Who can rival the nival scenery of the True North Strong and Free? There’s no place like a snow place. It’s not simply that it brings the curious combination of frigid and fluffy (never mind the snirt), nor that it has the shocking smooth brightness (again, skip the snirt), nor that you can do winter sports on it, though all of these are certainly virtues.
No, it’s that it evinces the evanescence of scenery itself. I can walk down a snowy street and know not only that it will look entirely different in the warmer seasons, but that it will look at least somewhat different even the next day. Snow blows and drifts and piles up and melts away… water, the stuff of life, is become a sort of butterfly, but even less permanent.
I’m ambivalent about this word nival. It is exemplary, showing the drift from its Latin origin nivalis in both form and pronunciation, and it has its uses: it can mean ‘snowy, made of snow, made in snow’ (like niveous but a bit shorter and without the beauty lotion overtones); it can relate to a region of perpetual snow (we have some of that in Canada, but I have no photos, not having visited there); it can relate to “the falling, accumulation, or melting of snow,” to quote the OED (in other words, relating to nivation, and not only by invitation). But it rhymes with rival, and also of course revival and survival, and that “long i” just somehow doesn’t seem… on the level. At least to me.
But that doesn’t make it invalid – just alive. We do those sound changes in English, and yet you can look at a word and see the shape of what was there before. And words keep changing, and also coming and going. And we’re not out of the woods yet with this one – tell me if you’ve ever used it!
It’s fun to think, isn’t it, that the same stuff that can support naval vessels, and stretch beyond our eyes to the horizon, can blow and drift, pile up on cars and be made into balls for handy tossing? It’s all a matter of phase. In other days or other ways, it’s also steam, and clouds. And life in places that lack this version of water is somehow… incomplete. We will always have that rival season summer in its turn, but when the streets and beaches are warm and dry, I sometimes catch myself picturing what they have been – and will be again – in the nival time of the year.
I don’t see butterflies too often, and when I do see one it is for a fleeting moment, and I could not possibly tell you what kind of butterfly it is. I am an etymologist, not an entomologist. And I almost never have my camera at the ready, so I have very few photographs of butterflies – which is why I haven’t included any photos of them yet.
But I do have four that I took nearly 20 years ago. I was using quite a large and clunky camera (a Bronica SQ-A, for the curious), and yet I managed to get reasonably close. Here:
As I said, I don’t know what kinds of butterflies those are (maybe you do!). They may not even all be members of the same family, taxonomically – they could be Hesperiidae, Papilionidae, Pieridae, Lycaenidae, Riodinidae, or Nymphalidae (which in turn has 13 subfamilies). Not that most of us could tell which family they belong to by looking. For example, the monarch butterfly belongs to the Nymphalidae, whereas the common Jezebel butterfly, which to the casual observer could be a different-coloured cousin of the monarch, actually belongs to the Pieridae.
Not that butterflies care about taxonomy. Neither do most of us humans – nor do most of us know or care that the monarch is Danaus plexippus and the common Jezebel is Delias eucharis, names that have been given to them for the sake of tidiness on the basis of what was convenient and somehow appealing to the European men who came up with them (Danaus plexippus is named after Danaus and Plexippos, mythical twin brothers, sons of a king of Egypt; Delias eucharis is from an ancient Greek male name plus Greek for ‘charming’).
And how did I manage to get those photos? I was in the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. It’s not a butterfly board – the butterflies are live – but it’s still butterflies kept under glass… a glass roof.
“Under glass” is also like how we typically encounter words from the languages of North America. I don’t mean English, Spanish, and French – though those are far and away the most widely spoken languages in North America, they’re like many of the butterflies in the conservatory: brought from elsewhere to a place they didn’t evolve in. No, I mean the languages that were here long before Europeans. They’re the languages from which (sometimes much changed) the names of half the states in the United States of America got their names, and four of ten provinces and two of three territories in Canada – and the country of Canada, and the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, and Panama (yes, I’m including Central America in North America – it’s a distinct cultural sphere but not a different continent).
And that shows us yet another kind of butterfly effect: the curse of the charming and decorative. Here in North America, we don’t often notice words from indigenous languages of the places we live in, and when we do, we don’t get to know any more about their origins and actual use in their source language than we get to know about the butterflies used in decor or jewelry. Occasionally indigenous words are used in commercial branding for the flavour their associations give them, especially if they happen to look the right kind of exotic – for instance, with lots of Ks and Xs and perhaps Zs. But for most of us, actual conversation in an indigenous North American language is entirely opaque and unidentifiable – if and when we ever hear it.
But people do still speak these languages, and sometimes – just sometimes – it’s possible to find some resources on them. Such as lexicons that include translations for ‘butterfly’.
