On this ramble through leafy wealds of birch we’ll discover how the word birch connects with fascism, canoes, Ukrainian surnames, moose calls and even with lubricious and delicious fertility rites. We’ll commence our tiptoe through the birchen boscage with a fillip of botany.
Genus: Betula > betula Latin, birch
Family: Betulaceae, the birch tree family
French: bouleau < *betullus Latin, probable spoken variant of betula
Birch < birche, birk Middle English < birce, beorc Old English. Akin to Ukrainian bereza, German Birke, Old Norse björk, Sanskrit bhurja. A very old Indo-European tree word, its root *bherja means that birch is the ‘bright’ tree, a reference to its chalky-white bark. The words birch and bright are cognates, words stemming from the same root cluster in Indo-European: *bhel, *bher, *bhrek, all of which give words related to shining whitely, shimmering, blazing, burning. The Ukrainian word for the month of March is Berezen ‘time when the birch trees flower.’ And there is that refreshing Russian potion, berezovyi sok (birch drink).
IT’S BJÖRK ! ! !
Let us not omit that bizarre gamine, Icelandic singer and actress Björk Guðmundsdóttir, known simply as Björk. She bears a fine, ancient Viking name meaning ‘birch tree.’
Birching & Fascism
In English the noun became a verb, to birch. Birching was the now-discredited practice of flogging British schoolchildren with birch twigs tied into a nasty, welt-raising bundle. Pious pedagogues even had a sad little saying to accompany their sadomasochistic act: “I must send you to Birchin Lane .” The cheap pun recalled an actual London street. Even in Shake-speare’s time Birchin Lane was well known for second-hand clothing stores, being lined with apparel emporia where an impecunious Elizabethan swain might pick up a bargain in a maroon velvet doublet.
The punitive use of birch is ancient. The fasces (Latin, literally ‘fastened bundles of stout sticks’) had ceremonial importance among Roman magistrates where it was carried before them in processions as a symbol of their power over limb and life. The fasces were usually birch rods tied together with a red leather thong with an axe stuck in the midst of the rods, or the bundle of birch was tied together with a red ribbon as a cylinder around an axe. This recalled a time in Rome ’s early days when criminals were flogged and scourged with the birch rods and then beheaded with the axe.
In 1919, an Italian totalitarian named Benito Mussolini brought together an anti-Communist group of thugs and street rabble called Il Fascio di Combattenti ‘the band of fighters.’ Soon other Fasci had sprung up. By 1921 Mussolini was in parliament and founding the Partito Nazionale Fascista ‘National Fascist Party.’ He called himself Il Duce ‘the leader’ and gave hope to other political criminals of the world, including Hitler in Germany who liked the trappings of fascism, such as borrowing the birch rod and axe symbol, although privately Hitler thought Mussolini was a vulgar if deadly clown. Took one to know one.
The birch has not always been happy in its political namesakes. One thinks of the John Birch Society, another mob of anti-Communist, right-wing zealots, founded in the United States in 1958 and named after a U.S.A.F. intelligence officer, supposedly the first American killed by Chinese Communists in 1945.
Of about sixty world species of birch, ten are native to Canada and the northern United States , six of them tree-like, four shrubby. Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis (Botanical Latin, of the Allegheny Mountains ), has wood that takes stain and polish well, thus finding extensive use in woodwork of all kinds. In the prairies and in parts of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories grows Water Birch, Betula occidentalis (Latin, western), while our Maritimes is the homestand of Grey Birch, Betula populifolia (Botanical Latin, with leaves like poplar). Bouleau blanc and bouleau à papier are both Canadian French terms for Betula papyrifera.
White Birch Uses
White Birch, Paper Birch, or Canoe Birch, is a species with many varieties and forms. The botanical binomial is Betula papyrifera (Latin, paper-bearing). Because of its resistance to water and decomposition, birchbark of several species has been used as a medium to write on as far back as ancient India where bhurja, the Sanskrit word for birch, was noted as suitable to contain the text of sacred poems. Several of the oldest extant manuscripts are on birchbark. Birchbark was used to make a quick pair of snow glasses by many northern peoples. During trips over snow in bright sunlight, a strip was tied around the head. Two small slits made in the bark over the eyes permitted some vision. Oil of Birch with its aroma of wintergreen is still used by tanners to make Russian leather. The oil imparts an anti-mould quality that makes Russian leather a useful cover for books worth preserving.
