Glossary of Alaskan Terms

Not all of the terms in this Alaskan Glossary are uniquely Alaskan, but I’ve found them all useful. While this is not intended to be comprehensive, if you think of a wonderful term I’ve missed, please let me know!

Alaska Natives:  Aboriginal peoples of Alaska, whose special status is somewhat different than that of the American Indians of the lower 48 states.

America: The lower 48 states, as in “What do you plan to do down there in America?”, as a friend and neighbor asked me as we were preparing to move from Alaska.

breakup:  A sign of spring, breakup is when ice on rivers and streams breaks and begins floating downstream. Years ago, Gary bought ponies with winnings from the Nenana Ice Classic, where residents bet on the exact moment of breakup on the Nenana River. Roads break up, too, at about the same time.

Bush:  Generally, a place reachable only by air, water or trail is considered “in the Bush.” That said, Juneau, Alaska’s capital, is not in the Bush, though it is off the road system. Conversely, some places like ours on the road system but lacking basic amenities such as phone service, community electricity and essential retail and medical services, are said to be in the Bush.

cheechako:  Like me, a newcomer, greenhorn. “Cheechako,” Gary mumbled under his breath as I tried to head out hatless for a walk in 28° weather.

Cheechako. Note the pristine white anorak!

chinook:  A warm winter wind.

Denali:  The Tanana Indian name for Mount McKinley, meaning “the high one.” Mount McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park in 1980. Though the mountain retains the name Mount McKinley, most Alaskans refer to it as Denali or, simply, “the Mountain.” Similarly, Denali National Park is shortened to “the Park.”

Interior:  The central part of Alaska, ranging north from the crest of the Alaska Range (the range we see to the north from our cabin, and which includes Denali) to the crest of the Brooks Range, and east to the Canadian border. Encompassing about one-third of the state, the Interior is home to only a small percentage of the population, most of them living in and around Fairbanks.

mukluk telegraph:  Originally, announcements of personal news made over the radio to Bush residents, such as “To Bob in Rampart: we are stranded in Anchorage, please feed the dogs.” We still hear these radio announcements, but their use has declined with the broad availability of cell and satellite communications. The term “mukluk telegraph” is now more often used to mean the grapevine, with no negative connotation. Mukluks are snowboots; I wear mine whenever temperatures drop below zero.

muskeg:  A swampy bog. Muskegs are common in the wet tundra.

A native Alaskan on the tundra

native Alaskan:  Anyone born in Alaska. Gary is a native Alaskan, but not an Alaska Native.

Outside:  Anywhere but Alaska. Years ago my Aunt Vee commented that “Gary doesn’t like to go Outside.” Seeing my surprised look, she clarified: she meant he didn’t like to travel to the lower 48, not that he disliked being outdoors.

overflow:  Slushy icewater that results when pressure (from expanding riverbed or lakebed ice, heavy snow or other factors) forces water up on top of the ice. Its characteristic grayish color is often hidden by snow, creating a hazard for travelers; skis, snowshoes, sleds and dog paws alike ice up quickly after hitting overflow.

permafrost:  Ground that has remained frozen for at least two consecutive years. Much of the permafrost here has existed for tens of thousands of years, but south of the Yukon River some of it is warming and starting to melt.

siwash:  Makeshift camp without a tent. When Mark and Debbie were stranded by snowdrifts, they spent the night in a siwash ( Though my dictionary assures me the word comes from “sauvage,” French for “wild,” it is also a derogatory term for American Indians of the northern Pacific coast.

snowmachine:  Snowmobile.

sourdough:  An old-timer. The term stems from Gold Rush-era prospectors who kept sourdough starter warm and alive by wearing it in a bag around their necks.


sundog:  A parhelion; a rainbow-colored spot around the sun, formed by sunlight shining through ice crystals.

termination dust:  The first sprinkling of snow on the mountaintops at summer’s end, a signal for tourists and summer residents to head home.

the States: The lower 48 states or other 49 states. Commonly heard particularly among old-timers born in Alaska before it was a state.

Termination dust on the mountains above the tundra

tundra:  From the Russian word for “treeless,” the wet tundra — where we live — is a spongy, moist, thick groundcover of mosses, lichens and berries, supporting sedges, grasses, willow and dwarf birch, as well as a variety of flowers. The dry, alpine tundra found in higher elevations has sparse vegetation, with few plants over a few inches high. Elevations above 4,000 feet or so generally support little or no vegetation.

whiteout:  A blizzard, blowing snow or other weather condition where visibility is zero and no features can be distinguished in the white snow-covered landscape.

1 thought on “Glossary of Alaskan Terms”

  1. Does anyone know of a word that sounds like Tahoosh? MY late partner used that word just before he made his transition. I heard it might be an Alaskan Indian word meaning love.

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