I should note, as I head into the words, that the Americas aren’t sharply divided; some language families extend across the official divide between North and South. The Chibchan languages are spoken from Colombia to Honduras, and they include Kuna, in which words for ‘butterfly’ include achamommor, mommor, and sussua, and Bribri, in which words for ‘butterfly’ include kua’kua, kuàkua, and kua’. The Arawakan languages are spread throughout South America and into the Caribbean, but they also include Garifuna, spoken on the Caribbean coasts of Central America; its word for butterfly – or at least one of its words for butterfly – is wurigabagaba.
Central America also has its own language families, an especially well known one of which is Maya. The word for ‘butterfly’ in the variety of Maya spoken in the Yucatan part of Mexico is péepem – the plural of which is péepemo’ob, which to my English eyes conjures up a mob of butterflies, but that’s something I’m bringing to it, not something it’s bringing to me.
And then there are the Aztecs, the people whose great capital, Tenochtitlan, situated in the middle of a lake a mile above sea level, became Mexico City, which is a very different place now. Their language is still spoken – it’s called Nahuatl. It’s the language that gave us words such as avocado (from ahuacatl), cacao (from cacahuatl), chili (from chilli), chocolate (possibly from xocolatl), coyote (from coyotl), guacamole (from ahuacamolli), mesquite (from mizquitl), ocelot (from ocelotl), shack (possibly from xahcalli), tequila (from tequitl), and tomato (from tomatl). (That tl, by the way, is a voiceless lateral affricate – which means it’s like if you tried to say the cl in clue with a “t” instead of a “k” – and the ll is just an l held longer.)
Given those words, you might reasonably expect the word for ‘butterfly’ also to end in tl. And this time, you won’t be disappointed: it’s papalotl (three syllables, stress on the second syllable), plural papalomeh (and again, there is nothing meh about butterflies – what I see in it has nothing to do with what it comes from).
Nahuatl belongs to a family of languages that extends north: the Uto-Aztecan languages. Other members include Tohono O’odham, in which ‘butterfly’ is hohokimal; Paiute, in which it’s tsoapu; and Hopi, in which it’s masivie. But if we’re talking about families of languages that extend a long way or leap over long gaps, the Uto-Aztecan languages – though they cover as much ground as the western monarch butterfly migration – are not the farthest travellers of North America. The Algic languages, for one, stretch farther, covering more ground than the eastern monarch migration: they include Arapaho and Cheyenne, spoken in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas, but – leaping across the Great Plains – they also include languages spoken in the Midwestern and Eastern US as well as across Canada from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast.
And of course the Algic languages all have words for ‘butterfly’, since there are butterflies where their speakers live. In Arapaho: nihˀoːteibeihiː. In Cheyenne: hevávȧhkema. In Siksika (also called Blackfoot), spoken in western Canada: apánii. In Cree, spoken across a wide sweep of Canada: ᐧᑳᐦᐧᑳᐱᔒᔥ (rendered in the Latin alphabet as kwâhkwâpišîš) – and, I’m sure, some other words, since there are several varieties of Cree. In Ojibwe, an Anishnaabe language also spoken across a swath of Canada, closer to the Great Lakes: memengwaa. In Mi’kmaq, spoken in the Maritime provinces of Canada: mimikes.
And what about the other Algic languages, including those of the Midwestern and Eastern US, languages from which several states from Illinois to Massachusetts got their names? It’s much harder to find out what their words for ‘butterfly’ are because the languages are mostly not spoken anymore – they’re just randomly fossilized in such things as place names, and you know that a fossil, be it of a butterfly or a language, does not shimmer with colour.
There are other language families in the same parts of the continent, too. The Iroquoian languages are spoken in the area of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River, including Mohawk – in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is tsiktsinēnsawen – and Seneca (in their own language, Onödowáʼga) – in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is utsiʼtanôwêʼ. But they also include Cherokee, which is spoken (when it’s still spoken) in Southern states such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Cherokee is unique among indigenous American languages in having a distinct phonetic writing system developed by a member, not an outsider (the Cree syllabics, as in ᐧᑳᐦᐧᑳᐱᔒᔥ, were developed by a missionary). Cherokee has a syllabic writing system created by Sequoyah in the early 1800s. And the Cherokee word for ‘butterfly’ – like many others in the world, as we have been able to observe – can appear reminiscent of a butterfly’s flight path: ᎧᎹᎹ. It’s rendered in the Latin alphabet as ka.ma.ma.
There are also the Muskogean languages of the “Deep South” states. They include Choctaw, in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is hatapushik, and Muksogee (also called Creek), in which the word is tvffolupv (the v stands for a vowel like the a in about – so you could read the word as “tuffolupa”). They also include Chickasaw and Seminole, but I don’t know what their words for butterfly are – or, largely, were, since very few people still speak either language, and soon they, too, are likely to be found only fossilized or preserved under glass.
