Monthly Archives: February 2015


Does this word resonate with you? Does it have a hollow sound, a soft echo, or a rumbling? Does it seem to have a shape? It has that drum, of course, which is impossible to ignore. And it makes me think of hard things tumbling in the drum of my clothes dryer. On the other hand, to the eyes it might suggest a drum line, a long thin rank of people in a drum corps. Or you could just assume that it has an arbitrary association between sound and sense and leave it at that. (But what’s the fun in not even tasting the sound of it?)

You may recognize this word. If you don’t know just what it’s a name for, you may still remember it from high school geography. Something to do with glaciers? Didn’t I just blog about glacial stuff yesterday and the day before? Right, this must be something like… uh… It’s not a moulin, is it? Or maybe more like a monadnock or nunatak or…

Imagine a heap of gravel and dirt. Imagine it in the middle of a stream. Imagine the stream flowing around it, so that the heap turns into something of an oval or teardrop shape, almost reminiscent of a cross-section of an airplane wing (or perhaps a mandolin). Now imagine that the stream is a glacier. And that the heap is about 30 metres (100 feet) high, and the glacier is all gone now.

That’s a drumlin: an oblong hill that demonstrates that aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and glacier dynamics have some things in common. You can tell which way the glacier was flowing because the drumlin’s downslope is long and gradual in that direction, and steep and short on the upstream side.

They can be found in many parts of the world, not just near glaciers. After all, much of the world was covered with glaciers at one time (and I don’t mean last Tuesday, however it may have felt). They’re all over the place in eastern North America – it wouldn’t take me too long to drive to one. They tend to appear in clusters. Whether you’re in Berlin or Dublin, you’re not too far from a drumlin.

And if you’re in Dublin, you’re around where they got their name. Yes, like esker, this word comes from an Irish word. Irish Gaelic for ‘ridge’ is druim (pronounced like something between “drim” and “thrim”). That got a diminutive suffix, as either English drumling or Irish droimnín (droim and druim are pronounced the same), and from that we ended up with drumlin. I wouldn’t say phonological changes are glacial, whether by effort conservation or by analogy, but they do have their effect on the shape of a word.

So the word has an arbitrary association between sound and sense, originally. It didn’t come from a rumbling of tumbling boulders and sediment. But tell me now you can think of a drumlin without thinking of it in some vague way as having a drum shape.

Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word.


A murrain on my brain. As Bugs Bunny would say, what a maroon I am. I should have remembered you need more rain to make an esker from snirt. And so a commenter who goes by Rain, Rain informed me that there’s a rhyme geologists use to recall the difference between eskers and moraines:

The melt that flows
Into the drains
Leaves behind eskers
Not moraines.

But dirty snow
That just retreats
Leaves small moraines
Upon the streets.

I knew of moraine, of course. When I was a kid, we would often go hiking above Moraine Lake, near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. We’d go in early fall to Larch Valley, where there is a stand of (guess what) larch: deciduous conifers – they look like evergreens but their needles turn orange in the fall and fall on the ground. My parents, being from western New York State, were used to very colourful falls, and autumn in Alberta is for the most part basically a few days of yellow followed by the browns and greys of early winter. So we would go for larch and lunch. But first, or last, or both, we would climb the moraine.

That pile of moraine at the mouth of the lake gives you a million-dollar view. Well, OK, it gives you a 20-dollar view, at two dollars per peak. You see, it used to be featured on the back of Canadian $20 bills, and the valley the lake is in is the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The lake is kept a lovely colour by constant influx of rock flour. Rocks just keep coming down from those peaks. And the glaciers that feed the lake grind rocks, and rocks fall into them and so on. There are glaciers all around there, and when they move on or melt away they leave piles of rock in their wake, sort of like the slime a snail leaves, only completely different. Those piles of rock, like large versions of those dirt piles left at the end of the winter, are moraine (a word which comes to us from Savoyard French).

