I grew up in and near Banff, Alberta, so Revelstoke is a familiar name to me. Familiar enough that I never really stopped to wonder where it came from.

If you drive the Trans-Canada Highway west into British Columbia, over the Great Divide at Kicking Horse Pass, then up and over through Glacier National Park (the Canadian one) and over the Rogers Pass (don’t do this when it’s snowing if you don’t have to), Revelstoke is the first town (technically a small city) that you come down to, ranged up slopes on one side of one of BC’s endless mountain valleys. It’s about halfway from Banff to Kelowna, distance-wise (not stress-wise). As you continue to Kelowna, you’ll pass through Sicamous, Enderby, Armstrong, and Vernon, so you probably won’t stop to think about where the name Revelstoke came from. It’s just another one of those place names, you know?

Besides, it seems appropriate. From the perspective of an Albertan, all these BC interior towns are places to go to the ski hill and get stoked in powder and revel in the steep and deep – maybe at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which boasts the greatest vertical drop of any resort in North America (and Revelstoke holds the record for the snowiest winter in Canada) – and later to go to the cabin and stoke the fire and revel all night long with a bottle of whatever you brought, which might be a flavoured whisky named Revel Stoke (not made in Revelstoke).

So while I appreciated the obvious party-cabin overtones of Revelstoke, I never really paused to consider where that name actually came from. Not until today, when someone I follow on Twitter, @EbThen, tweeted, “I’m trying to figure out where the title of Baron Revelstoke came from. Like what the hell does ‘revelstoke’ mean? It’s not the name of any of the places or estates or…”

And I thought, wait, who is Baron Revelstoke?

At first I thought maybe this was the name of some character in a TV show, perhaps named after the town. So of course I looked. And no. Exactly not. Baron Revelstoke is a member of the English peerage. We are now on the seventh Baron Revelstoke, Alexander Rupert Baring, who turned 50 on April 8, 2020. The first Baron Revelstoke was Edward Charles Baring, 1828–1897, and it was in honour of him that the town of Revelstoke was named, as thanks for his bank helping to save the Canadian Pacific Railroad (the reason all these towns are even there) from bankruptcy in 1885 by buying up its unsold bonds.

His bank? That’s the other thing that was named after him – or, well, after his grandfather, Sir Francis Baring. Have you heard of Barings Bank? It was a large and prominent institution. It’s forever associated with one of the great teachable moments in banking: in 1995, a bloke named Nick Leeson, the head of futures trading (a form of legal gambling on which far too much of the world economy relies) at the Singapore branch of Barings, went rogue and made some rather bad judgement calls on derivatives and, oops, torched nearly a billion pounds, double the bank’s entire available trading capital. At which point the bank collapsed.

But in Revelstoke, the only banks that might collapse are those of the Columbia River, and they probably won’t either. Revelstoke was sited where the Illecillewaet flows into the Columbia, and at first it was named Farwell. Arthur Stanhope Farwell, a government surveyor, seeing that the railroad would be coming through, bought up a bunch of land and started a townsite, which of course he named after himself. He charged the Canadian Pacific Railway quite a bit of money for running the tracks across his land; they determined that they sure weren’t going to pay even more to put their station on his land, so they put it (and yards, repair shops, and a whole town) farther uphill, starting an Upper Town and Lower Town divide that persists to this day. And, as mentioned, they named it after Lord Revelstoke. And, in the long run, the town fully said farewell to Farwell, whose gamble did not pay off – he did not get so far or do so well.

OK, fine. But why is Lord Revelstoke called Lord Revelstoke?

This turns out to be harder to pull back the veil from than you’d expect.

Normally, if you go to the Wikipedia article for a member of the British peerage, you’ll find out right away where they got their name. And often enough, it’s not hard to work out anyway – one Canadian newspaper publisher, when he got his peerage, became Lord Beaverbrook (after not just any beaver and not just any brook, but a small community near where he grew up). Another (formerly) Canadian (former) newspaper publisher became Baron Black of Crossharbour, after a place in the docklands of London, near where his offices were. But Revelstoke?

