Forgive us our trespasses. I mean… it’s not a sin, right? I won’t die from it or anything…
I took a little trip up a hill above Cochrane this evening to get a good view of the descending sun. I drove on a not-too-wide paved country road that goes past a few expensive houses and ends at a short gravel stub surrounded by fences. And on the fences, a notice: private property. No trespassing.
And parked there, just on the lawful side, was a minivan with four assorted teenagers, sitting and chatting with a view to the west: a view of foothills, distant mountains, clouds, the sun, and, much closer, an antenna with a couple of small buildings.
But there was a little bit of hillside off one side of the road that didn’t seem to be included in the prohibition. So I wandered down it, parallel to the fence. And then the fence just… subsided. So, since the view I wanted was more in that direction, I easily passed over where the fence might have been had it been there. I walked through damp prairie grasses with a healthy assortment of small flowers. And then, over the curve of the hill through these Elysian fields, past the guy wires for the antenna, the view I was there for.
I wasn’t the only one there. A couple had set up collapsible chairs and were taking in the view. I did not think it was their land, or their antenna, and they did not object to my transgression – or perhaps even notice it. I paused. The sun, previously obnubilated, broke through the clouds and beamed our way. I took a few more photos.
And then I turned and came back to the car, by a more direct route. The fence, I observed, had a gap in it between posts at the end of the road, just by where the teens continued talking (about things such as a guy who was banned from a restaurant for an egregious bathroom accident – such crimes!) and looking sunsetward and altogether ignoring me. I walked on by. Trespasses? What trespasses? It’s très passé! (That’s an infraction in French grammar, by the way – “C’est très bien passé” would mean it happened very well, which it did, but that’s not what the English loanword confection intends.)
Of course English got the word trespass from French – Old French, which had it from Latin. The modern French reflex is trépasser, which means – as we would say in English – ‘pass away’ or ‘pass on’: in other words, ‘die’ (but politely). But in Old French the verb trespasser still had the basic Latin sense, which was simply ‘go through’, ‘traverse’, ‘go across’. It’s from Latin trans ‘across’ and passare ‘pass’ (well, ‘step’, ‘go’, et cetera).
But in English it came to mean specifically a transgression (transgress also comes from Latin meaning ‘go across’); it most often now means a violation of private property rights, but for many people its most frequent spoken use is in a sense also often rendered as debt (financial violation) or sin (moral violation): “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (The Latin for this phrase, from Matthew 6:12, uses inflected forms of debitum, ‘debt, obligation, rent’, while the Greek uses inflected forms of οφείλω opheilō ‘owe, be obliged to’. And yes, that Greek word is related – not quite directly – to the name Ophelia, which traces to the ‘profit’ side of the deal.)
But there are trespasses and there are trespasses. As those few of us on the hillcrest profited intangibly from the view the sun’s trespass over the horizon, some on the public side of the fence and some on the private, there was no great harm or injury, nor any financial or moral deficit incurred. Though some of us might overtake a fence, no one seemed to overly take offence.
Today I travelled in a westerly direction for a few hours, and now I’m back in the area where I grew up, where the westerly winds prevail. And, of course, that means that I travelled against the wind.
That always confused me when I was growing up (and, honestly, I still haven’t entirely gotten over it): my understanding was that westerly meant ‘generally westward’, just as southerly means ‘generally southward’, easterly means ‘generally eastward’, and northerly means ‘generally northward’. Any time you read about someone travelling in a westerly direction, you know that they’re going towards where the sun sets. And yet every time a Chinook was blowing in, which is about once a month all winter long, the TV weather guys would talk about “warm westerly winds” (it seems obligatory: just as news people have to use the word pontiff when talking of the pope, the TV weather people in Calgary have to say “warm westerly winds” when talking about a Chinook). But if you’ve ever been outside when a Chinook is blowing in, you know very well what direction they’re blowing in: they’re blowing from the west (over the mountains), towards the east. Just like most wind in Alberta.