Betula papyrifera is widespread across much of Canada and provided a smooth, waterproof shell for one of the yarest vessels ever invented by humankind. The canoe was light, easy to repair, lasting, and resilient, and was the first transport over the inland waters of North America. Voyageurs first traded for canoes and opened up what would become Canada through trading for furs. Native peoples of the eastern woodlands traditionally made the boats in early summer when birchbark stripped easily. After long swatches of birchbark had been sized and cut, white pine, spruce, or tamarack roots were dug up and boiled taut to make the tough thread used to stitch seams. Those seams were sealed waterproof with pine resin or spruce pitch applied with a hot stick. Canoe frames and thwarts were made from cedar soaked in water so it could be bent to the required shape.
Birch Moose Calls
The birchbark horn was a swatch of the papery bark sewn into a cone shape. The Ojibwa and other Algonkian peoples blew through the cone making the papery layers resonate and imitating the anxious foghorn basso of a female moose in heat.
rogan < houragon Canadian French < onagan Ojibwa, bowl, container
Birchbark rogans were used by First Peoples all across northern America . They were essentially waterproof bowls, buckets, and containers used to keep food for long periods of time, sometimes being buried or cached until needed. Birchbark strips were sewn tight with spruce-root thread and the seams sealed with spruce resin. Rogans also held maple syrup, up to five gallons in one case.
“A Glass of Birch, pardner, and the first cowpoke who snickers gets a bellyful of hot lead!” Several liquid delights were made from birch. Birchsap ginger ale and birch syrup were widely known in the pioneer west. Birch wine, an old continental cordial, is made from the thin, sugary sap of Betula alba, European white birch. The sap is collected in March, boiled down slightly with honey, cloves, and lemon peel, and then fermented with yeast. Birchwater tea, an infusion of the leaves, was once a specific for gout and rheumatism. And we mentioned above that refreshing Russian potion, berezovyi sok (birch drink).
Besides the obvious southern English ones like Birch and its northern equivalent Birk are surnames like Birkin, from a West Yorkshire place name meaning ‘birch wood,’ Birkenshaw ‘birch shaw’ where shaw is an Old English word for copse, thicket, or small wood. French has a Bouleau surname. German and Scandinavian languages have surnames with the root, e.g., Birchmeyer ‘birch farm,’ Birckholz and Birkenstock ‘birch wood,’ and Bjorkstrand ‘birch beach.’ A surname of Byelorus is the White Russian Beresten ‘birchbark box’ where for some lost reason the ancestor was named after such an object. Russian surnames containing the root for birch tree include Berezin and Berezov. One Estonian surname is Kask ‘birch.’ Latvian has Berzins < berzs ‘birch’ and Kalnberzins < kaln Latvian, mountain berzs.
Ukrainian has the usual type of birch last names like Berezko = bereza Ukrainian ‘birch’ + ko surname suffix. But Ukrainian also has a group of unique and sometimes humorous surnames formed like Shakespeare was in English, namely, an imperative followed by a noun object. Some are actual surnames; others are names created by humorists and dramatists. Among the actual surnames is Lupibereza ‘peel the birch’ indicating either a woodsman or an ancestor who beat others or was beaten himself (?). A few others in this subgroup of playful Ukrainian surnames:
Peciborsc ‘cook the borsch’
Tovcigrecko ‘stamp the buckwheat’
Vernidub ‘pull out the oak’
Nepijvoda ‘don’t drink water’ (comic name of an alcoholic ancestor ?)
Canadian Birch Place Names
Our maps are speckled with multiple Birch Lakes , Birch Rivers, Birch Islands. But the singingest toponym is Birchy Cove on Newfoundland ’s east coast. Central Saskatchewan has the town of Bjorkdale, either from a Scandinavian surname, or a pioneer descriptive in Swedish or Norwegian where it can mean ‘birch valley.’ A summer resort in Alberta was given the birchy name of Betula Beach in 1960. Black slaves, loyalists to King George, fled the American Revolution and arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783. Some settled at Birchtown on the edge of Shelburne. Their village name honours Brigadier-General Samuel Birch, a British commandant who gave them food and shelter before their trek north.
In northern Ontario is Wigwascence Lake, an Englishing of an Algonkian decsciptive containing wigwas-, the root for ‘birch trees.’ Compare Ojibwa wigwasigamig ‘birch bark lodge.’
In some reference texts one may see spurious etymology such as this text: “The basic wigwam, whose name comes from the Algonquin word wigwass for the birch tree or its bark, consists of a frame of bent saplings covered with sheets of bark and reed matting.”
Actually the word wigwam stems directly from forms like wikwom, wikawam, etc, in a variety of Algonquian languages like Abnaki, Delaware, Massachuset and Ojibwa, where it means ‘their house,’ a plural of week ‘his house.’ Compare Algonquian keek ‘your house’ (second person singular) and the evocative neek ‘my house.’