You go look. Wikipedia doesn’t say where it’s from. It just says Edward Charles Baring was Baron Revelstoke of Membland in the County of Devon.

And then, if you look up Membland, it explains that it’s a historic estate near Plymouth, purchased in about 1877 by Edward Baring; after Baring had financial difficulties, he sold it in 1899, and the house ultimately became derelict and was demolished in 1927, although there are still some buildings there, plus a gate put up in 1889 by Baring featuring a bull and a bear. The article gives just one clue about Revelstoke: “Membland, in about 1877, and the manor of Revelstoke were purchased by Edward Baring (1828–1897), who in 1885 was elevated to the peerage as ‘Baron Revelstoke of Membland’.”

The manor of Revelstoke? It doesn’t explain and it doesn’t link.

I mean, come on.

Fortunately, the internet is a big place and we have Google to help us. And so I managed to find this:

“REVELSTOKE parish has it church on the sea coast, near Stoke Point and Bigbury Bay, but most of its inhabitants are in the large fishing village of NOSS MAYO, which lies in a low situation, on the south side of a creek from the mouth of the Yealm, opposite Newton Ferrers, nine miles S.E. of Plymouth. Crabs, lobsters, herrings, and other fish are caught at Noss Mayo, where the villagers suffered severely from cholera in 1849, when about 50 of them died, and more than 200 were afflicted with the dreadful malady. . . . The parish had 613 inhabitants in 1841, and contains 1470A. 2R. 19P. of land. The manor of Revelstoke was long the property and seat of the Revells, and was sold about 12 years ago, by Sir J. Perring, to its present owner, Robert Robertson, Esq., of Membland. W.W. Pendarves, Esq., owns the manor of Lambside, and part of the parish belongs to a few smaller owners. The Church is an ancient structure, with a small belfry and two bells; and in Noss Mayo, is a small Chapel of Ease, erected in 1838. The benefice is a perpetual curacy, consolidated with the vicarage of Yealmpton. . . . ” [From White’s Devonshire Directory (1850)]

So. Revell plus stoke. It is now very easy. I will unravel each part in sequence for you.

Revell, as it happens, is a name associated with something quite close to where I live now: Toronto City Hall, which was designed by Viljo Revell. But Viljo Revell was born Viljo Rewell in Finland; he changed the spelling to Revell (perhaps because he was tired of hearing his name mispronounced by English speakers or perhaps because he was tired of seeing it misspelled by Finnish speakers; I don’t know). And I can’t trace much farther back on his family name, but there are quite a few Rewells in Finland and I have nothing to tell me if there’s any connection to Rewells and Revells from farther west in Europe.

I do, however, have plenty to tell me where the Revells of Revelstoke, Devon, got their name: from Norman French, like many of the English gentry. There is some suggestion that the name is related to French reveler, ‘reveal’ (which comes from Latin meaning ‘pull back the veil’), but the more common view is that it is really the same word as revel. As in party. It ultimately traces back to Latin rebellare, also the source of rebel (as in go rogue). In other words, cut loose. Partying is the hallmark of rebellious youth, after all. Mountain resort towns are no strangers to it, and apparently neither are country piles in Devon.

And stoke? Does it have to do with putting logs on a fire?

…Yeah. But not quite directly.

When you see -stoke in an English place name, such as Basingstoke, it comes from Old English stoc, which in discussions of place names is generally treated as meaning ‘outlying settlement’ or ‘stockade’, but basically is a name for a place, a home, a stump to call your own – in fact, one of its meanings is ‘tree stump’. It’s the old form of the modern word stock in all its senses: ‘tree trunk’, ‘length of wood’, ‘stored goods’, ‘capital raised through the issue of shares, subject to trading on exchanges’ (hmm). It’s also from the same root (ha ha) as stoke, meaning ‘put another log on the fire’.

