I had some oysters yesterday. I don’t know if they were cultured – I didn’t converse with them before eating them – but I would aver in a clutch that they had some culch in their past, back in their subsea gulch.

What is culch? If I look at the word, it looks like it’s made of broken parts: perhaps the c and c are like the halves of oyster shells; the u and l look like another h but broken and disarranged. And because our orthography is made of bits that are often themselves in disarray, we find that the articulation of the word proceeds from a hard voiceless stop at the back of the tongue to a soft liquid at the tip and then an affricate also at the tip, and yet we see the c’s repeated. They seem to have suffered a c-change. We do need to remember that pronunciation, not orthography, is still the base, the substrate of the language.

You know me by now, probably, well enough to know where I’m going with this. Broken bits? Changes? Substrate? If I add that the hour at which I write this makes it bedtime reading, you may have put it together: culch is the broken shells, stones, and similar stuff that makes the bed of an oyster bed. It is what oysters attach themselves to. I can even hear – inaccurately, of course – a young oyster (a spat, they’re called) nestling itself into culch: “culch, culch culch, culch.” Because of course that’s just what that stuff would sound like when disturbed… maybe not so much under the water and by a little oyster, though.

Culch is also spelled cultch and has been seen as cutch too, since the pronunciation varies some. You go with the bits available. But where did it come from? Possibly from the French root that gives us modern French couche (bed, couch, layer, etc.). But just maybe. The link has a bit of a gap in it. It could also come from clutch. What seems more plausible? Why don’t I let you sleep on it…

3 responses to “culch

  1. In Ireland we use the word ‘culchie’ to mean a country person. It also carries connotations of being a bit backward and unsophisticated (it’s not a compliment). I wonder do ‘culch’ (oyster mattress) and ‘culchie’ (country bumpkin) share the same root.

    • I suspect not. I wonder whether culchie comes from culture in some possibly ironic way. Or of course there could be a Gaelic source, though I don’t know what that would be, and one would think in that case it wouldn’t have the English ie ending – maybe more likely an ín or án.

  2. Here in Vancouver, there’s a much-loved local theatre called the Vancouver East Cultural Centre … well, that’s its name, but it was usually called the ‘Van East Cultural Centre’.

    But it hasn’t even been called that by very many for several years; nowadays, even on its website, it’s The Cultch.

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