So what’s the deal? If you look in any decent dictionary, you will see all of that confirmed as true: westerly means ‘in the west’ or ‘towards the west’ … or, especially when talking about winds, ‘from the west’. Somehow this word is blowing hot and cold at the same time (or at least alternately, just like the winds in southern Alberta).
The trick is just that the -ly suffix comes from the same root as like and just means ‘-ish’ – in other words, ‘having some general relation to’. I kind of wish that Chinooks blew through every two weeks all winter long just so I could make a play on biweekly, but I’ll make the connection even though they don’t: just like westerly means simply ‘westish’, whatever that intends, biweekly can mean ‘twice a week’ or ‘every two weeks’ because it just has roots meaning ‘two’ and ‘week’ without further specification. It’s so confusing, there are many people who feel that only one of the two senses should be sanctioned, and the other should be, uh, sanctioned.
And just as sanction has a Janus face due to its origin with formal (typically religious) decrees, which can either enjoin or enjoin, I mean which can either require or prohibit, which way westerly trends depends on the particular association the thing in question has with the west. And while if you’re travelling and you name a direction, it’s the direction you’re headed towards, when it comes to winds, we think of them in terms of where they’re coming from. After all, they’re blowing (which envisions a motive force where they’re coming from), not sucking (which would envision a motive force where they’re going to), right? (Though, frankly, the wind in southern Alberta can really suck sometimes. Come here in late October and you’ll agree, I’m sure. But that’s a different usage of suck.)
So. Since I am originally from the west (in the grand scheme of Canada), I am in that sense a westerly person. And when I fly from Toronto to Calgary, I am heading westerly (don’t bother quibbling about Calgary also being farther north; westerly is not so precise as that). But when I fly from Calgary to Toronto, and the flight is quicker because of tailwinds, those winds that help it fly easterly are westerly winds.
A lady somewhere between half and twice my age, dressed in pastel blue business attire and a floppy bow, with carefully edited hair, strode up to me and Maury, presumably because we were closest to the door of Domus Logogustationis (the clubhouse of the Order of Logogustation). She was evidently one of the new members who had joined during the extended lockdown due to (cough, cough) you-know-what. She was holding a print-out of our invitation to the event; she set it on the small high table before us and gestured to the heading: “Wine and Cheeseparing.”
I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or just making an extra-dry conversational gambit.
“Surely you jest,” Maury said.
“How did you know my name?” she said.
“Your name is Shirley?” Maury said, his eyebrows arching ever so slightly.
“No,” she said, still inscrutably. “It’s Geste. G-E-S-T-E.”
Maury, ever unflappable, was flapped. He stood frozen for a moment like a deer in the headlights.
“Well,” I said, leaping into the breach, “I’m glad you could make it. It is a pity that we have had to be, as it were, cheap and sparing – supply chain issues and all that. Inflation can be rather deflating. And so we made the theme cheeseparing.” I gestured at the nearby cheese board, which was covered with parings of cheese, each about the size and shape of a toenail clipping. “It’s not cheap, cheese; we are trying to evince the virtue of frugality.”
“That cheese has died the death of a thousand cuts,” Geste said, gnomically.
“As shall we all, at this rate,” Maury said, equally drily.
“Well, I was quite pleased with the existence of the word cheeseparing,” I said, continuing to paddle up the conversational stream. “Such a vivid and flexible lexical item. It started by naming a literal paring of cheese – a shaving from the rind, and we decided not to be quite so literal about that” – I nodded towards the cheese board again, where the parings included no rind pieces – “and then it extended to mean something meagre, and from that came to refer to an attitude of cheapness. And then it was backformed into a verb, cheesepare. So cheeseparing may be taken for a participle of the verb cheesepare, which actually came from it, while it’s in fact an adjective formed from a noun, and the noun was in turn a compound of a noun plus a gerund.”
“And to cheesepare means to trim budgets by making numerous small cuts,” Maury added. “As we are having to do here lately.”
“Well,” Geste said, “I’m glad someone is being economical.” (She might have glanced in my direction ever so briefly.) “I’ve always favoured editing a document down by removing excrescences passim rather than excising whole passages.”
