canary

When I was an undergrad, living in student residence, several people on my floor were organizing an outing to a local bar called Cannery Row. One of them wrote the info on the blackboard in the floor lounge. But she spelled it Canary Row.

Ah, to think, Steinbeck’s Monterey place that is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream” (a now-gentrified bit of former working seaman’s turf – a tourist location with a marine sanctuary hosting a population of sea lions), associated accidentally with dogs.

Wait, dogs? Do I mean birds? Oh, dogs, first – anyone who has played the original Trivial Pursuit likely knows that the Canary Islands got their name from dogs. The derivation is from Latin Canaria insula, “Isle of Dogs”, from canis, “dog”. The bird (originally canary-bird and originally green but better known in the yellow variety) is named after the islands, and the colour is named after the bird, as are most other things called canary – Australian jailbirds of the 18th century (they arrived in yellow), canary wood (it’s yellow), any songstress (because canaries sing) or stool pigeon (extending the sense of sing)… there’s a whole row of references, one, two, ten, a reef, eh…

Speaking of Tenerife (largest island of the Canary Islands), what kind of dogs were the islands named after, anyway? Well, whatever they were, the ancient inhabitants worshipped them, it seems. They may have been the forebears of the modern Perro de Presa Canario, often called Presa Canario for short; the name means “Canarian catch dog”, and the catch is that they’re freakin’ huge. They’re sometimes called Canary Mastiffs, which ought to tell you right there. They’re a kind of Molosser, which means they are related to the ancient molossus.

On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the original “dogs” after which the islands were named were actually monk seals, also known as sea dogs – a bit of a comedown from sea lions, which is what their cousin pinnipeds are called. (For real lions, one would have to cross east to the mainland of Africa and head south. The Canaries, remember, though they belong to Spain, are off the coast of west Africa.)

The word canary seems in the main to escape associations with cans by having the stress on the second syllable, rendering the first a mere skip up, like the modal auxiliary can – perhaps as in “On Tenerife can airy heights be scaled where yet can nary a dog be seen.” The only letter out of line in the word is the y, descending like the perching feet of a passerine bird, an insessorial incessant singer. It may serve to remind of the frequent following word yellow. Or perhaps it is an adit, awaiting the descent of the miners with their gas detector – the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Or it may be an anticipation of a following w – if not in Row, then in Wharf. You know Canary Wharf, do you not? The great modern skyscraper development in the east end of London? That now-gentrified bit of former working seaman’s turf? The West India Docks used to be there, but the shipping traffic dried up by 1980. One specific wharf, the number 32 berth of the West Wood Quay, had been built in 1936 for Fruit Lines Ltd., who were in the Mediterranean and Canary Island fruit trade, and so the wharf was named Canary Wharf at their request. When the largest building in the UK – One Canada Square (yes, Canada, not Canary, and named after the homeland of the developer, not after Las Cañadas del Teide on Tenerife) – was built there, the development was called Canary Wharf. Which sounds perhaps more decorous than the name (in use since at least 1588) for the large lobe of land of which Canary Wharf now occupies the northern part: the Isle of Dogs.

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