For all their transcontinental spread, the Algic languages do not have the greatest stretch or the greatest gap in North America. That distinction goes to the Athabaskan languages. In the southwest of the USA, there are two prominent groups that speak Athabaskan languages: the Navajo (their own name for themselves is Diné) and the Apache (by their name, Inde). Along the Pacific coast of Oregon and northern California, there are some other Athabaskan languages spoken in small areas. All the other groups that speak Athabaskan languages (such as the Slavey, or, by their own name, Dené) live near or above the Arctic Circle, in northern Canada and Alaska, with one slight outlier, the Tsuu T’ina (formerly called Sarcee in English), who are just west of Calgary.
How is it that these widely distributed languages are all Athabaskan? Well, about six centuries ago, a group of people headed from what is now northern Canada to what is now the southwestern US. And then they stayed there. Other groups also started in the north at different times but didn’t go as far.
Oh, wait, do you mean how do they come to be called Athabaskan languages? Just the same way nearly all other language families got their usual names: a linguist with European roots chose a word he found convenient. In this case, they’re named after Lake Athabasca, which is a large lake near the north end of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the name of which comes from a Cree word (you’ll remember that Cree is an Algic language, not an Athabaskan one), and that name was applied to the languages and people by Albert Gallatin, a Swiss American who was US Secretary of the Treasury for a long time, but in later life took up the study of ethnology. So: a man born in Switzerland and living on the east coast of North America took a name for a lake given by speakers of one language and used it to name a group of entirely different languages spoken in several places on the far side of North America from him. That’s gotta be some kind of butterfly effect.
And what are Athabaskan words for ‘butterfly’? In Diné (Navajo), it’s kʼaalógii. In Inde (Apache), it’s doolé or dólé. In Dënesųłıné (Chipewyan – the language spoken in the Lake Athabasca region), it’s yágole or gálımák. In Dené (Slavey), it’s goménıa. In Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì (Dogrib), it’s gòmǫą, k’àmǫą, or k’òmǫą (by the way, the hooks under vowels indicate nasalization).
And in Gwich’in, spoken in Alaska – well, I ran into a bit of luck, resource-wise: a junior dictionary published by the Alaskan government, which gives me the words neenahotʼii and neenohtʼįį, and, for the Gwich’in spoken in the Canada, a dictionary that tells me not only that the Teel’ıit Gwıch’ın word is nanuht’ee and the Gwıchyah Gwıch’ın word is nanùht’yèe’, but also that both literally mean ‘it flies’.
That might seem to get us just to about the end of our journey, but we’re not quite done yet. For one thing, there are still languages that we’ve leapt over while following the Athabaskan languages northward.
There are the Salishan languages of the interior and coast of British Columbia and Washington State, and I can tell you that in Cowlitz Coast Salish from Washington, ‘butterfly’ is x̣alə́wʼx̣aləwʼ, and in the Nanaimo variety of Salish from Vancouver Island, it’s ťlamux̌un or ťluľamux̌un, but I don’t know the etymology of either.
And there are the Siouan languages, the languages of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda. (Why Siouan? Well, it’s from Sioux, a name given to the Dakota people and language by French traders and missionaries, shortened from Nadouessioux, which apparently comes from an unflattering Ojibwe word.) They stretch across the Great Plains of the US and into Canada. Their northwesternmost branch is the Nakoda, for a long time called the Stoney Indians. And that’s a personal connection for me, since I spent much of my childhood on their reserve west of Calgary, where my parents worked for them.
So you might expect that I would know Nakoda. Alas, although I was surrounded by it for much of my childhood, I was also surrounded – and much more accessibly and insistently – by English, the language of my own ethnic background. So, although my parents learned Nakoda fluently, I learned only a few words, mainly salutations, warnings, and some other interjections. It was like the butterflies I might see – and the birds I might hear, the flowers I might smell, and so on: I heard it and recognized it as the language it was, but I didn’t know anything more about what I was hearing. Place names, family names, and so on, were familiar to me, but only in the same way as butterfly designs on wallpaper might be.
But at least I know people who speak Nakoda, right? Certainly – not just my parents but members of the community who have spoken it since birth. So I had no real trouble finding out that, while the Dakota word for ‘butterfly’ is kimimi and the Lakota word is kimímela, the Nakoda word is unrelated: it’s sâwîwîn (the circumflexes indicate nasalization). But no one I could ask had any idea where that word came from. It doesn’t mean anything else. It flapped in at some point, and it’s just there.
That almost finishes our circuit of the world by butterflies. There are many gaps I haven’t mentioned, but we’ve started in Europe and covered all the continents except Antarctica (which has neither butterflies nor indigenous languages), and now all that’s left is the Arctic Ocean and its shores. So we’ve run out of butterflies, right?
Nah. There aren’t a lot of butterflies in the Arctic, but there are at least a dozen. And though the languages of the Arctic can reasonably be expected to talk more about bears than butterflies (even the name Arctic comes from Greek for ‘bear’ – a coincidence; it’s referring to the constellation Ursa Major), they do indeed have words for ‘butterfly’.