I was about to say “You’re an editor?” but decided that I might just be opening myself up to further whittling down. Instead I fell back on “Would you like some wine, such as it is?”
She smiled, slightly but perceptibly. “I would, thank you. I parch easily.”
I picked up a glass from the sideboard and was about to ask which kind she preferred – we had a few bottles open – but Maury spoke first. He had stepped over to another table and picked up a game box. “Parcheesi, perchance? Our entertainment budget is down to hardscrabble.”
Geste raised one eyebrow. She turned to the sideboard and picked up a glass for herself, and as she filled it precisely half full with pinot noir, she said, “I see the entertainment is also on theme.” She pulled out a pen and made a quick small emendation to the printout she had put on the table. Then she nodded at Maury and at me and, with a pause to pick up a cheese paring, headed off in the direction of others in attendance.
Maury and I leaned in to see what her pen had wrought. With a small caret of insertion and a superscript h, she had indicated a correction of the first word of the title to “Whine.”
Look, you kin have yer fancy collusion. Where I come from, we ain’t doin no contracts n legal stuff, we ain’t meetin in no dim rooms with expensive wine, we jes go in cahoots. It’s like an ol owl who’s wise to what’s up an is hootin in another owl’s ear. It’s like you meet someone at a hootenanny an you jis start talkin, an nobody else even hears what yer sayin cuz it’s so noisy there anyways. Or you don’t talk, you jes understand.
Also, it’s French.
Y’see, that makes sense. Cuz if yer in cahoots, it’s something nefarious. Sure, used to be you cud jus say yer goin in cahoots with someone on some business thing, or before that, in the early 1800s, goin in a cahoot or jes goin in cahoot. Those were simpler, more economical times, where you only needed one cahoot. Now you got enough for a caboose. And it’s cahoots with the devil, or government, or the CIA, or some other bad guy. So of course it’s French.
Don’t ask me how it got to the southern and western United States, but it did. Maybe by way of Lousiana. But how it got into French, well, now, that’s another thing again. Seems like someone jes plotted to git it in. A friend or cohort, and they got together in some dirty little cabin an said, “Arright, let’s git this word into the language.” Why? Why knows why. It’s there n we use it an it works.
But yup. Some sources say cahoot comes from cohorte. I guess in the same way as vamoose comes from vámanos, you know. It mighta sounded different to start with, but we do what we do. But other sources, including some a the big ones, say nah, it was cahute, which means ‘shack’ or ‘hut’ or, as Littré says, “petite loge, mauvaise hutte.” An the best part a this is that while ca- is a prefix you could (if you was French) stick on somethin to make it worse (not sayin caboom is a bad boom but if it was it would be, an don’t ask me what a boose or a boodle would be), an while some even say it’s from cabane so a cahute is a cabane, is a hutte, is both a cabane and a hutte, it’s not rilly sure that the hute comes from hutte (you know, hut but in French). Seems like the oldest French forms are like cahue, and cahuette, an even quahute (don’t think that’s like a quahog, but at this point who knows). The thing about cahoots is you don’t know everything that gets decided an how. Someone jes got together, ya know, an maybe they didn’t even discuss it, but here we are.
Which is rilly how language works most a the time. We’re all in cahoots. It’s a shady bizness, words, full a quiet an informal agreements. Heck, we wouldn’t even understand each other if we wasn’t in cahoots. Did someone hafta tell you what cahoots meant, or did you jes see it sometime, “They were in cahoots with the bad guys,” an you jes figgered it out? An did someone ever tell you what eye dialect for some western farmer or rancher looked like, or did you jes pick it up? Cuz if you got through all this here word tastin, you’re in cahoots too.
Chow down, bookworms, it’s time to be well red in etymology and entomology.
Yes, red, not read. I mean, both, I suppose, but the thing is, we don’t start with eating paper. We start with eating wood. Specifically, we start with eating a particular kind of evergreen oak. Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it; little bugs will – bugs that were once called little worms. And then we crush them.
