Daily Archives: July 3, 2013


There are two more place names that were central to my formative years. One of them is Banff. Banff is the town that for years we would go to for church on Sunday, with lunch and library after, and sometimes for movies on other nights, and for the hot springs, and for hikes in the surrounding park, especially over Lake Louise. Banff Avenue was a familiar mall of delights; the Banff Springs Hotel was our local castle where we sometimes went for brunch buffets. And when I learned to ski, Banff’s ski areas became as famous a topography in my mind as Manhattan is for movies.

Banff formed a geography of my imagination, it and its mountains and glaciers and history; it was and still is my Eden. And then, after finishing junior high in Exshaw, I went to high school in Banff, riding in with my brother for the first year and staying with friends in town for the other two. I spent the heart of my adolescence in this town in the heart of the mountains. Think of all the meaningful moments of your mid-teens. Transpose them to a mountain resort town, one of the most famous mountain resort towns on the planet, and a high school class of just a couple dozen students. The movies you saw, the parties you misbehaved at, the teenage crushes, the friends you cruised around with, all in a town in a crotch of the mountains, every place you go a corner of a postcard. Imagine your graduating class having a weekend hike to a cabin in the mountains (no, not nearly as wholesome an activity as you may imagine). Imagine the morning of your graduation having a champagne breakfast at the top of the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. Imagine your graduation in the ballroom of the Banff Springs Hotel.

Even if Banff has no such associations for you, if you have ever been there it may very well have the same first impression in your mind: the smell of crisp evergreen-fresh mountain air, the sight of stones and logs in the local public architecture.

Or Banff may bring to mind sea air and ruins of a castle and many old Scottish buildings… if you’ve been to the one in Scotland. Of course the Banff in Alberta is named after another Banff, which is formerly the county town of Banffshire (now assimilated into Aberdeenshire), birthplace of at least three men who had some connection to the town’s founding (the two co-founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway and a member of the National Parks Board), although there’s precious little resemblance between the two places – no more than between Calgary, Alberta, and Calgary, Scotland, or between Milford Sound, New Zealand, and Milford Haven, Wales.

Names can reflect errors and false hopes; Tunnel Mountain, the little tremont on the side of which much of Banff townsite is draped, is so named for a railroad tunnel that was originally proposed to go through it – although a look at the valley very quickly reveals that it makes much more sense simply to go around it, which is what the tracks ultimately did. So Tunnel Mountain is named for a feature that it does not have, and Banff is named for a place that it resembles very, very little. But words assimilate effects of their objects. There is nothing intrinsically montane about the word Banff, but it shines to my eyes like the snow and icefalls on Cascade Mountain; its ff are the tall conifers that line its streets and paths and form its buildings’ timbers.

We might also say that sounds assimilate like meanings, suiting themselves to the place of their environs. After all, it is generally accepted as a truism that Banff is pronounced “bamf” (which is also how you would pronounce Bamff, the name of a different place in Scotland). But in fact, it’s not even that; there are only three phones in the standard pronunciation: [bæ̃f] – the vowel is nasalized; the nasalization and voicing may sometimes spread rightward onto the start of the [f], making it a voiced labiodental nasal, [ɱ] (giving four phones: [bæ̃ɱf]), but that’s really just a variable epiphenomenon.

And what does Banff mean? It’s not entirely agreed on. The modern Gaelic for the Scottish town’s name is Banbh (in Gaelic bh is generally pronounced [v]). That’s also the Gaelic word for ‘suckling piglet’, but that’s unlikely to be the source of the town’s name. Perhaps more likely is that it’s a contraction of bean-naobh, ‘holy woman’. (Across the estuary of the river Deveron is the town of Macduff, a name familiar to readers of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.)

The name also has echoes of bumf, as in the acres of bumf about the town to be found in tourist brochures, and bath, which makes me think of the warm waters of the Banff Hot Springs. I also think of Braniff, at one time the name of an airline noted for its design sensibility. Take out the indefinite an from Banff and you get Bff, a best friend forever. Well, friends are not always forever (though I have reconnected with several of my classmates in recent years), but the mountain majesty and mythos of Banff are certainly lasting.