So. Yes. Now we have gotten our Barings, I mean bearings: Revelstoke means ‘party cabin’, when you come down to it. Which, at the end of the day, you will.

Tellus, telluric, tellurian

Tellus is a Roman goddess of the earth (yes, goddess in spite of being -us), and is earth personified, because earth is tellus. You may know our planet as terra, but that comes (it seems) from tersa tellus, ‘dry earth’ – yes, terra is not related to tellus but is from a word meaning ‘dry’. Tellus traces back to Proto-Indo-European *telh₂-, also source of Irish talamh (‘ground’) and Hindi तल tal (‘bottom, floor’). Adjectives relating to earth include tellurian and telluric; the element tellurium makes an ion, telluride, and from gold telluride we get the name of the Colorado town Telluride.

It deserves a poem.

Tell us, mother Tellus, come,
tell your rich telluric tale;
I’ll lay my ear upon your earth,
I’ll ground myself and I’ll be ground,
so I will understand your story
when I lie under your understorey.
Tell your intelligence, tellurian tellings
of talus and tells and tillings and deltas,
sediments, sentiments, humus and humours
and transhumant humans in tents and tenements,
and anthills, Antilles, and atolls, all told
with dust and mud and minds and mouths:
moors and mountains, tuff and tuffet,
repeated in peat and petroglyph.
Take me in your rootbound whole:
I will lie to find your truth,
for I have felt your fallow field,
I’ve been cradled in your rocks,
deposited in river banks,
turned a pirouette in your
terpsichorean petrichor.
Let me dig you, till you, Tellus,
till you take me as a seed
seen sown in sod to plan my root
so that leaves growing in relief
may let all nose all that transpires
in tellurian eternal turns.
Tellus mother, tell us, then
take our tales to you again.


Man, when you’re locked down, locked in, and locked up, it’s nice from time to time (if you’re not afraid of getting locked out) to go out into some outdoor space, get (and give and take) a bit of space, and just… space out. Go for a walk for a while.

I’m sure they feel the same in Germany. When you can do little else, you can still go for a walk: spazieren gehen. Yes, I’m cheating today: spazieren is a German word, not an English one. I’m going for a stroll in the linguistic neighbourhood.

So spazieren is the German word for ‘walk’? Hmm, well. German doesn’t have one specific word that it uses in all the places English uses walk. In fact, it will often just use gehen, ‘go’. But if you’re going for a walk – or going strolling – that’s spazieren gehen. So spazieren could be translated as ‘to stroll’. But the more interesting thing about this word, I think, isn’t where it’s going; it’s where it’s come from.

First let me pause to tell you how it’s pronounced, so you don’t have the wrong sound in your head. The s is like “sh” because it’s before p, and the z is like “ts,” and the stress is on the second-last syllable, so it’s /ʃpaˈtsiːʁən/, like “shpatseeren.” Now let’s move on.

That z may seem like Italian. In fact, that’s the usual way to say z in German, but, in this case, it actually is Italian. This word wandered all the way from Italy, where it’s spaziare. That, in its turn, came from Latin spatiari, which meant ‘go for a walk’ – but it also meant ‘spread, expand, space out’.

‘Space out’? Yes: it’s a verbalization of the noun spatium, which is the origin of our word space and had all the same meanings in Latin, pretty much.

So even the Romans, when going for a walk, might have said “I’m going to space out” (or maybe “I’m going to distribute myself” or “I’m going to spread myself around”). And that stuck into Italian (in which, by the way, spaziare also means ‘spread’ or ‘scatter’). And at last just the peregrine perambulatory sense made it all the way to German.

Hey, even words need to get out and around and space themselves a bit.


Genealogy runs in my family.

Seriously: both my mother’s mother and my father’s father were very interested in it, and as a result I know the histories of some lines of my ancestors back to the 1600s and 1700s. It can be fascinating to follow it back. People typically visualize it as looking up a tree and seeing the branches, but when you’re doing the research it’s more like going down a bunch of tunnels that fork (and sometimes merge). And you can go down one quite far, and another not too far, and you’re constantly hitting dead ends and backing up and so on. It feels like you’re a rabbit in a warren.

