Monthly Archives: March 2014


The game farm house was at the foot of a mountain with a large cliff at the top. I spent my adolescence with that face hanging above and behind me.

If you’ve ever driven to Banff from Calgary you will have seen it. It’s the first mountain on the north side of the valley. The cliff face across the top is vaguely reminiscent of a yam that has been – not cut, rather broken in half. Here is a photo of it.

Climbers call the mountain “the Yam.” But they don’t call it “the Yam” because it looks like a yam. They call it “the Yam” because it’s Mount Yamnuska.

There are a few things in the area called Yamnuska: touring companies, a summer camp, such like. They are all named after the mountain. It cuts quite a figure. It is very popular with rock climbers; there are hundreds of routes up that cliff face. My dad bought a book detailing many of the routes. I found it fascinating. I loved looking through it, imagining climbing up.

I have never actually done any rock climbing. (My father most certainly hasn’t either.)

But you can climb up to the top of Yamnuska without ropes or risk of falling. You just go up the trail up through the trees on the lower front and, when you get to the part where the cliff is, go around the back way. Only the front is a cliff, you see; the back is quite accessible. Don’t take the mountain just at face value.

I have hiked Mount Yamnuska. But I have never gotten all the way to the very top, just because the group I was with didn’t want to or didn’t have the time. I should go back and do it. Unlike many of the things from my childhood, the mountain is still there. And probably isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So what is this word Yamnuska? Let’s start with how it’s said. It follows English spelling. English spelling can be weird at times, but at least we know it doesn’t do things like, say, put “m” and “n” sounds together at the start of the same syllable. The Yam is easy. The ka is also easy. The nus rhymes with plus. I’ve heard some people say it “yam-noose-ka,” presumably because they think they shouldn’t say it as though it’s an English word, although the spelling is as it is to match English spelling. People leap to conclusions, and sometimes the conclusion is at the bottom of a cliff. But wherever the fault may be, there’s no sense in assigning blame; it’s something we’re conditioned to as English speakers: favour the marked. Don’t take things at face value.

But where did this word come from? The local language: Nakoda, also called Stoney. The Stoneys were the people for whom my parents worked and on whose reserve (“Indian Reservation”) I spent much of my childhood. Now, if you’re a language person, you will be aware that the sounds that make up one language are often not exact matches to the sounds that make up another one. So you may expect that our English pronunciation of Yamnuska is not quite the way it’s said in Stoney. And this is true.

Actually, it’s not even spelled that way in Stoney. In Stoney (Nakoda – do you see the resemblance to Dakota and Lakota?), it’s Îyâ Mnathka. The circumflexes indicate nasalization. The a represents a low-central vowel, like the a in bar. Stoney has two apical voiceless fricatives, spelled th and s, but they’re really in the spaces between English th, s, and sh, so Stoney s sounds sort of like “sh” and Stoney th is less toothy than English th. Also, while Yamnuska has three syllables with the stress in the middle, Îyâ Mnathka has four, with the stresses on the first and last. So what you think you see at first is actually quite different from what really is there. But the real not-face-value of Yamnuska is quite different from the jumped-to-a-conclusion not-face-value.

The name Îyâ Mnathka, by the way, means ‘flat-faced rock’. Which is pretty much right on, although actually there’s a mountain across the valley that has a similar cliff that’s flatter in the face, Barrier Mountain. (But that one is less spectacular; frankly, it’s more distinctive in the side view from Exshaw: it looks like a nose.)

But Mount Yamnuska is not the official name, nor is Îyâ Mnathka. Of course that’s the name that the people who have been there longer gave it, but the invading Europeans saw fit to give it a different name: Mount John Laurie.

If you’re from Calgary, you’ll recognize John Laurie. There is a boulevard running around the base of the nose of Nose Hill called John Laurie Boulevard. Now guess how it’s pronounced.

If you said “Like ‘John’ and like ‘Laurie’,” you’re right. But some students I knew at the University of Calgary – and who knows how many other people in Calgary – said the Laurie as like Laurier or Laurié, i.e., like “Laurie, eh.” Because apparently, being a Name and all, it couldn’t be said just like you’d normally say it; it must not be English, the John notwithstanding. Favour the marked; don’t take it at face value. Another bit of conclusion-jumping to add to the scree pile at the bottom of the cliff.

So who was John Laurie? John Lee Laurie was born in Ontario and moved west as an adult to teach in Calgary. He became familiar with the Stoney people and volunteered to work as secretary for the Indian Association of Alberta. He put a lot of time in as an advocate for the causes and rights of Indians (we now often say First Nations), and later compiled history of the Stoneys for the Glenbow Foundation. He died in 1959 and the mountain was officially named after him in 1961.

