Kiack is a rough-scaled, bony little fish called the alewife in English, and ki’ak in the Mi’kmaq language. It is fished during the spring salmon run when it comes up maritime rivers, particularly along Nova Scotia ’s South Shore. In Québec French it’s un gaspareau, which is an Acadian word, and Acadians gave the fish its French name. Gaspereau was the Acadian name for a lake just south of Kentville, Nova Scotia. Did the fish name come before the lake name, or vice versa? I don’t know. Perhaps a Nova Scotian Acadian reader can point us to the original?
Here’s an excerpt from the campaign diary of Arthur Bull who ran for the NDP in Nova West during the 2004 federal election.
“Fishing for Kiack: Finally, I visited a group of kiack fishermen down in Argyle. This was a new fishery to me. The kiack (also called gaspereau and alewife in other areas) is fished with a dip net out of small brooks in the Tusket River area. . .we proceeded to Kiack Brook. There was a small shelter with a stove, where some of the fishermen rest, while a couple of fishermen take turns dip-netting from two platforms on either side of the brook.”
Etymology of Genus and Species Names
One zoological name of the little kiack is the daunting Pomolobus pseudoharengus. But when that jaw-breaker is broken into its Latin and Greek roots, it is a most appropriate name. Let’s examine Pomolobus first. Pomum is the Latin word for apple; pomo- is its combining form. Lobus in Late Latin meant earlobe, pod, capsule, round belly, and was itself borrowed from Classical Greek lobos, with similar meanings. Pseudos in Greek meant false. Harengus is the zoological Latin word for herring. So a pseudo-harengus is a false herring. And a pomolobous pseudoharengus is an apple-bellied false herring-like fish.
Pseudo - is widely used in modern English as a prefix to words denoting fakery and deception. A pseudonym is a false name (Greek onyma, name) often used by an author to disguise her or his real name. Pseudoscience is fake science; and, memorably, a Pseud is a phoney person, a pompous deceiver, a poseur, a professional “expert” of dubious expertise, of the type that television chat program producers find so convincing, unlike many in of their TV audience. Pseud as a word was coined and promulgated by Private Eye, the British satirical magazine. But it is merely a shortening of the noun pseudo ‘a pretentious person, a faker’ which has been in use as an English putdown for more than 500 years.
Kiack, gaspereau, alewive
Let us return to our little fish. By its zoological moniker then it’s an apple-bellied false herring. The fish does have a naturally big belly, and this gave the English common name too, an alewife being just what it looks like, a woman who kept an alehouse, sampled her brew copiously, and had a fat stomach. An ale wife might also have been a tavern customer, a wife overly fond of a foaming tankard of fermented ale.
one fat ale wife at an alehouse
A more common zoological label for this fish is Alosa pseudoharengus. Alausa was a Late Latin word for a shad-like fish.
In Nova Scotia, kiack became an insult too. Kiack was a term of derision in early Nova Scotia for anyone who ate alewives, implying that they were poor, rustic, and could not afford to indulge in civilized “town” food. But, as a matter of fact, there was once a thriving export trade in kiacks from Nova Scotia to the New England states, to Boston in particular. Local fishermen packed thousands of barrels of salted gaspereaux or kiacks each year for shipment.
Kiack once throve abundantly in Nova Scotia’s Tusket River. Here’s praise by Michael McAdam in the Spring 1999 journal of The Atlantic Salmon Federation (Vol. 48 No. 1): “THE TUSKET has always been unique among Nova Scotia 's great rivers. She rises in the scrublands, bogs and old-growth forest bordering the southwestern extremity of the Tobeatic Wilderness Reserve. The two major branches, the East and West (aka Carleton River) branches, flow through a lengthy series of streams, each connected through chains of lakes.
The East Branch's Quinan River, fed by Big Gull, Quinan and Great Barren Lakes, picks up the dark, foam-flecked outflows of Rushy, Canoe and Keggeshook lakes and join Gillfillan Lake's long expanse to swell the Tusket's widening rush to the sea.
Part of the Tusket's aforementioned uniqueness is the fact that its riverine habitat is interspersed with large, relatively deep bodies of water which afford cool, oxygenated refuge to migratory fish such as the Atlantic Salmon and gaspereau (kiacks, alewives, gasparots) which arrive each spring.
The increasing acidity of her waters has stabilized at levels still lethal to alevins; the remnants of the once great runs of kiacks provide an annual harvest for only a few tenacious fishermen—but the exotic species thrive and increase their numbers each season.” —Michael McAdam, ASF Journal
Silly Origin of the Word Kiack Once Given in Oxford Dictionaries
Contrary to a previously printed OED etymology, there is no linguistic reason whatsoever to suppose that kiack is a variant of kayak, the Inuit boat. Ki’ak is the Mi’kmaq word for this fish. The kayak was never used where this fish is abundant.
Nor is there a relationship with a kyack, the American packsack that goes on either side of a packsaddle.
The word kiack does not appear in the first or the second edition of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. I guess the way Nova Scotians talk is unimportant to the Toronto snobs who wrote that dictionary. However, the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary does have an entry for the word kiack. Unfortunately they have no knowledge of Mi’kmaq, and all they can do is offer the meek and hesitant “perhaps from” kayak. And then again, OED, perhaps not. Perhaps some knowledge of Canadian aboriginal languages and some letting go of British snottiness in the face of “foreign” languages might stand the world’s leading dictionary writers in better stead than lickspittle guesses based in wilful ignorance?
By the way, the common spelling in Nova Scotia and indeed in Canada is kiack, not as the Oxford Dictionary suggests, kayak. Nowadays kayak as a spelling is almost never used, since it causes confusion with the Inuit water craft, the same confusion it caused in the not-very-inquisitive minds of OED lexicographers.
The Oxford English Dictionary has removed its suggested etymology of the word kayak as the source of kiack. Now it sniffishly whispers that “kayak” [sic] is “perhaps from Algonquian.” Eastern Algonquian is the large family to which the Mi'kmaq language belongs.
However the OED persists in putting the definition under the head word kayak, stubbornly presenting as common the least used by Canadians of kiack’s several spellings. It will not even list kiack, the spelling version that appears in most Canadian newspapers and Nova Scotia fishing guides and magazines. There is apparently no end to British disdain for exactly how we colonials spell our own words. You may know also that Oxford University Press has closed down its Canadian dictionary operations in Canada. There will be no third edition of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary any time soon.
And now, with today’s rantlet expressed, I shall swim away to peruse awhile my Mi’kmaq dictionary. Hint, hint, OED!
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