Etymology is the same kind of adventure. You follow words back as far as you can go, through the tunnels of history, sometimes branching and sometimes merging. It’s one of the many fun parts of linguistics.

I inherited my interest in linguistics, too. I got it from my dad (along with some of his books – Pike’s Phonemics and Quirk and Wrenn’s Old English Grammar, oh, and Rehder and Twaddell’s German and Kritsch’s Modernes Deutsch and the American Bible Society Greek New Testament and… I’m sure some others as well, and some of them were even taken with permission). I reckon my interest in etymology might also have drawn on the family genealogy habit.

Let’s do a little genealogical tracing of a word so you can see for yourself. I think warren will do nicely.

A warren is, as I’m sure you know, a system of burrows dwelt in by rabbits, and by extension any other maze of tunnels or halls (and many a large old bookstore, come to think of it). But warren also used to be a word for a game preserve; the current sense narrowed down from that: it turns out that people used to set aside land specifically for breeding rabbits (do they still? I don’t know, but I grew up in a province much of which seemed to be set aside for breeding gophers). And from that came the ‘tunnel complex’ sense.

The ‘game preserve’ sense traces back to Old French warenne, which came into modern French as garenne (and also now means ‘rabbit warren’) but also as varenne, an old word for a game park (i.e., a place privileged people could go to try and kill free-ranging animals) that now survives in some place names. From those place names it has shown up in some family names, for example François Pierre de la Varenne (1615–1678), author of Le Cuisinier françois, one of the great bases of the French cuisine tradition (from which descended, centuries later, another book I have: the Larousse Gastronomique, which my father and mother gave me on my request for my 14th birthday).

Varenne – or, rather, its lexical progeny – also shows up in some English names. It is one of two (!) sources of the English name Warren. So yes, Warren is a cousin of warren. But there is another source for some of the Warrens: a German word warin, meaning ‘guard’. Warin is also the source of the German name Werner (and the English name Warner and, I think, the name Vernor, maker of a ginger ale still popular in western New York State, where my parents grew up).

But Warren is, originally (and still), a surname. I’ll come back to how it got to be a personal name. First, though, I want to keep following the etymology deeper into the tunnels.

This Old French warenne most likely traces to Proto-Germanic *warjaną (that asterisk means it’s reconstructed by inference – it’s the linguist’s mark meaning ‘unattested’; it’s sort of like those paleontological and archeological reconstructions of faces and beasties from bones and what we know about critters and phizogs). That word was a verb meaning ‘ward off’ or ‘defend against’. But warenne may also trace to *warōną, ‘watch, protect’ (how does this keep happening! – I know, it’s because people often mingle and merge similar-sounding words). One or both of those is also the source of warin, the other source of Warren, which means that the two Warrens are kissing cousins. Quite the family reunion, so to speak!

But wait, there’s more! The forked tunnels merge again farther back: both of those Proto-Germanic roots are descended from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer-, meaning ‘cover, heed, notice’ (I’m getting this info via Wiktionary, by the way).

It just so happens that this *wer- is the source of many words in different Indo-European languages. They all have a family resemblance, if you know what to look for. The r appears in pretty much all of them; there is often an n after it (or sometimes a d, which is the nose-stopped-up version of n), and sometimes a vowel between the two; before the r is typically an a or sometimes an e; and then there is the opening consonant. W is a fun one, because it can change to or from v and to or from gw (often spelled gu), and from there we can get g. This is why there’s garenne and varenne from warenne.

So let’s follow the tunnels back to the present from *wer-. Down one tunnel (via a Proto-Germanic word for ‘worry, care, heed’), we get to a group of words that includes garnish. Down another (via the Proto-Germanic *warnōną, ‘warn, be careful’), we get to warn. Down the *warōną line, we arrive at ware, wary, aware, beware, guard, and garage. Down the *warjaną line, we come – through various splits over time – to weir, garrison, guarantee, and warranty. And, as you now know, through both of those last two we arrive at warren.

