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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tonto: Stupid or Wild One?

At one time in the late 1950’s, half the prime time network TV shows were Westerns. Much of the other half was variety shows.  Both genres have pretty much disappeared.

A particular favorite was The Lone Ranger, an extension of the earlier radio show of the same name. This western is still known, although mainly for minor characteristics: the theme music from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the iconic masks, and a series of Tonto jokes – I’ll repeat one below.

Tonto became an uncomfortable character. Where did the name come from? Deb Amlen in the New York Times provides a shred of possible dignity:

TONTO. Without question, the character was written in a demeaning manner for Native Americans, but the insults did not stop there. The word does indeed mean stupid in Spanish, and this understandably caused some consternation in Spanish-speaking countries when The Lone Ranger was being broadcast on radio, television and shown in the movies. For that reason, his name was changed in those countries to “Toro” or sometimes “Ponto.” The radio series, however, claimed that Tonto was a member of the Potowatomi nation, and in that language, his name actually meant “Wild One.”

It’s a nice try, Ms Amlen. But there are a lot more Spanish speakers than Potowatomi speakers, and the writers were more likely to have taken high school Spanish than high school Potowatomi. Still, one can hope.

Besides, it’s not clear that “stupid” or “fool” and “wild one” are necessarily that far apart. 

Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope has a nice column on ‘kemosabe’ which touches on this: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/971/in-the-old-lone-ranger-series-what-did-kemosabe-mean

Tonto joke

The best known Tonto joke is this one:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a horde of hostile Indian warriors.

The Lone Ranger says to Tonto "what do we do, now?"

Tonto replies, "what you mean 'we,' kemosabe?"

Then there’s Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon. The Lone Ranger looks up ‘kemosabe’ in a Indian dictionary and discovers it means ‘a horse’s rear end’.