Daily Archives: April 12, 2011

kinnikinnick

If you like the look of this word, consider that an alternative spelling is the perfectly palindromic kinnikinnik. It’s quite a fun-looking thing, isn’t it? It has a certain kinetic kick – sonically and visually reminiscent of a rough start on an engine, perhaps (with each k a little bang, preceded and followed by sparks i and, in between, turns of the pistons nn). Or perhaps more like a hedge… Or, well, look at it and see what else you see in it. It’s a fairly nice abstract pattern, for all that, like a border in art deco wallpaper, perhaps.

Its sound has a nice pattern, too, and a simpler one at that: a simple bounce between a stop at the back and a nasal at the tip of the tongue, as though tracing a w-style zigzag. The sound of it reminds me first of all of a song – a number one hit of the post-Kennedy days by the Belgian nun who went as Sœur Sourire (The Singing Nun, real name Jeanine Deckers), “Dominique,” with its “Dominique -nique -nique” chorus. It rather sounds as though she’s singing “Domini kinnikinnick…”

And what would domini kinnikinnick be? Well, there are two related things kinnikinnick can refer to. It can refer to bearberry, which coincidentally has a similar repetition in sound (compare /kini + kini +k/ with /bEr + bEr + i/). Bearberry is a common berry that has had a wide variety of medicinal uses – a sort of panacea, perhaps not quite as anodyne as “Dominique” was (a cheery song needed after Kennedy was assassinated – couldn’t hurt that the “Dominique -nique -nique” sounded vaguely reminiscent of “Kennedy”, either), but good for bladder problems and similar strains. It’s thanks to this berry that I know this word from my childhood – it grows in southern Alberta and we used to see it often enough when out hiking.

So in relation to that berry, domini kinnikinnick would be the Lord’s bearberry (I wonder if that’s like blessed thistle). But I should say that the berry is not the original referent of kinnikinnick. And, actually, the original form of the word is more like killikinnik. It’s from an Algonquian word meaning “mixture”. Mixture of what? Well, berries, for one thing, but often tobacco for another. Tobacco? Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Literally, in fact. It was a mixture that would be smoked in pipe ceremonies and used for smudging. The smoke would carry the prayers to God. Which makes domini kinnikinnick seem quite coherent all of a sudden, doesn’t it? (Nod and smile.)

Which reminds me of that song. You see, the eponymous Dominique was a real person – Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, a travelling preacher and ascetic (though one more inclined to rosaries than to bearberries). The refrain is:

Dominique -nique -nique s’en allait tout simplement,
Routier, pauvre et chantant.
En tous chemins, en tous lieux,
Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu,
Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu

This translates to

Dominique -nique -nique went about simply,
A poor singing traveller.
On every road, in every place,
he talks only of the Good Lord,
he talks only of the Good Lord.

Sœur Sourire is, by the way, the only Belgian to make a number one hit on the US Billboard charts. “Dominique” was her only big hit, though she continued to sing and record. She gave her profits to her order, and then ran into trouble in England due to owing a lot in taxes on her income, and not having any receipts to show her donations. This played a part in her unfortunate and despairing demise. Asceticism is better, it seems, if you keep receipts.

As a last tangent, I am put in mind of two other great Belgian singers: Plastic Bertrand, who sang (actually, it was sung by his producer, oops) “Ça plane pour moi,” a barely coherent song about a life that is about as opposite to Dominic’s as anyone could imagine, and Jacques Brel, who sang “Ne me quitte pas” – a great song about leaving – and “Le moribond,” a song by a man on the point of death who wants his friends to laugh and dance, not cry. The latter was ruined entirely by an American version, “Seasons in the Sun,” which made it a soppy, whiny self-pity fest… nothing but smoke, and not the kind that carries prayers.