So it wasn’t really the invading Europeans trampling over the people who were there before, not quite. It was more of a way of honouring someone who did something meaningful, and quite recently at that. Again, the real story is not the face value and is also not the not-face-value you might assume. But anyway, everyone still calls the mountain Yamnuska; I’d wager that not five percent of people who know Yamnuska know its “official” name.

Here’s another nice picture of the mountain, a painting by Roland Rollinmud, a really excellent artist and old friend of my family: (you will see that it’s featured in a column written by my dad). Have another look at it, try to get a grip on where I’m coming from. Have you stopped to wonder about the geology of the mountain?

We know that, as a general rule, rocks on top are newer than rocks underneath because, well, that’s how things pile up. But what caused the cliff face to be there? A thing called the McConnell Thrust Fault. The shifting that happened because of this fault brought the rock on one side from a ways farther up the valley (I doubt it happened just one morning, but I do like the image that brings; here’s a more useful image: The fault is right at the base of the cliff. The cliff is made of Cambrian limestone, hard, prone to forming cliffs, 500 million years old. The rock at the base of the cliff is Cretaceous, sedimentary, soft, 80 million years old.

Yup, the upper part – the cliff part – is older, way older. Again, things are not always what they may seem on the face of it. The older prevails, though you need to get over the younger part to get to it. No need to assign blame… but the fault remains.


Life with language is a parlous proposition. Every foray into a parlour for a parley with those present can be a precarious parlay. You have come out ahead so far in the competition of conversation, but one quick trick from a crafty, unscrupulous, captious interlocutor can upset the applecart.

Confidences in particular are prey to the parlour parlous: a joke, or a little bit of venting, can be taken at face value. In gambling parlours the risk of gambling with fake money is that it will be recognized as fake money. In conversation the risk is the opposite: of its being treated as real currency. All of a sudden you have made a bet that you have to pay out on, or your twitch or tie tug has become a bid at an auction.

But it can be simpler than that. The right word to the right ears and you have been trumped. There are some words that, among those who know them, are like the most expensive jeans: to you they look like ordinary jeans, but those who recognize the brand or cut know that they bespeak a higher socioeconomic status. Sometimes a word is like furniture with a craquelure finish. I remember seeing such things in the ’90s in a fancy furniture store in lower Manhattan. Why on earth would anyone want this scabby old vanity, I thought. I had grown up in the country and recognized cracked paint as a sign of something abandoned and on its way back to the dust from whence it came. But rich New Yorkers liked this finish, especially when it was fake. Turn up your nose at it? They will turn up their noses at you. And they have more money.

So, now, let us take a word as an example. Start with Latin periculosus, ‘causing fear’. Run it through French and into English back in medieval times. You get perilous. Very good: you can picture a trip on the Caminito del Rey, perhaps, or a ship on the high seas.

But now run that through lazy and relaxed mouths. Drop the i. Loll the tongue on the first vowel as though you’re some creaky-phonating young-adult girl doing the latest drawl despised by the older generations. Make it sound lower-class, like varmint instead of vermin. You get parlous.

But oops. Did you think parlous is a low-grade word? Oh, how can it be, when it sounds like parlour and parliament and French parler? And when it partakes of the same vowel shift as in parson, Darby, and Clark? No, no, no. This is a word that consciously erudite writers like to use when writing jeremiads about politics and finances: the parlous state of… or these are parlous times or or or. This is a word that writers who enjoy being eloquently unpleasant like to keep in their travel bags next to their tooth powder. Read enough A.A. Gill and you will be sure to see it.

Perhaps, then, it is apposite that parlous means not just ‘dangerous, uncertain, precarious’ but also ‘keen, cunning, clever, malicious’. What in Irish English is termed cute. But there is one more usage as well: ‘extreme, marvellous’ (or ‘extremely, marvellously, very’) – available as a positive intensifier too: “You’re parlous pretty.”

In short, this word has craquelure on it. The expensive kind. You would do well not to treat it or its speaker too lightly.

And, in sum, it can be parlous parlous to partake in a parlour parley with a parlous person.

nictate, nictitate

What’s the difference between these two words? What dictates – or dictitates – the inclusion or exclusion of it?

You know, it – that intrusion, that blink in the middle of the word? It’s as though your eyes are seeing it as you are struggling to stay awake, and the sideways skipping saccades result in a double vision. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – you know how they say “Blink and you’ll miss it”? Well, perhaps in nictate you blinked and you missed it. And yet somehow, you’re still left with something intact, even if you don’t have something to tie it together.

I’ll give away the game: the two words are synonyms. But this isn’t an aluminum/aluminium or orient/orientate kind of thing; it’s not American/British. No, it’s just because there were two possible suffixes. The word comes from Latin, the verbal root being nict-; you can have the -are ending, a simple infinitive, or you can have the –itare ending, implying iteration: a frequentative… doing it over and over again.

