My friend Antonia Morton drew this one to my attention recently. It’s the name of a town I’ve passed through – it’s on the way to Vancouver if you drive there on the Trans-Canada Highway from points east, which I have done, though not recently; it’s about 50 km north of the town of Hope, which allows the joke that it’s “beyond Hope.”
Spuzzum is a very small town. It was never big; it used to have a sign on the highway that read on both sides, “You are now leaving Spuzzum.” It had a gas station and general store until the building burned down in the 1990s. The population is in the double digits, and is heading towards the single digits.
And there’s that name. Spuzzum. It seems made for mocking. My first tastes of it match Antonia’s: “All the associations I have are dirty-minded or otherwise disreputable: spasm, sputum, jism, sperm, scuzzy, bosom, buzzard, spud…” Indeed, the salient parts all have some associations that give it an off flavour. The opening /sp/ often shows up in words to do with messy liquids, such as spit, spurt, splatter; of course it shows up in many other words with other tones, too, but the associations are steered in the dodgy direction because that’s the overlapping area of the sets of associations of its parts. The um is a Latin neuter ending, used on many innocuous and frankly boring things, but also on words for various things (medical or otherwise) indelicate to discuss over tea, as well as commercial creations such as Stickum. And it has the dull echo of dumb and ummm. And in the middle, between the u’s, is that double z with its buzzy sound. Oh, it could have the verve of jazz or the effervescence of fizz, but in the context it more likely brings to mind buzz, muzzle, guzzle, buzzard… Also, as it happens, the insertion of zz into various words as a fad in gangsta rap argot and related speech styles (e.g., guzzun for gun). Indeed, this word may, to the person seeing it afresh, have the appearance of a chimera made of bits of the uglier animals.
But Arlene Prunkl, who lives much nearer to Spuzzum than Antonia does, says, “It’s funny how, if you hear a name or a word like that all your life, you don’t notice how odd it is.” Indeed. And the word comes from somewhere other than bits of odd English words; it comes, it is thought, from Salish spozem “little flat”, because it’s a little flat area, I s’poze.
And everywhere is somewhere, and everwhere people live has meaning for those people. Many important places in my life are such towns, places that seem like odd little hiccups in the landscape but that have whole lives’ histories in them, places that were the centre of some people’s universes, places that have memories. I am put in mind of the Beatles: “There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed: some forever, not for better; some have gone, and some remain…” My great-grandparents lived in a small, small town called West Clarksville, and good luck finding it (there is no nearby Clarksville or East Clarksville), but their house held many memories for four generations, some of whom are now buried just across the road. I spent much of my childhood in and around a town called Exshaw. It’s not much to look at, but you only have one early childhood, and mine was spent there, picking crocuses and chasing dragonflies and hiking up to look at the “ice castles” formed by a leaky pipe that came down from the dam above town. There are quite a few people who love the place dearly even now. And back before I was a kid, it used to be a resort town…
So did Spuzzum. It used to be a place to stop through or even to go to. It was there when the Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built. It was there in the 1940s for the Japanese Canadians who had been interned and were released but still couldn’t settle within 100 miles of the coast. I enjoin you to read more about it at Michael Kluckner’s site for his book of watercolours, Vanishing B.C.: www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6spuzzumhouse.html and www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6spuzzum.html, complete with memories shared in correspondence from people with Kluckner. You will become fond of it, I think.
The more you know about the thing a word names, the more it tends to take over the taste of the word. The initial phonaesthetics never vanish, but there is so much greater richness of flavour that you discover something to love in even the most awkward word. They are like George Eliot, the English novelist, real name Mary Anne Evans, about whom Henry James once wrote, “She is magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw-bone qui n’en finissent pas. . . . Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you as I ended, in falling in love with her.”