But that pile of moraine at the mouth of Moraine Lake is not a pile of moraine. It’s more irony: the lake is surrounded by moraine and partly filled with it, but the moraine for which it is named is actually the debris from a rockslide. A big pile of rocks came down from one of the surrounding peaks and dammed off the end of the valley, causing the lake to form. The lake is more rain and runoff than moraine! Might as well call it Maureen Lake – to make a set with Louise and Agnes nearby.

esker, snirt

Toronto’s looking pretty Canadian right now, like scenes from my Alberta childhood. It’s had a bit of snow this winter. It gets plowed into piles on the sides of the street, narrowing sidewalks into couloirs. Those piles of snow have dirt mixed into them, dirt from the street, dirt from the air, dirt that was part of each snowflake in the first place. As the snow gradually melts and evaporates or runs away, the edges of these whilom alabaster piles get to looking rather dark and dirty. By late winter the piles are ugly-looking heaps half of snow and half of dirt. And when spring finally comes (in Toronto, you know it’s spring when the Leafs are out*), what you have left are vaguely serpentine piles of dirt. The long, sketchy graves of winter. It takes a few spring rains (or, in Alberta, just lots of wind) for them to disappear… they usually do before the following winter.

So what do we call those dirt piles?

I want to call them eskers.

That’s not strictly accurate. An esker is a bigger thing. It’s a huge pile of gravel and dirt left behind by glacial run-off. Huge as in from 3 to 200 metres high, and from 100 metres to 500 kilometres (yes) long. These streetside left-behind piles are orders of magnitude smaller. And snow heaps aren’t glaciers. But these are still, um, micro-eskers. Yes? Everything involved is smaller? Or should we call them uskers? Iskers? Oskers? I’m the asker…

Where does this word esker come from, anyway? That k makes it look suitably northern, something from Inuktitut or maybe a Scandinavian language. You know, like nunatak or, um, Eyjafjallajökull. It hasn’t been worn down by English from a k to a c.

Just the opposite, in fact. It’s been changed by English from a c to a k. The source word is eiscir, pronounced like “eshker.” Can you guess where that’s from? A hard c before a high front vowel? Something Celtic, maybe? Yes. Irish. They have them in Ireland, and that’s where we got the word.

But what if Canadians don’t want to call our dirt piles eskers? We’re in the country that, having a one-dollar coin called a loonie and wanting a name for a two-dollar coin, chose not, say, doubloon but rather toonie. This is a country where if a hockey team wins three in a row it’s a three-peat (unless it’s the Leafs, in which case it’s a miracle). So a mixture of snow and dirt, or a pile of dirt left over from snow… um, snirt?

Does that give you a suppressed laugh or snicker? Perfect. That’s what Oxford says snirt means… in Scotland. But that seems not to be too broadly used elsewhere, even if it does have a sound like a narrow giggling snort. And few people would think it’s a shirt with an arm cut off. No, in current common North American usage, snirt means… a mixture of snow and dirt. Here, look at this article: “The failure of US farm policy? It’s in the snirt.”

So we can use it, then? Well, yes, for the late-season dirty drifts. But what about for the piles of dirt after the snow is all gone? Is it an esker of ex-snirt? Maybe an exnirt? Can that be said to exist?

Well, whether exnirt exists as a word or not, we sure had lots of the thing in Exshaw.


*The Leafs are the local hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, not Leaves, who, if they make the playoffs at all, are usually knocked out early. And leave just as the leaves are coming.

kyabuka, kiabooca

How do you pronounce kyabuka?

How about kiabooca?

Are you sure?

You get that they’re two spellings of the same thing, of course. But what thing, now?

I’m watching the Oscars and drinking sparking wine right now (Santa Julia, from Argentina, a Champagne-tasting $15 bottle), so I’m going to mess with you a bit more. How do you pronounce Genghis Khan?

Yeah, maybe not. Kahlil Gibran?

Yeah no.

Here’s the thing. English expectations regarding pronunciation of non-English names, including transliteration of non-English names, have changed very much over the last century. Back when Kahlil Gibran was writing, a name pronounced /d͜ʒɪbran/, which we would now render as Jibran, was automatically spelled Gibran, because g was used for that sound before high front vowels, just as was the rule in English spelling. And the name that was really more like “chingis” but was taken as “jingis” was spelled with a g as well.

And then we started to be more aware of how other languages spelled things, and – more to the point – more accommodating of it, and everything changed. Except for spellings that were already established. Which we have come to reinterpret according to our current standards, where, in non-English names, g is always /g/ regardless of what it’s before.