Does that bug you? Does it seem red in tooth and claw? Sorry, my friend; for a long time it was hard to get a good red without doing damage. And I don’t mean making someone bleed; blood is actually pretty bad as a coloring agent – you probably know that it gets kind of brownish. The preferred source of red dye among people around the Mediterranean for a long time (though not in recent centuries) was a little red insect that we now call Kermes vermilio. It was ultimately supplanted by two things: cinnabar, an ore of mercury, frighteningly bad for your health; and cochineal, a different bug, from the new world, which needed fewer bugs for the same amount of dye – but still, frighteningly bad for… the bugs’ health.
There are three colour names that trace back to Kermes vermilio, though none of them trace back to its taxonomic name; rather the converse, since it got its scientific name in 1864 on the basis of the reds associated with it.
Reds? Yes, there are multiple kinds of red that are based originally on this bug. Due to shifts in ideas and also to the replacement materials for the dyes from this crawler (cinnabar and cochineal), it split into three kinds of red – but that also varies from language to language, as colour definitions will. And that split matches the three words – not one, not two, but three – that came from this little critter.
First we have Kermes, the name of the whole genus of bugs that include Kermes vermilio; all of them eat oak and die red. Kermes has nothing to do with frogs (the name Kermit, by the way, comes from the Gaelic Mac Dhiarmid); it comes from Arabic qirmiz, which is the name for the insect in question, and qirmazī, the colour name derived from it. That in turn became Latin carmosinus, which, in the mortar and pestle of time, ended up in English (via Spanish and French) two ways: as carmine and as crimson.
You may know Carmine as an Italian man’s name, but that’s not related; it traces back to Latin carmen ‘song, poem’. You may also know carmine as the name of a dye, in particular the dye extracted from cochineal (oh, the indignity, to be named after one bug but made from another); sometimes you’ll see it as carmine lake, which, though it’s a perfectly fine name for a lounge singer or a California suburb, is really just extract of dried bug bodies on an aluminum substrate (the lake has nothing to do with water and everything to do with the lac in shellac, the lacq in lacquer, and the Indian word lakh meaning ‘100,000’: it all goes back to a very large number of bugs). And anyway, the colour carmine – made with the dye of the same name – is a vivid red, which is officially (per Wikipedia) RGB 150/0/24. Or related shades, because humans aren’t as precise as computers.
Crimson, of course, you know very well, from pirates and crimson tide (a killing force in marine life and college football) and such like. Wikipedia tells me it’s the national colour of Nepal; I don’t need Wikipedia to tell me that it is also the theme colour of Harvard University – the student newspaper there is The Harvard Crimson. Crimson is (again per Wikipedia) RGB 220/20/60. At a glance you can see it’s brighter but also slightly less purely primary red.
The third word shows up pretty clearly in Kermes vermilio – obviously, it’s vermilion, or, for those who think a hundred thousand is not enough, vermillion – but its true origin has been crushed and bled out. Yet the truth (or the true lie) will worm its way to the surface: it’s Latin vermiculus, diminutive of vermis ‘worm’. Yes, these teeny bugs were called ‘little worms’ by the Romans. The hard carapace of the c was ground out, and it became different things in different languages, such as Italian vermiglione and French vermeil. English Wikipedia says that vermilion – the colour for a long time produced by cinnabar (mercury sulfide, sooo healthy for you) – is a vivid reddish orange, RGB 227/66/52. Which you can see, if you know what those numbers mean, is in the same neighbourhood as crimson but with more green mixed in.
But that’s English, and official colour definition English at that; you may have different ideas about what’s vermilion. Words take different paths for different people. This is especially true in different languages. If you want the most direct translation of the basic, broad, generic colour term red nto Portuguese, it’s vermelho (said like “vermelyoo”)– which, yes, is the same word evolved into Portuguese, with much broadening of sense. But wait! If you want specifically vermilion, Portuguese has a word for that too: vermelhão (the ão is like “ow” but nasalized, so it’s bringing back the n). Catalan has a similar pair: ‘red’ is vermell and ‘vermilion’ is vermiló.
