it is. There was also a 1919 Harold Lloyd movie “Heap Big Chief.”

Could simply be a mistranslation or poor translation of the Lakota word tanka, meaning big. It’s used in all types of compound words*:

Wakan Tanka (The Great Spirit)
Pta Tanka (large bull bison)
Sunk’ Tanka (horse, literally “big dog”)

*Note: adjective comes after noun, similarly to Spanish

By the way, the Master has addressed the question of why Indians are portrayed as saying “how”, but doesn’t discuss why they’re portrayed as saying “heap big”. Doggone it, this is really starting to bother me.

It made me all depressed when I found out years ago that the Ojibway word for whiskey is shkotdae-waubo. Literally, fire-water. And Basil Johnston has translated the typical Ojibway (Anishnaubaek) greeting Aneen as ‘how’.

There’s also an Ojibway word for ‘stupid white man who thinks he’s Indian’. I think that’s great. Anishnaebakauzo.

Why? What do you think whiskey means? Tanslated from the original term, it means “water of life”. Not too far off from what the Native Americans called it.

“Heap” is a genuine Indianism, which is to say it is typical of Indian English, a pidgin once widely spoken by many Indians and whites (and blacks) when they tried to communicate with each other. The OED’s first citation is from 1832 by Washington Irving “‘Look at these Delawares,’ say the Osages, ‘dey got short legs–no can run–must stand and fight a great heap.’” Coming from a white novelist this may not be the most authoritative citation. The next quotation is from 1848 “An Indian is always a ‘heap’ hungry or thirsty–loves a ‘heap’–is a ‘heap’ brave–in fact, ‘heap’ is tantamount to very much.” J. L. Dillard in All American English reports that in 1871 one Indian called a train “heap wagon, no hoss.” Sounds like something a Hollywood script writer would make up, I know. (The better known term for train, “Iron horse” is also a real Indianism, used by Red Cloud in 1866).

The fact a word or phrase was used by Indians is not proof that it was coined by Indians. Some usages may have originated as humorous coinages by whites that were later picked up by Indians. I suspect this is the case with “paleface” first recorded in writings by a white man 1822 but used by Indians not too long afterward.

In some English pigins, I believe the words “tumass” (too much) or “planny” (plenty) or “many” plays the role that “heap” does in these depictions of Native Americans speaking English pigins.

But the OED also shows examples of “heap” meaning “many” dating back to Beowulf.

It’s most likely that the Indians used the existing English word than it derives from a native word.

At last, a word to describe Ward Churchill!

bibliophage, you’re my hero and I would like to join your official fan club. Thanks for getting that off my mind.