Obviously kiabooca is an old-style English spelling. But while kyabuka looks really “foreign,” with its double k’s and that additional angular y – so stylish – it, too, relies on an old-style convention. If we were to borrow in this word today, we would take it straight from Malay, which, after all, is spelled (now) with the Latin alphabet. We would spell it kayu-buku. In Malay, kayu means ‘tree’, and buku means ‘knot’. If it grew in England we’d call it knotwood. It’s a tree that’s very knotty. It makes a nice ornamental wood.

But the problem of representing in English spelling what those who first wrote it down were hearing – after all, the phoneme we represent as /u/ doesn’t sound the same in all places in all languages – was also knotty. Other recorded spellings since it was first written in English in the early 1800s include kiabouka, kiabuca, kyabuca, and kyaboka. What do they all have in common? They all spell /aɪ/ as i or y rather than as ay. They spell it assuming the English “long i” – which is particular to English and came about as the result of the Great Vowel Shift in the 1400s and 1500s, before which English pronounced “long i” just like in, for instance, machine.

The spelling is very ornamental, of course. So many ways of putting it down. English is a bit knotty that way, eh? Or naughty, anyway. Well, it wood be.

Oh, did you want to know more about kyabuka wood? Here’s a bit from Edward Balfour’s 1885 Cyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia:

The kyaboka wood of commerce is brought from Ceram, N. Guinea, the Aru and other islands of the Moluccas, to Singapore, being much esteemed as a fancy or ornamental wood for cabinet-work. Of late years its estimation seems to have decreased in Europe, but it is still much valued by the Chinese, and is sold by weight. It is sawn off in slabs from 2 to 4 feet long and 2 to 8 inches thick. It resembles the burr of the yew. It is used for making small boxes, writing-desks, and other fancy ornamental work. It is tolerably hard, and full of small curls and knots ; the colour is from orange to chesnut-brown, and sometimes red brown.


Some places have oom-pah-pah. Some have the hurdy-gurdy. Some have the tam-tam. Some have the kazoo. To this clan of musical instruments (and styles) with onomatopoeic names add this pleasant piece of work from East Africa: the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is an eight-stringed lyre-type instrument with a wooden frame and a gourd base. It’s popular among the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania. It name is thought to come from the sound of the lowest string (“nya”) and two of the higher strings (“titi”); since it’s played in an arpeggiated style without stops on the strings, a three-note pattern of low-high-high is common enough.

There’s nothing about the sound of it that would make an Anglophone think immediately of “nya,” mind you – we think of that as a taunting nasal sound, “nyah-nyah.” (Oh, yes, by the way: it’s like “nyah,” not like “nye a.”) The higher strings, too, are a little lower than what you might expect from “titi” in our world filled with high clear bell-type sounds. Sound impressions and onomatopoeia do have a strong cultural basis.

For that matter, you might expect something more Polynesian, what with the faint taste of Tahiti in this word. Or you might expect something ancient Egyptian, reminiscent of Nefertiti, the wife of the pharaoh Akhnaten. You’d be too far south and possibly too modern for her, but at least you’d be in Africa, and you could draw two happenstance connections: first, the headdress of Nefertiti has a fan-like shape vaguely reminiscent of that of the nyatiti, perhaps with her head as the gourd; second, Akhnaten is the name of an opera by Philip Glass, who makes much use of arpeggios – but actually far more in the Balinese line, not the nyatiti playing style. Oh well.

If you look on YouTube for videos of people playing the nyatiti, you will find quite a few. You will find videos of westerners (and East Asians) playing it in a mannered, calm style, held at table or chest height. And you will find videos of Luo people playing it the way you’re supposed to, down at ground level between their legs, with one foot tapping against the frame and the other tapping bells, playing a lively tune and often singing along.

Someone went to the trouble of putting together a YouTube playlist of 78 videos of nyatiti music. Have a listen to at least one (I recommend number 57, if this blog insists on starting it at number 1 – click on the menu top left and scroll down):

If you’d like to find out about other stringed instruments you may have been unaware of, Iva Cheung did a series of tweets on them, with videos:


Hmm. Is this word pristine, or is it spry for such an old thing? Is it the very spring of printemps, or does it prick with brisk, crisp cold? Does it carry spirit or risk?