And it all traces back to these little worms that are actually little bugs that eat oaks and then get crushed for colour – or I should say got crushed for colour, since they’ve been supplanted. Etymology and entomology… and chemistry and color theory and history.
You know that an enhancement is something that adds features or quality to a thing, or at least is supposed to. Different people like different things, after all; one person’s enhancement is another’s gilding the lily, another’s meh, and another’s dehancement. (Is it a feature or a bug? Depends on who’s using it.) And while we think of enhancements as intended, it’s quite possible to enhance something accidentally – a happy mistake, perhaps.
And, since you know what de- tends to do to a word, you can easily guess what a dehancement is, even if you’ve never seen the word before. And, tidily, there are also both accidental dehancement and deliberate dehancement.
An accidental dehancement is something that is supposed to be an improvement but it kinda sucks, actually. We can all probably think of software “upgrades” that were like this. This is also where taste can come in. For instance, some people like the sounds and animations that might be added to a mobile app for a classic board game, and others cannot abide them at all. Some people like the cushioned detachment from the road you get in certain luxury cars and other people hate it; some people like the direct feel of control and connection you get in certain sports cars and other people hate it.
It can be seen in language history, too. Picture a word, say Latin inaltare, a verb formed from in (as an intensifier) and altus ‘high’. In one course of language change it becomes innalzare – the n grips longer; the t becomes that snappy “ts” sound spelled with that electric z. In another course of language change it becomes enhaucer, with the l softened to u and the t softened to c (said “s”) and a decorative h, and then it gets even a bit more padding with a nasal to make it enhauncer. And then it drops the inflectional ending and the u and also pronounces the h and becomes enhance. You tell me which (the Italian innalzare or the English enhance via Old French enhaucer) you think is an enhancement and which is a dehancement – if either is either.
And what is a deliberate dehancement? That’s where you make something worse on purpose. Why would you do that? Well, let’s say you’re offering a product such as an app for a classic board game. There’s a free version, and there’s a paid version. You obviously want to offer more features for the paid version, but you might not get away with limiting the functionality of the game itself, so to pay for the free app you include ads. Ads are only arguably a dehancement in themselves, but let’s say you include ads that intrude on the game play in increasingly obnoxious and distracting ways, even though never actually reducing the features of game play per se. You’re just irritating players enough that they will eventually give in and shell out for the paid version.* That’s a deliberate dehancement.
I didn’t make up this word, by the way. You’ll find it in good dictionaries – and in Urban Dictionary, which is full of entries that may be enhancements, dehancements, or both, depending on what you value. But the introduction of any usable lexical item to the language is an enhancement, as far as I’m concerned – and people who bemoan neologisms dehance my day, even if only accidentally.
* But if the paid version is $9.99 a month, it’ll be a frosty Friday in the devil’s den before I cough up that kind of extortion.
And then, at the pinnacle, to encounter an insurmountable obstacle – to feel as though tentacles are pulling you to manacle you in the nearest receptacle, and you only hope some oracle can foresee a miracle…
What a debacle.
Whaddya mean debacle doesn’t have the stress on the first syllable?
Huh. What a reversal.
Which it certainly is. We know what we mean when we call something a debacle – ideally matching the pronunciation of the French original, débâcle, at least as far as saying it with the stress on the second syllable. We know that it means there has been, uh, a feces-fan interface. The balloon has gone up. Things have gone pointy-shaped. A prime minister’s entire cabinet has resigned, perhaps. Or half of a country’s internet access has whoopsed out for a whole day due, apparently, to a bad software update.
But since we’ve trashed the assonance with “receptacle,” what can we make of the word?
It’s French, yes. And you can see that it starts with dé-, which we generally expect to mean ‘un-’ or ‘not’ or ‘back’ or ‘down’ or ‘from’ or a sense in that line. You can also see that little hat, the circumflex on the â, which in French typically means that there was once an s after the vowel but people stopped saying it and then stopped writing it. So is the bâcle from bascle? Perhaps basculer, meaning ‘tip over’ or ‘reverse’ or ‘go ass over teakettle’ (from bas ‘down’ and cul ‘end, butt’)?
