Answer Man

No, Tonto’s ‘ke-mo sah-bee’ line isn’t referring to a horse’s rear end

Q: One of my favorite childhood heroes was TV’s Lone Ranger. My dad would always tease me that Tonto’s reference to the masked man as “kemo sabe” actually referred to the south end of a horse! Did Jay Silverheels really pull one off on Hollywood?

Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville

A: Do you have trouble finding pant suits that fit properly? One leg longer than the other? Well, you can blame dear ol’ Dad for pulling it so often.

Yes, because the term apparently was explained only on the TV premiere in 1949, it has become the butt of long-running jokes, just like the one your funny father enjoyed playing on you. If you’d like to relive a childhood memory, check out the classic Gary Larson Far Side panel in which a long-retired Lone Ranger finally opens an Indian language dictionary and says, “Oh, here it is. ‘Kemo sabe: Apache expression for a horse’s rear end.’ What the hey???” (http://bytesdaily.blogspot.com/2014/11/kemo-sabe.html)

Even Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in the long-running TV series, couldn’t resist getting into the act. In a skit with Johnny Carson, Silverheels complained that Tonto was fired after 30 years of working for kemo sabe. When Carson asked why, Silverheels deadpanned, “Him found out what kemo sabe meant!” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8uSUcAFiXc).

In reality, the true meaning of the term — spelled variously as kemo sah-bee, kemo sabe and kemo sabay — depends on which Indian language you use to translate it. The New York Public Library, for example, insists it means “soggy shrub” in Navajo.

Obviously, that’s not what the writers had in mind so let me cite two more likely explanations. One scholar found that in Yavapai, a dialect spoken in Arizona, it could mean “one who is white,” referring to John Reid’s ethnicity or dress. Another ties it to the Ojibwe-Potawatomi word “giimoozaabi,” meaning “he (who) peeks secretly” — in other words “trusty scout” or the more general “faithful friend.”

For the inside scoop, however, we probably should turn to Fran Striker Jr., son of a man who wrote for many radio shows, including “The Lone Ranger.” Being from New York, the elder Striker described Tonto as a Potawatomi from the Great Lakes area. And when the show launched on WXYZ in Detroit, the station’s radio programs dramatic director was well aware of a certain Michigan camp.

“I came across another old reference — a photograph of a children’s camp,” Striker Jr. said in doing research before writing his dad’s biography. “The photo was from the early 1930s and showed the camp entrance. It was named Camp Ke Mo Sah Bee. The accompanying caption pointed out that the name stood for ‘trusty friend’ or ‘trusty scout.’ These two tidbits from history dovetail nicely and are in keeping with the meaning of the term as officially stated for the last sixty some years.”

No ifs, ands or butts.

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