So that would seem to mean the two words aren’t synonyms, right? Like, if you blink once, that’s not the same as fluttering your eyes, blinking repeatedly, right? And yet in modern English, both nictate and nictitate mean ‘wink, blink’ (but not ‘nod’). Well, experience says that if you blink once, you’ll probably blink again… and if your consciousness is going on the blink, after a series of blinks increasing in frequency you will end up with a blink that stops at the closed position, and consciousness will be a blank. Good nict, sleep tict!

Oh, yes, you do say it the way it’s spelled, and not like “nightate.” The nict is not related to night (which is a Germanic word, not Latin). But there is another word that it has fed into – one that refers to two parties winking at something together: com plus nictare somehow became connivere… which we have as connive.

Well, my two eyes are conniving to wink together, and that means sleep is heading my way. I am not like a Calabar angwantibo, either – the only primate to have a functioning nictating membrane (or should I say nictitating membrane), which is a third translucent eyelid under the regular two that allows a creature to wet the eye without closing out the light. Nope, my two eyelids per eye are intact, and nictating with increasing frequency. No need to intinct my eyes with any eye drops. A better tactic is simply to let the eyes drop and the lids fall as they may.

Crimean wardrobe

Things are heating up in Crimea now, which cues us to look back 160 years to the Crimean war. What did we get from that? Three bits of clothing and some misquotations… Find out what in my second article for The Week this week:

The fascinating linguistic legacy of the Crimean War


Fancy beauty product ingredients

My latest article for looks at Salvia officinalis, Thymus vulgaris, Butyrospermum parkii, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and more… and why you’re putting them on your head:

How to read your shampoo bottle



We’ve sorted out what semolina is. So we know the semolina pilchard of which John Lennon sang in “I Am the Walrus” was not a girl (contrary to my youthful first impression). But I didn’t go into what a pilchard is.

I’m inclined to think it might be the sort of thing one filches. Who would filch it? Not a milch-cow – they prefer mulch. Perhaps a crabalocker fishwife. Who found it in a gulch. But if she eats it, will she belch? Or squelch it? (I’ll tell you this: whatever it is, lch notwithstanding, it doesn’t involve alchemy in a sepulchre. That would just sound wrong.)

So it’s an edible. No, it’s not chard that comes in a pill. Actually, it’s a sardine. You can buy these in cans and feed them to cats (or to yourself). Do pilchard and sardine mean the same thing? Depends on whom you ask. Some use sardine to mean ‘young pilchard’. Others divide them by species. Whatever, there’s a lot of overlap.

This word used to be pilcher or pylcher, and ended up with an ard ending by analogy with wizard, buzzard, laggard, etc. It was not pilcher because it wears a pilch (an outer garment made of animal skin, with the fur on the inside) – ew, it sure doesn’t – or a pilcher (in Oz and NZ, a flannel overcloth for diapers) – double ew – or because it is related to romance novelist Rosamunde Pilcher (a genetic connection has not been proven). No, etymologists have ruled out the red herrings. Unfortunately, what they have left to go on is… zilch. Hmm. Fishy.


This is a word from my childhood.

Not because we ate semolina pudding, or couscous made from semolina, or because I was aware of the spaghetti we ate having been made from semolina. No, it’s because I grew up listening to The Beatles, and the first Beatles album I owned myself (as opposed to belonging to my brother or parents) was Magical Mystery Tour. On that album is “I Am the Walrus.” If you give it a listen (you really should, and watch the video), you will hear, at about 2:53, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.”

When I, less then ten years of age, heard that, I assumed Semolina Pilchard was the name of a girl. Why not? Serena Pritchard or Selma Pilcher would be. I had never heard of semolina, nor of pilchards. Come on, I was growing up in the Alberta foothills in the 1970s! Semolina Pilchard seemed to me to be a name to go with Semilema Tina. You know, from “Ferrajocka.” That actually turned out to be “sonnez la matine” from “Frère Jacques.” But for a while it made sense to me, and from the same song I also had the idea there was a word “donlayvoo,” which seemed to be something like an escalator and/or vaccum cleaner.

But hey. Songs often come through the ear to the mind like grains of wheat halfway through the grinding process. Which is what semolina is. And that’s why I assumed for some time that semolina was formed from Latin semi ‘half’ and molina ‘mill’. Doesn’t that make sense? Why grind your way through all the etymology if you can take some nice bits and make a pleasing porridge of them?

Actually semolina comes from Italian semolino, diminutive of semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘flour’. There do seem to be some similar words out there, yes, but similis ‘like’ is a different root. Well, grind them down and they may start to assimilate. I just now told my wife I was writing on semolina and she said, “The flower?” And I said, “No, the – oh, yes,” and realized she had actually said “The flour?” Which would have been the logical thing for me to hear in the first place.

John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” with the express purpose of confounding literary analysis. A student had written to him that his teacher was having the class analyze the lyrics of Beatles songs. So he went out of his way to make it impenetrable. My experience suggests he needn’t have tried so hard.