And at Warren. Which was, as it happens, the family name of an early hero of the American Revolutionary War: General Joseph Warren, a physician whose spirited advocacy of independence gained him his commission as an officer in the colonial army. When fighting broke out with the British, the 34-year-old Warren, who was among the “minutemen” who alerted others to the arrival of British soldiers, demurred when asked to lead the troops, insisting that others with greater military skill do so, and instead served as a foot solider in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 – where at least two of my ancestors also fought, one on Warren’s side, the other a Hessian serving the British. Both of my ancestors survived, and the Hessian happily settled in the new country (no hard feelings!). But General Warren did not survive: one of the British officers recognized him, shot him in the head, and brutalized his body. He became an early martyr to the cause of independence, and a painting of his death made some 40 years later by John Trumbull cemented his legacy.

His legacy was also cemented by eponyms. There are various counties and towns in the US called Warren, for example – one I think of right away is the little city of Warren, in Warren County, Pennsylvania; it’s a short drive south of Jamestown, New York, which, along with sharing a name with me, is also in the part of New York where my mother grew up.

And largely because of General Warren, the name Warren became a popular name for American boys. I have always known it first and foremost as a personal name – because it’s the name of a close relative: my father, who grew up an hour and a half’s drive north of Jamestown (and two hours north of Warren), in Buffalo (probably drinking lots of Vernor’s, I don’t know). My father, who is descended from that Hessian soldier who was definitely not the person who shot General Warren, though he might have fired in his direction for all we know. My father, whose gift of language and linguistic fascination – and, oh yeah, another book, a little volume of family genealogy hand-printed and hand-bound by his father – helped me do this fun run through the warren of etymology of warren, all the way back past garrisons and guarantees and guards and garages and warrants and warnings and so many other things to be aware of.

And today is his 80th birthday. Happy birthday, dad!

Words that glitter and splash

I was to have been presenting on this at the ACES conference in Salt Lake City this year, but, for pandemic reasons, that was cancelled. So the nice people of ACES asked me if I would be interesting in contributing an article to their website on the topic, with a limit of 3000 words. I was happy to do so… and managed to keep it just under the limit! I’m presenting it here as well. This is a longer read than my usual, but on the other hand it’s much shorter than my master’s thesis. Continue reading

Pronunciation tip: Mozart’s operas

It’s been too long since I’ve done a pronunciation tip. So here, to make up for that, are 23 of them. It’s all 23 of Mozart’s operas and opera-like works, with the original language and what you might say in English. I’ve done it in reverse chronological order, since people usually care more about the later ones.

If you’re just looking for a specific one, here are the times for all of them:
0:41 Die Zauberflöte
1:04 La clemenza di Tito
1:23 Der Stein der Weisen
1:44 Così fan tutte
2:58 Don Giovanni
3:39 Le nozze di Figaro
4:02 Der Schauspieldirektor
4:31 Lo sposo deluso
4:50 L’oca del Cairo
5:06 Die Entführung aus dem Serail
5:44 Idomeneo, re di Creta
6:16 Zaide
6:20 Thamos, König in Ägypten
7:06 Il re pastore
7:21 La finta giardiniera
7:49 Lucio Silla
8:06 Il sogno di Scipione
8:26 Ascanio in Alba
8:47 Mitridate, re di Ponto
9:04 La finta semplice
9:18 Bastien und Bastienne
9:37 Apollo et Hyacinthus
9:46 Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots


I grew up in houses, which are about as apart as a dwelling place can be, especially when they’re far out in the country with no one else in sight. Now my wife and I live in the city, so far downtown that downtown is up, with people living all around us, hundreds of them even within wifi radius, and somehow the space we have walled off for us in the middle of all that is an apartment. You’d think they might call the whole building a togetherment, but no. Well, each unit is its own little world, set apart from all the others, except for the noise that leaks through the ceiling, floor, and wall from those on the other side.