Nah, sorry. Bâcler means ‘bar’ or ‘block’ or ‘dam up (as with an ice jam)’ and, as far as the usual sources can tell, comes from baculum, Latin for ‘rod’ – though the circumflex does seem to have shown up to represent a deleted s: there was a verb debascler meaning ‘clear a harbour by getting ships unloaded so they can go and other ships can take their place’. Which is a bit harder to trace to baculum, but it does make sense as an origin for debacle.
It does? It does. Because the original catastrophic sense referred to the breaking up of an ice jam in a river, releasing a sudden violent and destructive torrent of water. That’s the key sense of débâcle in French, and it’s also the first sense of debacle in English, when it was borrowed in the early 1800s.
Which certainly puts a complexion on the word. Many of us may have thought of a debacle as something that happens when things seem to be going fine but someone screws up royally – oops, you deleted your production server? But no. A debacle, in the original image, is something that was almost certain to happen eventually – ice jams aren’t known for just gradually easing off. It was always just a question of when, and how bad, and who and what was going to be hurt worst. If you have an ice jam, the best thing is of course to clear it as quickly as possible; the longer it goes, the worse the flash flood will be when it finally releases.
And this is undeniably the lesson for people in politics: if there’s a debacle, it’s more than likely because you’ve been sweeping things under the rug for so long that it upset the tea cart (mixed metaphors? moi?). But it can also be a lesson for people in other areas. A catastrophe often happens because there was a built-in weak point (sometimes several) without sufficient redundancy or support to handle a failure. Things fall apart; that’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s not whether, it’s when and how, and how prepared are you for it?
In short, “debacle” is the sound of your carefully balanced stack of stones collapsing when a gust hits it. So you should proactively tackle any weak points, rather than just getting your hackles up or slapping a bit of spackle on it, lest you be shackled to the result. Or flooded, or swept away.
I was chatting with a friend last night on the patio of a popular local Mexican restaurant in a popular local tourist district, and she remarked that in general it can be hard to remember (or anyway distinguish) what city and country you’re in because places look so very much the same.
And it’s true. You can take an open-top tourist bus in Toronto as you can in many other cities, and you’ll be looking at buildings that for the most part don’t look like anything distinctive and are only important (if they are important at all) because they’re famous for something that happens or happened in them. Even where the places do have a visual appeal, it can be a visual appeal that, however generous it may be, is not sui generis.
This is not quite the same as Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there.” It’s not that the place of your childhood is gone, as Stein was addressing, or that your archetope is lost, or that the things that distinguished a place have been “replaced by shopping malls,” to quote Chrissie Hynde’s song with the Pretenders, “My City Was Gone,” and it’s not what we usually quote Stein in reference to, the utter geographic and social vapidity of the sprawling American (and Canadian) suburb. All of those are matters of a lack of quiddity, of somethingness. These places have something – it’s why people go to them or look at them. It’s just that they have the same thing. It’s samethingness.
And I don’t mean homogeneity, not necessarily. The really cute tourist districts repurposed from defunct factories are not identical to their surroundings, and might even have some striking variety within them. But you can still have a sense of déjà vu, or perhaps déjà vécu. It’s like listening to a song in some genre of music that you might very well enjoy (or might not; de gustibus non est disputandum) but you can’t deny sounds very similar to many other songs in the same genre. (A heckler once yelled at Neil Young about his songs, “They all sound the same!” Young replied “It’s all one song!” and started playing the next one.)
So, yes, persistent resemblance. The fact that you can look at new buildings in cities around the world and most of them have little to no locally distinguishing features on the large scale. The fact that the really distinctive cute hotel next door to my building, with its long arcade strongly favoured by wedding photographers, is – provided the proposal is approved, which it will be, and people put money into the project, which they will – going to be replaced with a tall building that looks pretty much exactly like all the other tall buildings being built right now. Oh, it will be stylish. And as individually distinctive as a wedding gown.