In the far west, at the western edge of Alaska and spreading into Siberia, are the Yupik languages, and I find that Central Yupik for ‘butterfly’ is caqelngataq. In Iñupiaq, also spoken in Alaska, it’s taqalukisaq. In Inuktitut, spoken across the north of Canada, it’s ᑕᕐᕋᓕᑭᑖᖅ (tarralikitaaq – notice that Inuktitut uses a version of the syllabics originally developed for Cree, and in fact you’re more likely to have seen them used with Inuktitut). Are the Iñupiaq and Inuktitut words related? I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet on it, and I’m sure there are people out there who could settle that bet. And what is their etymology? I notice, casually, some possible connection to words for ‘looking’ (such as words for mirrors and movies) or perhaps words for colour, but I have no real information.
But there’s one more language to connect us back around to Europe. Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) is – aside from being a very large island mostly covered with ice – an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and consequently, though it’s still geologically North America, it’s part of the European Union. And although there are Danish speakers there and it has a long history of connection to Europe, the most common language is Kalaallisut, which is related to Inuktitut; its speakers are Inuit. And in Kalaallisut, the word for ‘butterfly’ – of which there are five kinds in Greenland – is pakkaluaq.
The most common kind of butterfly in Greenland, by the way, is the Arctic fritillary (fritillary means ‘checkered’ and comes from a Latin word for ‘dice-box’), which in Danish is the arktisk perlemorfugl (literally ‘Arctic mother-of-pearl bird’). I don’t have a picture of one, but you can Google it easily enough. It’s a member of the Nymphalidae; its taxonomic name, given as usual by European men more than a century ago, is Boloria chariclea (Boloria is from Greek for ‘fishing net’; chariclea is from a Greek personal name meaning ‘grace’ and ‘fame’). In Kalaallisut, according to the Language Secretariat of Greenland, it’s called pakkaluaq qillaalasortalik.
I was recently in a town that has famously been called “a famous seaside place.” In its heyday, it saw up to 17 million visitors a year. It has a lovely sandy beach seven miles long. It has a famous festival of lights, a famous amusement park called Pleasure Beach, famous entertainments…
I’d often heard of Blackpool, but this was my first time visiting.
What, you were expecting Boca Raton? Well, at least Blackpool’s name doesn’t mean ‘rat mouth’. (Things can sound so much less uncharming when not in one’s home language. Translate ‘Blackpool’ to Irish and you get Dublin – or, technically, its etymon, Dubh Linn, though the Irish name of that city is Baile Átha Cliath.) It’s named as it is because one of the local streams poured a black effluent into the sea from a peat bog it passed through. (No sign of that when we were there, but we did get told that there had been a “pollution incident” at one of the piers and we should probably not be in the water.)
Admittedly, “Blackpool” doesn’t sound as bright as “Brighton,” but that doesn’t seem to have bothered Britons. It was the most popular holiday resort in England in the late 1800s through the middle 1900s. For factory workers in the north of England, who for a long time all got a week off every summer – each factory would close for a week, but they didn’t all close on the same week – Blackpool was a lovely place you could easily get to by train and wouldn’t blow your bank account on. The Romans had panem et circenses; the English – especially the northern English – had Blackpool, with its beach and entertainments. No wonder an anonymous businessman is quoted as having said, in the 1920s, “Blackpool stands between us and revolution.”
Blackpool was the first city in the world to have electric street lights. It has the oldest still-operating tramway in England. It’s the only town in the United Kingdom with three piers. It has what was, when it was built, the tallest structure in the British Empire. Its opera house, when opened, was the largest in Britain outside of London. And it is home to the oldest purpose-built ice theatre in the world.
Which, by the way, is why we were there: my wife, as you may know, is a former professional figure skater, and there was a reunion there for people who skated in Holiday On Ice.
Ice shows have, like Blackpool, outlived their peak days, and most of the people in attendance were somewhat older than us (and we’re over 50 these days too), but Blackpool still has an ice show, Hot Ice, that runs every summer with extremely skilled young skaters, and it was a highlight of the reunion. And I have to tell you, it was one of the most impressive ice shows I’ve ever seen. The calibre of the talent is stunning. But aside from the hundred or so there for the reunion, there didn’t seem to be more than a couple dozen people in the audience. Perhaps they were all at the beach or riding the roller coasters.
In truth, many a modern beachgoer might think Blackpool better suited to ice rinks than to summer holidays. It’s true that its average daily low never dips below freezing (though its record low is –15.7˚C), but its average daily high never gets above 20˚C for any month of the year, and it averages fewer than five days a year over 25˚C. But you take what you can get.
Everyone I talked to who knew Blackpool from the later 20th century agreed that Blackpool used to be very nice. They also all agreed that it has… gone downhill a bit.