Age has spirit, and it has risks. This is surely a new word – to you, as it was lately to me – and yet it is actually pulled out from Oxford’s lexical cold storage. It has spring and vigour, like a name of a cold drink for hot days, and yet it is not new, and what it names is not new. It is pristine in its glittering appearance – and in the old ‘ancient’ sense of pristine.

Prisk is a rare, archaic Scots English word formed directly from Latin priscus. It means ‘old, ancient, old-fashioned, primitive’. Oxford’s only modern citation for it is from Forked Tongue by W.N. Herbert: “Sandy Hole Gaelic’s pirn’s unspoolan i thi prisk guschet o aa thocht’s birth’s biforrows.” If that sounds to you like old-style dialect from an ancient Scotsman who is pissed as an ewt, well, me too.

But it really is such a crisp word. Can’t we keep it? We could call Angela Lansbury “pretty, prisk, and spry”; we could refer to a coelacanth as a “prisk piscis” or just a “prisk fish.” There are, it’s true, other words with much the same sense, including two more descended from priscus: priscan and priscal. But neither of those is so brisk.

And why would we think we must limit ourselves to one word for any given semantic field? English is not a programming language. English is a collector’s language. No one with the collector spirit says “I have a camera; why would I need another?” or “I have one recording of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé; aren’t they fungible?” or “I’ve tasted a red Bordeaux; aren’t they all the same?” No, no, every word, even of ostensibly the same sense, has an at least slightly different flavour. A word is a performance; a word is a craftsman’s output. You can keep collecting them, from the prisk to the praecox, words without end.


A bit over two years ago, my wife and I went to a Leonard Cohen concert. The various band members walked onto the stage, one at a time, got set up. Then some guy came bounding onto the stage. We thought it was one of the techies bringing on something for someone. Then he took the microphone and started to sing.

Leonard Cohen, 78 at the time, had just jogged onto the stage like a 24-year-old.

Throughout the concert, he was here, he was there; now he was on his knees, now back up, now on his knees again. Not quite a sprinter, but sprightly. A spring in his step.

Leonard Cohen, after 8 decades of life, is pretty spry.

Last week we saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, live on stage. Angela Lansbury is 89½ years old. Angela Lansbury was up pacing around, dancing in a trance, flopping onto a sofa.

I described her on the phone to my parents as “pretty spry.”

Obviously spry is a relative word. A person in their prime has to be frankly gymnastic to earn the term. A nonagenarian can earn it by dancing. And not landing sprawled as a result.

Spry showed up in English by the later 1700s, meaning (as it still does) “Active, nimble, smart, brisk; full of health and spirits” (Oxford). It has also sometimes been used to mean ‘spruce’ (as in spruced up). But it’s not clear just where it came from. The best guesses trace it to sprightly or to an Old Norse word meaning ‘brisk, active’. But there’s no clear trail. Somehow it just sprang into the language. And sounded right.

Right? Let’s see common words that start with spr: sprain, sprat, sprawl, spray, spread, spree, sprig, spright, spring, springe, sprinkle, sprint, sprit, sprite, spritz, sprout, spruce, sprue, spruik. Most of them have to do with spreading or distributing motion, or with things that move quickly or grow forth. There’s an accumulated association of that general sense with this sound, even though the words aren’t all related. It’s what is sometimes called a phonaestheme.

And the vowel, the diphthong /aɪ/ (spelled y)? That’s not as concentrated, to be sure. But there can be a sense of movement away: fly, try, sigh, die, hie. There’s also the sound of wry embedded in spry. And of course there’s the unfinished sprightly and sprite, and there’s pry and almost prize and prime. Associations between words and sounds may in general be arbitrary, but people automatically look for patterns and make associations on the basis of resemblance. Word meanings can shift because a word sounds like another word. Language is sometimes a nimble thing.

Nimble? That’s a rough synonym for spry. But tell me what you feel the difference to be. I find that nimble is like agile with a particular sense of quick and sure feet and ability to negotiate tricky situations (it commonly shows up with fingers and feet), while spry focuses more on the athletic vigor and youthful sinew, still with a sense of indefeasibility. And it’s commonly used to refer to older people – the most frequent modifier for it (by far) is still. It’s relatively more easily attainable in greater age, and it connotes retention of a youthful vigour.

Come to think of it, it sounds like a word Sean Connery might use, doesn’t it? He’s still spry, too, you know… at 84 years old.