On a scale from squamous to squeamish, how would you rate Squamish?
Do you know where it is? Or what it is, even?
For me, Squamish is where you can buy Whistler day passes at a discount and get your coffee on the way. For at least one person I know, it’s where Quest University is. For a lot of people, it’s the midpoint between Vancouver and Whistler: It’s at the north end of Howe Sound on the Sea to Sky Highway.
But what makes it stand out is not Howe Sound but how it sounds. It doesn’t have the V-neck verve of Vancouver or the crisp sifflation of Whistler. It has the sounds of squat and squeamish and qualms and a balance of the scaly words squamous and desquamation and such like. And it sounds so wishy-washy at the end, not firmly squam but just squamish. If it were an English word, it would likely have flabby, queasy connotations.
But it’s not an English word. It’s a rough rendering of the name of a Coast Salish people, more accurately written Skwxwú7mesh. What’s that 7 doing there? It represents a glottal stop. And the w’s represent rounded labial coarticulation of the previous sound. And the x represents a voiceless velar fricative. For those who are squeamish about all of the foregoing, you can click and hear it pronounced at the beginning of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squamish_people.
So the town is named after the people, but in a somewhat desquamated version. But what about the townspeople? Members of the Squamish tribe are Skwxwú7mesh, but that’s not who lives in the town. It’s full of the same sort of people descended from invaders and immigrants that make up most of the population of Canada. And what do they call themselves?
It turns out that this has not been firmly decided. Eva van Emden sent around the results of a poll of residents by the local newspaper, choosing between four options: Squamites (31%), Squams (13%), Squamcouverites (8%), and Squamptonians (48%). It seems the echo of the Hamptons is pleasing, although perhaps it’s more an echo of Compton, given the vowel rhyme; Eva notes that there are local bumper stickers and T-shirts that refer to Squampton. I note that Squamians was not on the list of options. Wikipedia lists two demonyms: Squamoleon (with a source request on it, meaning Is this for real?) and Squamite. The ite ending seems quite popular in western Canada; I know from my own youth that people from Banff are Banffites and people from Canmore are Canmorites, and although quite rationally people from Exshaw ought to be Exshavians, they most certainly are not: they are Exshawites, which doesn’t look very good on paper – you do not pronounce the w in it.
At any rate, although the sound associations may not be great for the average Anglophone, and although for many a tourist the town is a sprawl of stores and stoplights along the highway, those who live in Squamish seem enthusiastic: Squamsome! can be seen on promotional material.
And what about members of the Squamish people? We ought to call them Skwxwú7mesh, of course, although few of them speak the language anymore, thanks to the dominating effect of English. They have been an important presence from Vancouver through Whistler and beyond. It’s all on their traditional territory, seized but unceded. There are fewer than 4000 of them now, and little of the land is allocated to them, though their culture persists. But in the grand tradition of naming places after whatever or whoever was displaced to make way for what’s there now, we have not only Squamish but also various places named after Joe Capilano, whose Capilano is from a Skwxwú7mesh toponym, Kiapila’noq.