The Blackpool economy still relies very heavily on tourism, but tourists in recent decades have been able to take quick and cheap flights to the Costa del Sol. A British co-worker of mine in Toronto was gobsmacked when she discovered how much our equivalent, a trip to the Dominican Republic, would cost. I should have suggested she try Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay. It’s warmer on average in the summer than Blackpool (though not than the Caribbean); it’s the world’s longest freshwater beach, longer than the beach at Blackpool; and it’s only as far from Toronto as Blackpool is from Sheffield… but there’s no train from here to there anymore.
At least you can still get to Blackpool by train, as we did. The train helped make Blackpool; of that there is no doubt. And cheap airfare has helped unmake it. But other factors have also played a part: the decline of the factories, for instance, which were such an important source of annual visitors. They would go to Blackpool to feel good about life. With them gone, Blackpool itself doesn’t feel quite as good as it used to. Indicators of social well-being (such as health conditions, divorce rates, and employment) are in a bit of a… dark pool. This is not to say that the town can’t rebound. But it’s not the only place in England lately that’s seen better days. So… if Blackpool stood between businessmen and revolution, who’s standing between Blackpool and revolution?
More than 80 years ago, in Riga, Latvia, a girl was born. Her mother wanted to call her Larissa. But her father thought too many girls had that name. So – perhaps influenced by the fact that their family name started with A – they called her Arisa. (The stress in Latvian is on the first syllable, and the name sounded the same with single or double s, so Arisa really was Larissa minus L. But in English-speaking context, Arisa is always said as you would expect, with the accent on the second syllable.)
A small digression here. You may not know where the name Larissa comes from; if you don’t, you’re in good company. In fact, you’re in a group that includes pretty much everyone. It’s a name that has been popular in some parts of Europe (especially eastern ones) for some time, since there is a Saint Larissa, who was part of a group of martyrs in a place that is now on the eastern side of Turkey. The name is Greek, and we’re not sure, but it was probably taken from the Greek city in Thessaly named Λάρισα (Lárisa, but usually rendered as Larissa). The name of that city is also of uncertain origin, but likely comes from λαρός (larós, ‘sweet, delicious, pleasing). This would all have been history unknown to the parents of little Arisa.
If you’ve done the math, you know that a war was breaking out just around when Arisa was born. That war and its sequelae led many people in the Baltic states to leave for another country. Arisa and her parents and younger sister escaped to Sweden. And then, after a few years, when Arisa was 10, they took a ship to Canada.
Arisa and her sister grew up in Toronto and environs. Arisa enjoyed the arts. She was excellent at drawing and painting. She loved ballet.
She danced avidly for as long as she could, even for years after she was married and had two daughters. And when she no longer could dance, she moved on, but she didn’t leave the arts behind. She designed and sewed clothing for herself and her daughters. When her older daughter became a figure skater, she made her costumes for her programs. She helped both daughters with their school art assignments. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of dance, especially with her older daughter, who, along with becoming a professional figure skater, earned two degrees in dance studies.
And then that older daughter – Aina – met me, volunteer ushering at a dance festival. In 2000, Arisa became my mother-in-law. And with me as with everyone, she was unfailingly kind, conscientious, and giving.
She never stopped being interested and involved in the arts. She volunteered for arts festivals (including literary and film festivals). She joined us to theatre and dance. If you met her in her later years, you might not expect she had ever been a dancer, and she would never tell you she had, and yet she loved the arts avidly… just as you would never expect that her name was altered from the name of a saint named after a Greek town, and yet it preserved the euphony that had undoubtedly helped make it so popular (a euphony that has led to the name being created in other cultures quite independently).
And you could never miss noticing that she had a certain flair.
She joined Aina and me to several theatre festival performances this year, complete with picnic lunches. We were looking forward to more with her. But, on short notice, she – and we – discovered that her season was ended. But at least we had what she had given us, which was so much. Like her name, she was always sweet… and more – and other – than you might expect.
As the sun sets on Toronto one day in early August, it’s rising on what remains of the Aral Sea and, in another minute or three, on the whole west coast of India. As it sets on Calgary, it has just lately risen on the African coast of the Red Sea. For every sunset and sunrise, there is a whole set of places in the world that are crossing the terminator line of the sun’s shadow at that moment, turning away from or towards the sun. They are bound and set so to do, as long as the earth is moving as it is.
Poets write about sunsets, from time to time. But that’s like singing a song about a painting. There is no conversion rate between images and words; the words carry sounds and ideas the images never could, but the images bring things words have no hope of tattooing in black on white with their abstract little lines.