The funny thing about samethingness is that, although Paul McCartney sang “people are the same wherever you go” to Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory,” it is precisely the people who add the difference. Yes, people around the world tend to wear similar clothes much of the time now, and people travel a lot, and indeed money is a heavily homogenizing influence (in language it can be striking: the more money someone has, the more likely they are to use a dominant and widespread version of their language rather than a local and distinctive version), but people and their cultures are still different. And as much as humanity is a mass, each human is still a secret aware singularity and history. Ultimately, the relief of samethingness – at least for me – is the close-up interactions with the people in the places. And the culture and language the people bring and use.
I’m sitting here drinking a glass of one of my favourite sparkling wines and thinking about the name Pelham.
If you know anything about Pelham at all, you know that it rhymes with “vellum.” Beyond that, you may, as I first did, associate it with one of two things. But there is one more thing I associate it with now.
The first thing you may think of is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a 1973 book and then a 1974 movie (and then a 2009 movie) about a hijacking of a subway train in New York City. Pelham One Two Three means that the train left the Pelham terminus (Pelham Bay Park Station on the Pelham (number 6) line in New York City) at 1:23.
The second thing it may bring to mind is the place that gave the name to the subway station, book, and movie: Pelham Bay Park in New York City. You might know it only as the destination of a subway line that you never take to the end. If you do, you will be aware that it is in the Bronx, the only mainland part of New York City – a borough that has not had a very good public image.
But Pelham Bay Park is not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of the Bronx. Pelham Bay Park is in the northeast corner, up against the Connecticut border, and it’s the largest park in New York City. It’s more than three times the size of Central Park and more than five times the size of Prospect Park. And along with greenery, hills, water, and a Winged Victory monument, it has a beach that’s more than a mile long: Orchard Beach, sometimes called the Bronx Riviera. (I haven’t been there. Yet.)
And the third thing Pelham now makes me think of? We’ll get there… after we look at where the name comes from. And there will be a twist at the end.
The park got its name from Pelham Manor, which was the name given to it in the 1600s by an English settler named Thomas Pell. Pell didn’t originally have the name Pelham, but he took it for his estate. It may seem evident that he named it Pelham because his name was Pell and the -ham is a common place name suffix in southern England (from the same root as gives us home), but some sources say that it was because his tutor was named Pelham Burton. I suppose that both may have been factors.
Another possible influence is that Pelham was an English family name of some note by the 1600s. The first prominent Pelham was Sir Nicholas Pelham, who died in 1560; his wife was a first cousin of Anne Boleyn. His son was Sir Thomas Pelham, 1st Baronet, and a line of baronets and then barons followed, to which we will return.
Where did the Pelhams get their name? Presumably at least one of their forebears lived in Pelham, in Hertfordshire – which has in the intervening centuries dissolved into three villages and the surrounding county. The villages are Brent Pelham, Stocking Pelham, and Furneux Pelham (which is pronounced “furnux pellum”). The latter of them has, among other things, a church – St. Mary the Virgin – with a clock on its spire that is framed by the motto “TIME FLIES / MIND YOUR BUSINESS” (two phrases likely often heard many times each on Orchard Beach, by coincidence).
And what is the etymology of the name Pelham? We know that -ham meant ‘homestead’, more or less; different sources have different views on what the pel- was, but it may have meant ‘pool’, or it may have meant ‘tannery’, or – and my experience and education incline me to see this as most credible – it may have been from someone’s name, documented as Peotla, which meant…
Say, it’s time for another sip of this lovely pink fizzy, isn’t it?
Now where were we.
…sorry, ancient Anglo-Saxon names are not always etymologically transparent, and my resources have limits. I don’t know why Peotla was called Peotla.
So, now. Pelham is a name that had a certain English stature and pedigree. That was no obstacle to what is now Pelham Bay Park having been the site of a Revolutionary War battle, the Battle of Pell’s Point, whereat the Americans resisted a British assault. On the other hand, it was also no obstacle to some of the Pell family being Loyalists and decamping to Canada. One of those, Joshua Pell, went first to Nova Scotia and then was granted lands in the Niagara region of Upper Canada (these days called Ontario).
