Rattle Riddle

On August 30, 1804, in the vicinity of today's Gavins Point Dam, Sergeant John Ordway wrote of the musical practices of the Yankton Sioux:

There was four of them which were always a Singing & playing on their curious Instruments, which were as follows, viz. They had each of them a Thrapple made of a fresh buffelow hide dressed white with Some Small Shot in it and a little bunch of hair tied on it.

What did Ordway mean by the word thrapple? Obviously he was describing a rattle, so perhaps the one he observed was indeed made from a thrapple – the gullet of a large mammal such as a bison or elk – although he clearly says it appeared to have been made of buffalo hide, which is a contradiction. Maybe he was describing it at some distance, and was not able to examine it close up.

The word thrapple emerged in Scottish literature in the 14th century, and was fairly common four hundred years later in poems and stories by Robert Burns (1759–1796) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), consistently referring to a human windpipe. In fact, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) defined it as "the windpipe of any animal," although it often referred to that of a large mammal such as a horse, bison, or elk.1 A windpipe is cartilaginous, and when dried and covered with hide on both ends, with a few small stones or pieces of buckshot inside, would surely make a dandy rattle. However, an intensive search through collections of Indian rattles, and photographs of Indian rattles, has failed to turn up a single example obviously made of the windpipe of a large mammal.2

Elijah Criswell, in his study of the linguistics of the Lewis and Clark journals, unfortunately confused the issue further in his brief discussion of the word. "Whitehouse calls the 'thrapple' a Jew's harp," he says, and continues: "It is well known that the Jew's harp bears a close resemblance to the human larynx. The word may have been used here for an instru.[sic] that resembled the Jew's harp, which, in turn, resembles a thrapple or human gullet or windpipe."3

Clearly, Professor Criswell misread Whitehouse, who did not use thrapple orrattle on the date in question, and mentioned, but did not describe, the jews harp. Also, he was misled regarding the anatomy of both the larynx, which does not resemble a jews harp, and the jews harp, which does not look like the "thrapple" Ordway described.

1. Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755). Noah Webster did not include the word in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806). It is no longer used by either horse owners or veterinarians. It is still current among Scottish bibbers in the salutation "Weet yer thrapple!" – "Wet your gullet!"

2. See some photos of Indian rattles.

3. Elijah Harry Criswell, Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, University of Missouri Studies, vol. 15, no. 2. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1940), 86.


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