We like the sunset because we are there for it (how much less often are most of us awake to see the sunrise!), and because it is there for us, at eye level, the sun’s rays passing at a flat angle through the atmosphere, skimming across clouds. At the last, as it is cut by the horizon, you can look at it for more than a moment. And you want to look at it, because it has contrast and colour: all the things that your eye seeks as a treat but that are too harsh during the day are there on a dessert tray at sunset, completed by the contrast between the daylight before and the nightdark after. During the day we take the sun for granted, we seek the shade, we don’t look straight at it, but when we have turned far enough away from it we pause and appreciate it just before we can’t see it, and then it is gone.
But of course it’s still there. It’s all just our perspective, on our spinning ride. Every second of every day, from the beginning of the earth through now to the very end of our planet, there is a shadow line, a set of sunrise and sunset. When it is our time at the line, we can enjoy it if we want. When I visit my parents in Alberta I like to go for walks and see the sun go down. Back in Toronto, though that’s where my favourite song about watching the sunset was written, I much less often see it – there are buildings in the way. So be it.
You know the word sunset, of course, and you can see its parts. Sun is a grand old Germanic word, not related to son though it sounds the same in English now. Set is not so much one word as a set of words, or rather two sets. One of those sets is related to sect and refers to groups and such things. The other is related to sit and refers to going down, putting down, being in place. You can easily enough tell in which set to set sunset. (There is a third Set, the Egyptian god of war, chaos, and storms. Sometimes that Set unsettles the sunset. But we can set him aside.)
It is tempting to use sunset as a metaphor. But if you must, remember this, set this down: on the earth it is always sunset and always sunrise and always neither, and what we experience at any time just depends on where we are… and we will come around to each again and again.
At one time or another, we all want to reach the beach.
Martha and the Muffins, knowing it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool, still want to watch the sun go down on Echo Beach.
Soldiers on D-Day, in their landing craft, wanted to land on Omaha Beach and survive crossing the beach and live to fight on.
Vacationers in Orlando take the Beach Line expressway to Cocoa Beach to get to the Shack on the Beach and frolic in the waves and enjoy margaritas and the sun.
The last lingering survivors of nuclear war in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach wanted to reach a beach of hope, and, finding it empty, found that, quoting Eliot, “In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.” And then they faced eternity.
Once or twice a week all summer long, Aina and I rush to the ferry for the fifteen-minute trip to Toronto Island to set up on the beach and relax and imagine ourselves far away.
And once or twice a week all summer long, we go swim at the Sunnyside pool and then sit at the boardwalk café watching the beach volleyball players on Sunnyside Beach, the beach that inspired the song “Echo Beach.”
If we travel to another country where there is a beach, we try to stop by it, to see the sand and waves.
When we relax on the beach, we sit on the sand and stare out at the waves. Behind us is solidity, life, assurance. Ahead of us is the liquid stuff of life, a home for countlessly many other living things, a playground for us within limit and reason, and outside of limit and reason a place of unlimited and unreasonable danger. (For fish, the perspective is reversed.)
On the beach, we watch the waves come in. We see the expanse of the water beyond, stretching to the horizon. What we are not looking at is the firm and consistent supports of our life and identity; what we are looking at is change and danger. But, as Jenny Holzer wrote, “It is fun to walk carelessly in a death zone.” When we are in a dire condition, the beach is the place of safety or of threat, the place where we are dry or drowned; but when life is calm, it is relaxation, worries behind us, limitless potential before us.
And under our feet is sand: the ground stones and bones and shells of the ages, at last settled in a shifting mass that can take erasable traces, words and images to be washed away, but when you leave you always take some sand with you.
Your interface with daily life is like a beach. The beach is your eyes, your mouth, your skin. The waves of life lap at you. Sometimes the tide is low and you have room; sometimes the tide is high and you are restricted or already on the way to drowning.
And when the sand has not seen water in some time, it is soft but yielding and hard to walk on. And when the sand was recently under the waves, it is hard but easier to walk on.
When life is dire, you just want to reach the beach and cross the beach and survive. And when life is good, you want to set out your blanket and have your food and drink in the sun and hope you don’t eat any sand. You are there with close friends and closer strangers, and for a few hours you are officially relaxing.
Where does this word beach come from? We aren’t entirely sure, just as we aren’t sure where any given grain of sand might have started. But as likely as not, it’s from a word for ‘bank’ that came from a word for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’ – Old English bece, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’, including Old German beck, which I carry with me every moment of my life as the second syllable of my surname. My own hidden stream, my own secret beach.
And throughout my life I seek to reach the beach. Not always the place of relaxation, the place where I can look across the waves and relax on the sand, but always the moment in time and space where I have all solid things behind me, and all fluid things before me, and I am at the point of letting go, accepting the changing nature of all things and also accepting that I will always take a bit of every moment with me. Letting the waves roll, letting the sand shift. As The Fixx sang on their album Reach the Beach, “Stretched by fewer thoughts that leave me … Holding onto words that teach me … Saved by zero.”
