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.

12 responses to “esker, snirt

  1. Another rough year for the Maple Leafs.
    Really enjoyed your play on words regarding our Canadian winter.
    Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. Not having seen your local examples, I do wonder: if it’s just matter left behind, are they eskers, or moraines? Geologists use this handy mnemonic to distinguish the two types of deposit:

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

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

    Some might say, “snirt moraines,” but I think that sounds both French and obscene.

    • Ah! I had thought about moraine but thought that it wouldn’t be appropriate. I see I was exactly wrong. I shall have to do moraine. When I was a kid we would go hiking above Moraine Lake, near Lake Louise… but I’ll save that for the word tasting. 🙂

      • I look forward to that! Incidentally, although the lake is properly named Moraine Lake, it is not properly a moraine lake — or, more properly, not properly a moraine-dammed lake. Rather, it is a rockslide-dammed lake. I’m sure the Canadian Tourism Commission will be damned before they’ll let anyone rename that slide-dammed Moraine Lake properly, though.

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  5. I read this with a snicker and a smirk. 🙂

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  7. Funny that you combined the words Eyjafjallajokull and snirt in this post. The Icelandic noun snyrting (toilet) was something we had great fun turning into a verb (to snyrt, of course) while traveling through the country. Some people snyrted outdoors on those isolated roads, as evidenced by the yellow snirt.

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