Daily Archives: July 5, 2015


What do you call the caboose of a mountain? You know, the part where the sun doesn’t shine? If you’re standing on a peak, and there’s one side that’s facing south (or towards the equator, I should say) and another that’s not (so it’s always in the shadow), and you’re like, “You – front; you – back,” what do you call the “you – back” bit?

How about ubac?

Yes, it’s a real word, and yes, that’s what it means: the side of a mountain where the sun doesn’t shine. Or, as skiers call it, the part where the good powder is and the snow stays around late in the season.

But I have to be fair: ubac isn’t pronounced like “you back.” No, it’s like “oo bac.” Sort of like oobleck (you know, the non-Newtonian fluid named after some good from Dr. Seuss). Or like caboose said backwards without the /s/. And with an actual /a/ or /æ/ for the a rather than the /ə/ in caboose. Whatever.

And, like Cognac, Armagnac, Frontignac, Monbazillac, Sazerac, serac, and cul-de-sac – five alcoholic beverages, a glacial tower, and a dead-end street – it comes to us from French. (Various other ­ac words such as maniac and demoniac are formed from Latin sometimes coming by way of French, but I’d rather deal with alcohol and geography than with maniacs and demoniacs if you don’t mind.) Actually, ubac comes from Occitan, from a language of southern France that has resisted being completely eclipsed by French, but French did steal this word from it fair and square.

It’s an odd-looking word, isn’t it? Its etymology is opaque. Well, it’s opaque to the person simply looking at it – it doesn’t show you clearly where Occitan got it from. But it’s also opaque because that is where Occitan got it from. It came from Latin opacus, source of opaque. Not that the back of a mountain can’t be seen through – actually, come to think of it, it can’t; that’s why it’s in the shade, mountains are opaque – but the Latin word opacus means ‘shady’.

So there it is. A word taken from Latin that wore down and became unrecognizable in the shady corners of a post-Latin language. Many common words have gone through such transformations. They get mossy, as it were. (Moss grows on the shady side of things.)

I like mountains. I even like the shady sides of them. But if you prefer to be in the sun somewhere warm and flat and sandy rather than out of the sun somewhere cool and steep and snowy, that’s easy enough. Just hit the sea first. I mean the C. Take it from the end of ubac and put it at the beginning. Congratulations: now you have Cuba.