And yes, Aina and I reached the beach today, and we relaxed on the sand, gazing at the waves and the stretching horizon. And now we are home again.
Cellars are where life happens in slow motion while we’re not looking.
What you put in a cellar changes, gradually, coolly, over time. A cellar even has the smell of slow life and slow change: earth, mold, mildew, and the various things you store in it. A cellar is a collection of cells – etymologically, because it’s from cellarium, a place with a lot of cells, as in small rooms, but also literally, because it has roots and plants and crawling things, things made of membranes and cytoplasm and mitochondria and nuclei, and it has things made from those things, processed and put in jars and cans and bottles. Things that, even if they have stopped cellular processes, have not stopped changing.
I grew up where people didn’t have cellars. We had basements. A basement is not a cellar. A basement is a dry, dusty place, full of boxes and old machinery, perhaps dark and creepy but in truth lifeless. What you put in a basement changes only in geological time: the slow flow of inert matter governed by gravity, with the occasional threat of a flood. If you have a finished basement, there is life, but it’s life at full speed, just with less light and less formality and more dust. No moss, just shag carpet.
But in more recent years I’ve spent time in cellars. Not root cellars, though. Not cellars under houses. Cellars in wineries. Cellars that you walk into and instantly your nose finds a story of grapes and yeast and years. Not all of these cellars are dank and chthonic; some are astonishingly clean and modern. But even if there is no cake of mold on decades-old bottles, nor even an inscribable layer of dust, there is life. There is breathing. There is history being written in liquid, to be consumed in the fullness of time. Within the wooden casks and the corked glass bottles is a chemical process, a biological process, that develops like our own lives. And eventually we taste the ends of time.
On a map of our planet there are scarcely more than half a dozen great invious patches remaining, some at the polar edges, others splotched across the middle: Amazon, Sahara, perhaps Tibet. Slightly smaller but still formidable swaths number only in the few dozen. Well less than ten percent of the land on Earth is more than six straight kilometres from the nearest road.
Think of times when you have been in roadless places. How far in have you gone? An overnight hike the Rockies, perhaps? I did a few of those in my youth. You feel you could be in the dawn of days, surrounded by nothing but mountains, trees, birds, small animals, and traces of bigger beasts. But you are on a trail, and even on foot you are just a few hours from a main highway; climb a peak and you may see it. One time, on a day hike alone to Kindersley Ridge, on windswept scree above the trees, I could not find the trail to go on and then could not find it to go back, and I was as far from human company as I can remember ever feeling. And yet, while I frantically sought traces of human passage, as the crow flies I was all of about four kilometres from where my parents’ car was parked by the highway having its hatchback broken into and its gas siphoned.
Imagine being a hundred – two hundred, three hundred – kilometres from the nearest road. Imagine being on a road and coming to the end of it, and seeing ahead of you an expanse with no roads at all: desert sand, or tundra, or glacier, or mountain, all as invious as the undriven snow. What do you feel? Daunted? Or curious? Or envious?
The invious – the roadless, the places you can’t drive to, from via ‘road’ and -ous for an adjective and in- meaning ‘not’ (as in you can’t get in) – is both a threat and an invitation. It’s not that you can’t get places without taking the road; it’s just that it’s much more difficult. I have been bushwhacking through mountainside trees, scrambling up scrubby slopes, snowshoeing across open plains and frozen ponds, and no road or trail was required, but I less quickly got anywhere and more quickly got tired. But I went because I wanted to see.
There’s a term for footworn paths in grass from pavements to doors: desire lines. They show where we want to go. Paths, and then pavements, are the expression and enablement of desire. Where we can’t take our cars, or at least walk easily, we can still want to see, and we can be envious. So we add more roads. So much of the world as we know it is the world as seen from car windows. Our viae are our positional positivism, our empirical empire, determining what we see and how.
And away from them is the via negativa. It is not empty space; it is the space that can be filled with anything other than roads. As Max A.E. Rossberg writes for the European Wilderness Society, “the Earth’s surface is shattered by roads”; they interrupt ecosystems, introduce invasive species (notable among them being you and me), make it easier to take things away, and lead to the construction of still more roads. See this map, made by the Roadless Initiative, of global roadless areas, and this map representing the actual roads on the planet. Evidence of an overriding drive – but one that still meets the end of the road.
It is not that we can’t get to these invious places, of course. It’s just harder. Most of them are occupied – by plants and animals, but also by humans, though in low concentration and travelling by means other than motor vehicle. Feet, horses, dogs, airplanes, and – at the land edges – boats, all make travel across the invious regions possible. And most of that travel follows worn paths as well.
Roads are, in their way, the vocabulary of the world. In any language we divide up concepts in different ways, somewhat as roads divide up the land, though those boundaries are not always as hard as an interstate. And words help us to establish routes into areas of thought, and determine for us what we can see and keep in mind: just what stays in perspective from the car windows. There may be – there surely are – large areas that are lexically invious, without words to make inroads on them, and if we become aware of them we will be daunted or envious or both. If we once build a road, that will become how we think of the topic, and then we may build further roads off it, and further roads off those.
