Last word tasting, we looked at Longyearbyen, which, aside from being a word that you probably feel unsure how to say at first, is the name of a town of almost 2400 people just 12 degrees from the North Pole. Today, for the sake of balance, and because I thought of it while talking to my mother, we’re going to look at McMurdo.
McMurdo is a Scottish name, yes, you probably guessed that; it’s from the Hebrides, and it comes from Gaelic Mac Murchaidh or Mac Murchadha, meaning ‘son of Murchadh’, where Murchadh is a personal name that means ‘sea battle’. So… Seabattleson.
It matters to us here today because of Archibald McMurdo.
Archibald McMurdo was born in 1812. He joined the Royal Navy in 1824 (yes, at the age of 12). He was made a lieutenant in 1836; he progressed through the ranks, making captain in 1851; he retired as a rear-admiral. He had command of the ship HMS Contest, detailed to the west coast of Africa, but he had already made his name in much colder climates, as a lieutenant on the warship HMS Terror. The Terror had made its mark in the year of McMurdo’s birth at Fort McHenry, firing rockets that glared red and bombs that burst in the air; McMurdo was on it first in 1836–37 in an expedition to try to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic (it failed and returned to England, but nearly a decade later, without McMurdo, it went back under Sir John Franklin, and you may have heard how that went), and then in 1840–43 to find Antarctica – successfully – with James Clark Ross. And that’s where McMurdo gained his fame.
It’s not that he did anything special in particular. But I guess Ross liked him well enough, or at least found him to be a sound officer. When Ross’s two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, sailed into an Antarctic bay of the Ross Sea (as it had just been named), Ross named the two nearby volcanoes after his ships, and he named the bay McMurdo Sound.
And when, in 1956, the United States opened a base on one of the few patches of bare ground in Antarctica (technically on Ross Island rather than the mainland, but it’s all iced together), right near where Robert Falcon Scott had set up a camp in 1902, they called it McMurdo Station, because it’s on McMurdo Sound. Today, McMurdo Station, or McMurdo for short, or Mac-Town for shorterer, is the biggest human place in Antarctica. In the summer (the warmest months are November, December, and January, because it’s the South Pole, not the North one), its population gets up over 1200. In the winter, there are about 250 people keeping it going. It provides services and support for a number of research stations in the area. It’s just over 12 degrees north of the South Pole, but its location shelters it from the worst of the polar weather; midwinter temperatures are usually in the –20s (Celsius), and the coldest it’s ever been recorded is just below –50°C (for Antarctica, that’s not so bad). On the other hand, the warmest it’s ever been recorded is just under 11°C, and average daily temperatures never break freezing any time of the year.
Most people who have heard of McMurdo, including – I suspect – many of those who spend some or all of their year there every year, don’t know who it’s named after, let alone that it might as well have been called Seabattleson. But so it goes; we usually don’t know much about where our words come from. And Archibald McMurdo couldn’t have guessed the fame his name would gain from his service as a lieutenant on an exploring ship. But everything turned out well enough for him. After the two polar trips, he headed for someplace warm while his former ship ended its days frozen in the Arctic Sea. And his name carries on.
Do you want to know what it’s like at McMurdo? Of course you do. It’s different from what you probably imagine. PBS Terra did a series on it (and its environs). Here are the three little episodes you’ll certainly want to watch to know about the town: