What pasts and presents we drown in pursuit of our futures.

Minnewanka is a name of a lake near the town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. I visited it a week ago for the first time in decades and walked a path on its shore that I don’t remember ever walking before. The path starts paved, then becomes well-worn dirt, and over its course gradually roughens as it traverses roots and rocks. Within a half hour you’re at a bridge over a small canyon, and then the trail climbs up to bend around the mountain and follow the farther shore from on high. Past a certain point you are advised to travel in tight groups in case of bears; hikers can continue to overnight campsites many hours of bootsteps farther on. But up to the bridge, it is well worn and friendly.

At the trailhead is a parking lot and a snack bar and a motorboat rental. You may, if you will, speed across its surface, a score of metres above ghostly streets where people used to walk and talk and kiss and eat. You may, if you will, strap on a can of atmosphere and dive down to look at a town drowned seventy-seven years ago, a town on a site where people had lived even ten thousand years earlier. See the video with this article from Smithsonian – you may find it spooky and wonder what waterlogged ghosts are over your shoulder.

There has always been a lake here, though it wasn’t always this big. A long, long time ago it was bigger, but glaciers and moraine rise and fall and so do lakes. By 1888 it was eighty feet down from where it is now, and a hotel and then a town were built on its shore: Minnewanka Landing. Fifteen years later, up the hill, a mine was started and a town of a thousand souls sprouted up there. It was called Bankhead and had a power plant that supplied power for Minnewanka Landing.

In 1912 a dam was built on the lake to store water for another power plant. In 1922 the Bankhead mine closed and its power plant shut down. A new power plant was built to replace it. The houses of Bankhead were mostly unmoored from their foundations and moved to nearby towns, leaving a cluster of concrete lumps in the woods for local schoolkids to visit on field trips and a small selection of buildings with interesting pasts mixed in with the others in Banff and Canmore.

But in 1941 there was a war on, and more power was needed. A dam was built across the end of the valley for a new power plant, and everyone in Minnewanka Landing had to leave. They didn’t get to take their houses. Fifty-three years a town, ten thousand years a place people passed through and sometimes lived, now a dim dreamworld like a far-gone childhood, walked in only by people long passed, seen from above darkly by the eyes of our time.

As we ever see other worlds darkly. Their sacred fabrics become burial shrouds. Look at the name of this lake. For a time, the European settlers called it Devil’s Lake. Beyond its end is a place called Devil’s Gap (now also the name of an establishment in the town of Banff where you may buy bites and spirits). A sign near the snack bar will now tell you that Minnewanka comes from local Native words meaning ‘spirit lake’. One website I found declares it’s from “Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits).” But that’s not quite it.

How do I know that’s not quite it? The local language it’s from is Nakoda, or (in settlers’ terms) Stoney. That’s the language of the people on whose land I grew up. It’s a language I don’t speak, alas – but my dad does, quite well. So I asked him. The name of the lake in Nakoda is mînî wakâ, which means ‘sacred water’. The circumflexes indicate nasalization – the sort of thing you hear in French and Portuguese when an nor mis written after a vowel. So mînî, which means ‘water’, has nasal vowels, and wakâ, which means ‘sacred’, has a nasal vowel just at the end.

Did you catch that? If it were wâka it would sound like “wanka” to English ears, but it was wakâ, more like “walk on” without fully saying the n. We’ve shifted the sound. Just as we’ve shifted the sense, from ‘sacred’ (a fluid quality) to ‘spirits’ (individual beings) and then, for a time, because we feared the spirits of the people we invaded, to ‘devil’. We forced it with our own constructions just as we forced the water when, in one of our wars, we stopped it from flowing freely and used its holy fabric to shroud the ghost of a town because we wanted power.

But it’s still there. It’s all still there. For us now it seems a pleasant thing to look at when we’re not looking at our screens, a fun thing to invade, a present of nature from our past selves and our ages-old planet, but it’s still there. And when we have walked on, when we have drowned our last memory and spent our own futures, and the evidence of our passing slowly drains out of time, it will be still there. Mînî wakâ.

Pronunciation tip: Calgary

You might think that Calgary would be a straightforward thing to say. Well, you can say it as you see it and be understood, yes, but the odds are pretty good you’ll immediately sound like someone not from around Calgary. Here’s a quick tip – less than a minute – on how Calgarians say it.

Das Kapitalization

That’s it. I’ve thrown in the towel on capitalization. I am not going to say any way of capitalizing is wrong. Against House Style, sure. Trite, perhaps. Inventive, maybe; faddish, maybe. But wrong? Nah. Do as you will, as long as you can justify it. Have a look at the options that are Broke, WOKE, and BEspOKe:

The new rules of CaPiTaLiZaTiOn

Pronunciation tip: Łódź

My latest pronunciation tip lets you in on a couple of things in Polish you’ve probably wondered about. Now you’ll know how to pronounce the name of the city Łódź – and Wrocław and Kraków, while you’re at it. And as an added bonus you’ll know why is called “double u” instead of “double v.”


Well, that explains everything.

I’ll explain. A friend (Doug Linzey to be precise) suggested I taste this word. So of course I looked it up, not just what it means – it’s made of well-known parts anyway – but what and who brought it forth. And I found a bunch of links to articles and tweets attributing it to Karl Popper, the philosopher. And one link to a Wikipedia on Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist. But when I clicked through on the article, the word was not to be found – vicitim, I suppose, of some recent edit.

So I searched monocausotaxophilia Pöppel. And I found what I suspected: Ernst Pöppel invented the term. Thing is, he’s not very well known to the world at large; Karl Popper is somewhat better known (not least, I’m sure, because his name makes many people think of popcorn). So some people saw Ernst Pöppel and misremembered it as Karl Popper, because that was a path of less resistance. His name was more familiar. And it was plausible: he’s a philosopher, and in particular a philospher of science who argued against inductivist and justificationalist approaches to science (ironically, given the misattribution of the quote to him) and in favour of what is now accepted as standard scientific method: keep making experiments, and you’ll have more and more evidence for something, but you never know for certain that a generalization is true, you just know when it’s been proven false. So anyway, a philosophical thing a neuroscientist said could readily be misattributed to a philosopher of science.

And what I’m getting to is that this tendency to misattribute quotes to whichever person has the maximum combined fame and appropriateness (seriously, I think most quotes are more often attributed wrongly than rightly) tells us enough about the way people think that it can also help us to understand how words are formed and altered. For instance, internecine comes from Latin neco ‘I kill’ plus inter, which – like several other prefixes – served as an intensifier. It meant, originally, ‘killing them all’ or ‘thoroughly deadly’. But people saw inter and recognized it as a prefix that they were used to meaning ‘between’ or ‘mutual’ and so its sense became ‘mutually destructive’. The meaning swerved over to the track of least resistance.

Quite a few words have shifted sense on the basis of their sounding more appropriate to another sense because of other things they sound like. Some words have had their use affected in other ways – if a word sounds too much like a word we want to avoid, we tend to avoid that word too, even if its sense and origin are unrelated (I’m sure there’s some suitable remark about mutual destruction I could make here). And we also break words apart where it sounds best to us rather than at the places they were originally joined together, which is why we say copter rather than pter and shopaholic rather than shopcoholic.

All of this also tells us why we have a word such as monocausotaxophilia. Have a look at its bits: mono from Greek μόνος monos ‘alone, single’, taxo from Greek τάξις taxis ‘order’, philia from Greek φιλία filia ‘love’, but causo from Latin causa ‘cause, reason’. These are all parts of the lexical Lego bucket, but from two different sets that have been combined. It just happens that the Greek equivalent of causa, αἰτία aitia, is not much used in modern scientific neologism. Go with what you know. Like the guy who was looking for his car keys under the street light not because that’s where he most likely dropped them but because he could see better there.

Anyway, Pöppel’s term isn’t in as wide circulation as it could be, but it’s a valuable one, because it names a thing that’s quite common in scientific fields – and other intellectual endeavours. I’ve known and seen quite a few people who have exemplified it. The parts of it may or may not have made its sense clear, but I’ll tell you what it means: ‘the love of single causes that explain everything’.

chowter, chunter

Life can sometimes be kinda thick and chunky. Things don’t always go smoothly. And perhaps we’ll protest that we don’t like bringing it up, but quite often we do seem to like chewing on these tough little bits half-quietly for quite a while. Maybe not all of us, but not none of us, that’s for sure, if you know what I mean. When our discontents are our dish contents, we make a fine chowder of chowtering. And if we can’t keep it down, I won’t say we chunder (look, we’re not in Australia here, as the typical weather ought to tell you), but we sure enough do chunter.

These are both verbs, chowter and chunter, and they’re pretty similar. I’m tempted to think that chowter is a misreading of someone’s sloppy handwriting for chunter, because it was only documented briefly in the early 1700s, and you know how people were at that time, everything in mansucript and don’t bother saying that their handwriting was all perfectly schooled if you haven’t had a nice look at it for yourself. Anyway, Doctor Johnson included it in his dictionary with the charming definition “To grumble or mutter like a froward child” (who even uses froward anymore? so Shakespearean).

You know exactly what that means. The husband who hangs back from his wife in the shop saying sotto voce to the dust bunnies, “If you were going to say we can’t afford it, why did you take me here to look at it in the first place?” The dog owner who pass-aggs the pooch with “Sure, no problem, I just love getting dressed at this hour to take you out to redecorate the streetscape like you didn’t want to do when I was perfectly ready and dressed and not lying in bed reading the most interesting chapter of the book.” The reader who gestures at the website and says  “OK, move on, I get your point, I got it ages ago, come on.”

So chunter means the same thing as chowter? Nearly. The Oxford English Dictionary’s not-quite-so-cute definition of chunter reads “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain. Also in extended use.” Well, it sure as heck is in extended use around where I live nine months of the year, thanks to our weather, which is not only disgusting but unpredictable for the duration of hockey season, like there’s anything of that worth staying inside for. But that’s not what they mean, of course; they mean like if I were to say “His car chuntered down the uneven pavement” or “My fridge is chuntering in its late-night way.”

And where does this word chunter come from? “Apparently of imitative formation,” Oxford says, without so much as hinting how it is that grumbling sounds to any normal person like “chunter.” When I was a kid, we tended to imitate it with “ritz-a-frickin” or “skrtzifrtz” or similar closed-up collections of retroflexes and fricatives. “Chunter” seems rather crisp and open.

Well, whatever. People just make up words because somehow in their world they think it sounds right and other people for their own strange reasons hang onto these words or don’t. I mean, mutter, grumble, murmur, kvetch, how many words do we need for this crap? Maybe if the weather were better in England (and Canada) we wouldn’t have so many words for expressing annoyance. OK, yeah, it was really nice today for a switch, but I’m sure that it’ll pass through spring in three days and then make the rest of the leap from cold and wet to sweltering and muggy. But you know me, I don’t like to complain.

Pronunciation tip: Aalborg and Aarhus

Last time around, I talked about Å. Well, in Denmark, å used to be written as aa and still shows up that way in some place names sometimes. And I’m sure people have occasionally wondered about how to say Aalborg and Aarhus. Thing is, I’ve been avoiding talking about Danish. The Danish language is… well, you’ll see…