Daily Archives: July 8, 2013

freshet

This word has a splash of refreshment in its sound, like Suzanne Pleshette with a bottle of Freixenet. In fact, it almost sounds like a brand name for plug-in air fresheners or mouthwash strips. Or it could be some little thing you catch in a fish net, or a female freshman, or a refreshed fourchette (French fork), or some hip-hop artist, or…

Just listen to how it splashes, like a Ferrari into a flooded underpass! First with the [f], then the swelling up of the liquid [r], then opening to the mid-front [ɛ] before the big splash of [ʃ] and the quick deceleration and downsplash of [ɪt]. Is it perhaps a quick rainstorm?

Close! It’s a sudden flood of a stream or river due to rain, melting snow, both, or something else. This word looks like it comes from fresh, and in fact it does. Originally it was just a name for a freshwater stream that flows into the sea, but by the mid-1600s it had gained the additional specific meaning of a quick flood of a fresh stream.

In short, it’s what Cougar Creek in Canmore and Exshaw Creek in Exshaw and the Elbow River in Calgary became a couple of weeks ago, and what the Don River and a few other streams became this afternoon in Toronto. Quick as a whisternefet (a sharp slap), a simple flow of fresh water flashed into flood form. Just because before the stream could empty, more and more water came to refreshet. Freshet’s sake…

tardigrade

Don’t know what a tardigrade is? Well, going by the word, what would you expect? Something scholastic, perhaps? After all, tardy is a word for ‘late’ used only by teachers, and usually just the ones you don’t like much, and grade is a school word par excellence. Or maybe it’s an Eastern Europe city, like Belgrade? Or perhaps it’s something science-fictiony… there is that echo of TARDIS, after all.

Well, imagine a creature that can survive in outer space. Imagine one that already has. On a space shuttle. Outside a space shuttle. This is a beastie that can withstand pressures several times as strong as those at the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand temperatures well above boiling, and close to absolute zero. It can withstand radiation in doses hundreds of times what would kill you or me. It can go without food and water for years. It can survive indefinite dehydration to 3% of its usual body water or less and then, when rehydrated, go on as if nothing had happened.

I mean, holy cow. And it’s got claws like bears. Eight of them: four pairs of legs. And it has a hard shell, and lays eggs. And it looks like a bear with no eyes and a mouth like an auger or something: apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130306.html. And it’s everywhere. Go for a stroll in a forest and they’re probably all around you. Dude, I’m not making this up.

Naturally, the only sort of critter that could possibly do and be all this is a very small one. And thank your lucky stars for this. (Some people think tardigrades actually came from nearby stars. It’s not entirely implausible.) Tardigrades are generally less than a millimetre long. (For my American readers, a millimetre is about 1/24 of an inch. Oh, and by the way, only three countries in the world don’t use metric: the US, Liberia, and Myanmar. Just going to leave that with you.)

A couple more things: it’s also called a water bear, and it lumbers kind of like a bear too. It’s not an especially fast-moving thing. In fact, that’s where its name comes from: Latin tardus ‘slow’ and gradus ‘walking’, by way of French. This indestructible intergalactic juggernaut is at least not a fast-moving one.

And, just to complete the picture, I must tell you it’s a stripper too. You may know that the fancy term for a stripper (peeler, exotic dancer) is ecdysiast. Well, tardigrades belong to the superphylum ecdysozoa – stripper life-forms. They shed their outer layers every so often – moulting, or, as biologists call it, ecdysis.

Isn’t that just incredibly charming and pleasant? Click-drag this beastie to about ten thousand times its current dimensions and you have something pretty near perfect for a sci-fi horror flick. But maybe give it a different name, something with a little less tard and grade.