But if we build these new word roads, we will have to maintain them. The word invious has not seen much use of late, for example, so I’m refreshing the pavement. And at the same time, we need to remember that there will always be the unpaved places, the unbuilt lands where even paths disappear. They’re still there. And we can still go to them. But first, to find them, we need to take the via negativa: not this, not that. You can go off road with your vehicle, at risk of damage, or you can put on your hiking boots and find what has always been there, as other people have already seen.
Cuttlefish isn’t quite snugglebunny, is it? But there’s something classy about it, you know… [touches earpiece] Wait, I’m just being told that no, there’s not.
But oh, yes, there is. You know that classic golden-brown tone of some old photographs? What’s called sepia?
Well. I was just making supper tonight, and, as one may from time to time, I was using pasta with squid ink colouring. And on the front of the package, I noticed that, along with a photo of a tentacled sea creature on a bed of parsley, it said “tagliatelle con nero do seppia.”
I turned over the package. It gave the ingredients in several languages. “Durum wheat semolina with squid ink,” it said. And in German, “Hartweizengriess mit Sepia-Tinte.”
So I looked it up. And here’s the deal. Cephalopods – octopus, squid, cuttlefish – produce ink, as you probably know. That ink has been historically used not just for the obvious purpose of colouring pasta but also, strangely enough, for drawing and writing. Squid ink, as seen in pasta, is a blueish black, often with green tinges; cuttlefish ink, the more popular kind for art, tends towards a rich brownish black. In both cases, the original cephalopod uses the ink as a means of escaping. And in pasta as in photography, the original cephalopod has escaped.
In pasta, it has escaped because squid ink is not cuttlefish ink and yet they say it is. Sepia (or, in Italian, seppia) is cuttlefish; it comes from Latin, which got it from Greek, basically unaltered, meaning the same critter. But my pasta is evidently coloured with squid ink; you can see the bluish-green tint, rather than the brownish tint of cuttlefish ink. Yet the Italians and Germans call it sepia ink nonetheless. And if they are right, then English – which, as on my pasta package, calls it squid ink – is wrong. Either way, someone has a disconnect between ink producer and ink name.
In photography, the cephalopod has escaped because although the photographs have the same kind of brownish-black tint as you see in drawings made with actual sepia ink, they are not actually made with ink from cuttlefish. Rather, it’s called sepia just because it looks about the same as cuttlefish ink. In actuality, the silver in the print has been converted to silver sulfide, which, aside from having a warmer look, is more stable and lasts longer.
And, of course, in photos such as the ones I have here, the tint isn’t ink at all; it’s just a tinge in the image presented by your computer screen. The squid has quit town; the cuttlefish has scuttled away.
So there you have it. And there you have my lovely pasta dinner, which I cooked for my lovely wife.
Paradise Is exactly like Where you are right now Only much much Better.
I have a similar thought about solitude: Solitude is exactly like loneliness, only much much better.
To put it another way, the difference between loneliness and solitude is that you hate the one and want the other.
I spent many years in corrosive loneliness, single, unattached, walking miles by myself hoping to find someone else but unable or unwilling or afraid to reach out. Now, I happily go for long walks or runs by myself, because I know there is someone there for me when I get back. I can be by myself because I know I have friends who will spend time with me. Being apart from others is no longer a subtraction; it is an addition.
Solitude, etymologically, means exactly the same thing as loneliness: sol- as in sole, solo, solivagant, plus -itude; lonely plus -ness, where lonely is lone plus -ly and lone in its turn is shortened from alone, which is from all one. (The difference between only and lonely, etymologically, is just that the latter has the last remnant of all.) Why have they gained different tones? I don’t know for certain, but I have a guess: poetry. Solitude comes from French, which took it (altered) from Latin, and poets for a long time, especially in the educated and courtly traditions, preferred the classically derived words. Lonely comes from base old English, the language of the commoners when, after the Norman conquest, the rich spoke French. Rich, well-educated people can afford solitude; poor peasants are stuck with being lonely.
There’s no shortage of poetry on solitude; just search “solitude” at poetryfoundation.org and see. You will also find enough entries for solitude in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Some of it is very much the kind of mood I like, when I like that kind of mood:
That inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
—Henry David Thoreau
She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.
For those of us who have been too much isolated, solitude is not available, only loneliness. But for those of us who are well supported and have as much social contact as we need – or perhaps even more – solitude can be a sweet gift, a refreshing time away.
And it doesn’t need to be in the far countryside. It can be in the middle of a city. If you can be alone in a crowd, you can have solitude in the heart of a city.
I wish you as much solitude as you desire, and as little loneliness as you want.
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