Anyway, here’s a poem, in fairly free verse.


Come in, welcome, let me
show you around. This
is the front door closing behind you and
this is the front closet, where
we keep a thousand pounds
of coats, but half of that
weight is dust and dead bugs.
If you push to the back of the closet,
far beyond the jumbled
stack of suitcases and tubes
of awkward wrapping paper, and step
where no foot has set in a decade
and shove through the fabric, you
will enter a different world—
of dead bugs and dust and wall.
And the stacks of boxes will all
collapse behind you and bury you.
Don’t go in there. Come.

Ahead is the door to the bedroom,
where you do not belong. This way.

Here is the guest toilet, with the tap
that is easy to use, except
if you are that one person for whom
it will always fall apart suddenly.
The walls in here are red, as red
as fresh blood, and I recommend
that if you shut the door, you
keep your eyes shut too. No,
we didn’t paint it that colour;
it was the previous owners.

Here is the hall and here
is a cute door that you must
never open, because—wait—no—
oh, ha ha, just kidding, it’s
our washer and dryer. Moving on.

Ahead is a view of the city,
as much of it as you can see,
which is about three blocks, because
all the other buildings
around us are taller. But
if you just press your face
against the window, you
can see the tower. Wait.
Here, this is paper towel
and this is Windex. Please
remove the greasy faceprint
you’ve just made on the glass.

Through that sliding door is
the little solarium, which
is small and contains nothing
that would interest you, just
cameras and boxes and boxes
and chairs and papers. The walls?
Oh, yes, you see that they
are murder red as well. Guess why.
Yes, the previous owners. Move
on, don’t bother, don’t touch that.

You are in the dining room.
You can see that it is part
of the same amorphous space
that is most of the dwelling;
we arbitrarily divide it
into nominal rooms,
each a part apart of apartment,
like Europe divided from Asia or
work time from happy time or
joy from terror, pet
from meat, head from neck.
Oh, now you’ve stepped
out of the dining room. Oh,
now you’re back in. Do you see?
Imagine a line from this shelf
to this liquor cabinet that
is next to my desk here. Look,
this matters. You should always
be able to say where you are. Here,
have a drink. Step this way.

And here, as you pass between
the computer desk Charybdis
and the Scylla of chaise longue,
is the library, so called
because obvious reasons.
Here, sit down, have a chair
that I’ve dragged from the dining room
to set your drink on. Good.
Sit on the chaise longue. No,
you can’t sit on the big
baseball-glove-shaped chair.
Why? It’s mine. Sit. Drink!
The wall? Behind the books? You
can see it? Oh. No, heh, that
was the previous owners.

Sorry, I don’t know. We still
get mail for them, all these
dozen or so years later. Huh.

As you can see from your seat
on the chaise longue, over here
is the kitchen: where the magic
happens. No, no, stay there.
Yes, iron pan, yes, fridge, yes,
knives, only the best, you know,
and behind all those jars are jars.
No. Stay there. You can hear me
well enough as I cook.
There is one thing you should know
about my kitchen, and that is
stay out.

Say, if you’re getting bored
with the view of my three thousand books
while I whip up dinner for you,
here’s a special treat:
let’s go see the view
from the bedroom window. No, really.
It’s OK. I’ll go with you.

Why is that door open?
Yes, still the washer and dryer.

Here is the bedroom, and as
you can see, it is facing the other
way. Ignore those books. Yes,
there is a bed under all that.
Here is the window. See? There
is the island, and the tracks,
and the freeway, and the holes
in which they are going to put
more huge buildings. Yay.
In there is the master
bathroom, but wait, no,
don’t look, it’s, no, wait,
no, you don’t, ah, no, well,
yes, as you can see, there is
a shower and a separate tub,
and some shelves and dust and a sink
and, oh, that wall? Sorry, that
was the previous owners. Now
do come have a sit
and let me refresh your drink
and I’ll go cut some things.