Evocative for me, the neek form stirs thoughts of the monogenesis of all world languages. The Algonquian -n- with all its semantic freight of first person singular (I, me, mine) and plural (we, us, our) suggests Indo-European forms that carry similar meanings like noi, nous, nos, noster, nosotros, nuestro. The Algonquian root for home or dwelling -eek- seems startlingly parallel to the Greek root oik- that we see in the common Classical Greek word for home, oikos. We see it more frequently in its modern English descendants like the word economy, originally oikonomia literally ‘the rules for running the household.’
Thousands of such similarities in word forms exist all over this earth, in languages that our teachers taught us have nothing to do with one another. This is not, as we were falsely and lazily told, mere serendipitous happenstance. No, no, no. This is similarity worth the investigation of all those interested in etymology and language. Do not be put off by the howls of outrage from tenured language professors in universities the globe over.
The linguists and anthropologists of The Smithsonian Institution in Washington are made particularly uneasy by any attempt to link North American languages with their Old World relatives. On an almost yearly basis, The Smithsonian issues hissyfit bulletins denouncing all studies of the monogenesis of human language, decrying especially the work of Merritt Ruhlen and his late mentor Joseph Greenberg.
Be suspicious of the Smithsonian dismissal of the works of Ruhlen and Greenberg. In some part it is the nervous twitter of Phuds worried that their doctorates in linguistics may need complete revision.
If this idea stirs you, read the works of Merritt Ruhlen. Begin with the biographical entry on Ruhlen at Wikipedia. But do go beyond it and remember that it was written by one who disagrees totally with Ruhlen. Get hold of Ruhlen's latest book instead.
Lubricious Pre-Christian Fertility Rites
The Maypole, the resin-smeared phallic tree of European spring fertility rites was often a skinned birch. See the quotation below. Other ceremonial relics of tree-worship lingered well into the twentieth century, as Sir James Frazer notes in The Golden Bough, his monumental study of folk magic and religion. In mid-spring Russian peasants went into the woods to cut down a birch sapling, dress it in women’s clothes, parade it through a village, and then toss it into a stream as a charm to bring spring rain to the fields.
In some parts of rural Sweden birch twigs in leaf were carried from door to door by the boys of the village. At each cottage they asked for eggs. If they received them, they put a sprig of birch leaves over the door and sang folksongs asking for fine weather and a bountiful harvest.
“Seeking the May” in rural Germany involved young men of marriage age cutting down a birch tree, skinning it, greasing it, and placing at the top sausages, cakes, and eggs. Contests were held to see who could shimmy up the Maypole to gain the prizes. In earlier European villages the birch Maypole, representing the renewal of fertile vigour, was a fixture in the village centre where it was set and left in place all year, to be put up afresh each spring.
Here is a description of the fetching of the Maypole during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First from the horrified pen of a puritanical scribe named Phillip Stubbes who published it in 1583 in his Anatomie of Abuses. Note—but be not overly concerned about—the wild vagaries of Elizabethan spelling which had not yet been made regular by the wide use of dictionaries.
“Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall. And no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely Sathan, prince of hel. But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers placed on the tip of its hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinkyng ydol, rather) . . . with two or three hundred men, women, and children following it with great devotion. And thus beeing reared up. . .they fall to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that vive voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood overnight, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.”
Let’s end with lines by American poet Robert Frost:
“I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
Reviews of my Book
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October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
In the best of the spiritual tradition, Bill is the shape-shifter who constantly leads you to all the places you need to find in your soul. Every page is a new country, an invitation to an excursion into the wonderland of rich connections with the myriad of sources of what so often we unthinkingly wield as a prosaic tool.
Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you that this book is anything but pure gold. It’s simply not true, sadly, that all the world loves a lover. Particularly someone whose love is so boundless.
But Sir William is fearless. You don’t earn your keep as a medicine man if you have a thin skin. While I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could walk away from this book unmoved by its wit, its wisdom and the beautiful transparency by which the author celebrates the glorious romp of our almost unlimited linguistic exuberance, I have to sadly conclude that once in a while, you do meet someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, eh?
Read this book. Leave it on the sofa instead of the $%#!*$% TV remote. Maybe someone you care about will pick it up, even just for a moment, and fall in love with their heritage?
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
“I admit it: I’m a word nerd. I love words: weird words, long words, obscure words, funny words. This book is right up my alley. With chapters like “Nautical Words,” “Creepy Words,” and “Edible Words,” I have enjoyed every page of this book.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
Tags: 365 things to look forward to, books, reading
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, “The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the “Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others
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