Daily Archives: December 20, 2011

Illecillewaet

Is this not truly a word to fall in love with? It is an excellent long word, and it presents to the eyes parallel lines in parallel sets: Ille and ille, by coincidence Latin for “he” (or “that one” or sometimes “the”), two waterfalls or fast-flowing streams with but the icy c between them, leaving a wet finish. This word is filled with similar shapes, not just the repeating lines but also the echoing e e e with the partial image c and the tumbling a, and then the angling and breaking w and t. It may confuse the eyes – who expects an ae there, and who can easily pass through that forest of lines on the first try? One might as well read it backwards – at least teawellicelli looks legible, and you can have a tea from the well with a bit of vermicelli or a glimpse of a Botticelli.

But to hear it is to hear liquids, those paired /l/s, with a soft voiceless /s/ and the smooth glide of /w/ before stopping at last at /t/. Though some may think it like “Illy, silly, what”, you will more likely hear “ill a silhouette” or “illa Scylla what”. But we will not say one is illicit.

And what does this word elicit? Fluids. Swift water and slow ice. In Glacier National Park in British Columbia, there is a glacier called the Illecillewaet Glacier, and from it flows the Illecillewaet River. The river was thus named by Walter Moberly, who used the word for “swift water” in the language of his guides (who were from the Okanagan Valley). Moberly was a surveyor and was looking for trade routes through the mountains. He followed the river upstream, looking for a pass; when it forked, he took the north fork. After he looked that way, he had run out of time to check out the east fork before winter came. It would be another 18 years before Major A.B. Rogers went that way, found a pass, and named it after himself, leaving Moberly with some ill feeling. Now the Trans-Canada Highway runs along the Illecillewaet River as it flows from its glacier towards Revelstoke. (For much of this information I thank Glen W. Boles, William Lowell Putnam, and Roger W. Laurilla, for their book Canadian Mountain Place Names: The Rockies and Columbia Mountains.)

But for a truly ill silhouette, consider the figure the glacier cuts. Oh, that one… since it was first photographed about 125 years ago, it has receded more than two kilometres. Even in the late 1800s and early 1900s it was retreating rapidly. You can see comparative pictures at www.cmiae.org/Resources/glaciers-lichens.php. There is still a heart of ice, and the river is still wet, but the reserves are being drawn down further and further, and with ever-reducing deposits, it’s caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Is it soon to be “dies irae, dies illa” for the Illecillewaet? Or may we somehow reverse the flow of time?

I thank Jim Taylor for suggesting this one.