And this gets us to my third thing… soon.
Pell’s land in Niagara was named Pelham after his family’s home in New York. It became Pelham Township, which over the intervening times has become the Town of Pelham, which is now part of Niagara Region (note the capital R now). Pell was one of many Loyalists who left the USA for Canada after the Revolution. Another one such was Nicholas Smith, who was awarded some land on the north side of Pelham Township – not near the beach of Lake Ontario, but on land where you could put an orchard, anyway (orchard? beach? are you following?). In the 1840s, his son, Henry Smith, built an inn and tavern at a crossroads on a main road through the area, right at a toll gate. For amusement, Henry signed his tavern’s liquor licence as Henry of Pelham.
How was that amusing? In the same way as someone today named Winston living in a place named Churchill might find it amusing to sign something as Winston of Churchill. You see, the prime minister of England nearly a century earlier (1743–1754) was Henry Pelham – who was (I know you’re wondering) the great-great-great grandson of Sir Nicholas Pelham, whom I mentioned above.
So Henry Smith had no direct connection to the Pelham family, nor to the Pell family who had taken the Pelham name for their estate, but he took the name anyway for his inn. Henry and his wife Catharine made themselves a decent living, and their ancestors farmed the land for some time, even planting some of Canada’s first vineyards. And then over the years the land passed into other hands.
Until 1982, when Paul and Bobbi Speck bought several parcels of the original farm, thereby bringing it back to descendants of Henry Smith. And then they started a winery.
Guess what they named the winery. Guess. Guess guess guess.
If you love Niagara wines, you know this already, and have been waiting for it since the first line of this word tasting. The winery is Henry of Pelham, one of the first wineries to really step up the quality and profile of Niagara wines. (And if you’re not familiar with wines from Niagara, I can tell you – and it’s not just my opinion – that they’re on par with the wines of, for example, Napa and Sonoma, though they’re more cool-climate in style.) Pelham, which Pell took for his estate, and Smith took for his inn, they took for their winery. Paul Speck (Sr.) passed away in 1993, and his and Bobbi’s three sons (Paul Jr., Matthew, and Daniel) took over the winery, which they have run very well from then to now. Time flies while you’re minding a good business.
And the wine? The lovely glass of fizzy in my hand? They named it after Henry Smith’s wife; it’s called Cuvée Catharine.
But here’s where we get to the twist.
The wife of Sir Henry Pelham, the prime minister, was, by coincidence, Catherine. You’ll note the spelling difference, a versus e, but there’s a bridge (or perhaps a Garden City Skyway – if you know you know): the city of St. Catharines, Ontario, which abuts the Town of Pelham on the northeast. The city was named after… uh, someone named Catherine, perhaps St. Catherine of Alexandria, perhaps a Catherine who was a wife of a prominent local personage, perhaps both, but anyway a Catherine with an e. And then, while it was minding it business, time flew, and, due to some influence that is also uncertain, the spelling changed to the a version. (And more recently, for reasons better known – mainly typographical nuisance, especially on road signs – it, like many other Ontario places, dropped the apostrophe from St. Catharine’s. They may have been inspired by a business founded in nearby Hamilton: Tim Hortons.)
But of course that’s St. Catharines. This is Henry of Pelham.
…if you pull up a map…
…you will find that the inn and tavern founded by Henry Smith, the building that is today the key building of Henry of Pelham winery, is, along with all the other buildings associated with it, on the north side of the road that is now the northern boundary of the Town of Pelham.
Henry of Pelham is not in Pelham. It’s in St. Catharines.
And so there is Pelham: wine, two, three. And now I’ll take another. Time flies!
Today’s word tasting is dedicated to a long-time reader of these word tasting notes and also a fellow editor and long-time friend of mine: Bobbi Speck. If that name seems somehow familiar, scroll back up.
Patrick Neylan, Eeditor of business reports. Permanently angry about the abuse of English, maths and logic. Terms and conditions: by reading this blog you accept that all opinions expressed herein will henceforth be your opinions.
The Economist "Johnson" language blog
In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world