Es·​ki·​mo ˈe-skə-ˌmō How to pronounce Eskimo (audio)
plural Eskimo or Eskimos, often offensive; see usage paragraph below : a member of a group of indigenous peoples of southwestern and northern Alaska, Greenland, eastern Siberia, and especially in former use arctic Canada
: any of the languages (such as Yupik and Inuit) of the Eskimo peoples see also eskimo-aleut compare inuit, inupiat, yupik
Eskimoan adjective
Usage of Eskimo and Inuit

Eskimo is a word that presents challenges for anyone who is concerned about avoiding the use of offensive language. Its offensiveness stems partly from a now-discredited belief that it was originally a pejorative term meaning "eater of raw flesh," but perhaps more significantly from its being a word imposed on aboriginal peoples by outsiders. It has long been considered a word to be avoided in Canada, where native people refer to themselves as Inuit, a word that means "people" in their language. But not all the native people who are referred to as Eskimos are Inuit. Eskimo has no exact synonym; it has a general meaning that encompasses a number of indigenous peoples, and it continues for now in widespread use in many parts of the English-speaking world.

Word History


earlier Esquimawes, plural, probably borrowed from Spanish esquimaos, borrowed from Innu-aimun (Algonquian language of Quebec and Labrador), attested in the 17th century as aiachkimeȣ-, aiachtchimeȣ- "Micmac," in the 20th century as ayassime·w (phonemicized) "Micmac, Inuk," perhaps literally, "snowshoe-netter"; later Eskimo probably borrowed from French Esquimau, borrowed from Innu-aimun

Note: The history of the appellation Eskimo is in its early stages murky, in its later stages a cause of controversy. Its first attestation in any language is in English, as Esquimawes in Richard hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting (1584), a secret report sent to Queen Elizabeth forcefully advocating English colonization of North America, which was not printed until 1877. The ethnic identity of Hakluyt's "Esquimawes of the Grande Bay [the waters west of the Strait of Belle Isle]" is impossible to determine from his notice. There is little doubt, though, that his source for the word was Spanish, as fishermen and whalers from the Spanish Basque Provinces frequented the Strait of Belle Isle from about 1540. The Spanish word is directly attested in the Compendio historial de …Guipúzcoa (1625) by the Basque historian Lope Martínez de Isasti, who clearly distinguishes between the esquimaos, who attacked the whalers with bow and arrow, and the montañeses (presumably the Montagnais/Innu people of eastern Canada), with whom the whalers had friendly relations. The designation first appears in French as Esquimaux on a map by Samuel de champlain (1632), placed on the north shore of "La grande baye." The source of the Spanish and French words is likely a word in the Algonquian language of the Innu, recorded variably in the seventeenth century as aiachkimeȣ- (phonemically a·yaskyime·w) and aiachtchimeȣ- (a·yasčime·w), that designates not the Inuit but rather the Micmac, an Eastern Algonquian-speaking people who lived to the south of the Innu. In modern Innu-aimun (the language of the Innu), however, ayassime·w is used along the western shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to refer to the Micmac, but further east and along the Labrador coast to refer to the Inuit. The literal meaning of ayassime·w and its cognates in other Algonquian languages has traditionally been taken to be "eaters of raw flesh" (according to the 1933 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, from "Proto-Algonquian *ašk- raw, *-imo eat"). This hypothesis was effectively refuted by José Mailhot ("L'étymologie de «Esquimau» revue et corrigée," Études Inuit Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 [1978], pp. 59-69); she proposes that the original meaning was "speaker of an alien language"—hence the name could be applied to either Inuktitut or Micmac, which, though Algonquian, was not comprehensible to the Innu. The American linguist Ives Goddard rejects her explanation and sees ayassime·w as a reduplicated form of assime·w "she nets a snowshoe," whence, as an agentive derivative, "snowshoe-netter" (Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, Arctic [Washington, 1984], pp. 5-6).

First Known Use

1584, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of Eskimo was in 1584

Dictionary Entries Near Eskimo

Cite this Entry

“Eskimo.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

Kids Definition


Es·​ki·​mo ˈes-kə-ˌmō How to pronounce Eskimo (audio)
plural Eskimo or Eskimos
sometimes offensive
: a member of a group of peoples of northern North America and eastern Siberia
: any of the languages of the Eskimo people

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