Monday, June 09, 2008

A story of boat names

Interesting story taken from a paddling magazine :

Nowhere did anyone say that a sea kayak is a CANOE with certain attributes. Nobody I know (with the possible exception of John Wilde) calls their sea kayak a canoe. If this is the case, why are all the bodies which oversee sea kayaking (Australian Canoe Federation, NSW Canoeing Board of Canoe Education, etc.) listed as CANOEING organisations?

Blame it on the POM’s (for our overseas web site visitors POM is an Australian name for English persons - not complimentary. Perhaps derived from early convict "Prisoner of Mother England”, thus POME, or more frequently, POMMIE **stard. May also be a corruption of "Pong", meaning to smell badly. Pom’s bathe only infrequently and NEVER wash their socks).

The bloody Pom’s, with typical Imperial hubris, simply called all indigenous paddle craft ‘canoes’ (which word comes from the Carib Indian ‘kanu’, later Spanish ‘canoe’). This linguistic arrogance also resulted in that transcontinental traveller, the short-tailed shearwater, being called a ‘Mutton Bird’ and the highly prized abalone a ‘Mutton Fish’. Perhaps all the bully beef had affected their taste buds.

Of course, for many years, explorers had been using native American canoes for their expeditions. These light, swift craft were ideal for the vast system of lakes, rivers and streams the New World offered. The Iroquois and Algonquins could quickly outdistance any European boats and were in demand for exploration. But when the white men and their Native canoeists met up with the Inuit in Northern Canada, the kayaks blew their doors off.

The Inuit could paddle away from the Algonquins even more easily than the Algonquins could swamp the Europeans. Instead of finding out the true name of these racy craft, the unimaginative and linguistically challenged British simply called them ‘canoes’. Now we are left with the problem of sorting out all this intellectual laziness. The Poms attempted to solve the dilemma by calling canoes ‘Canadian Canoes’. This may work in the UK and Australia, but brings blank stares in North America where a canoe is a canoe and a kayak is a kayak and all the canoes in Canada are Canadian.

The origin of the name ‘kayak’ is a bit obscure itself. Zimmerly used the title ‘Qajaq’ for his excellent book on the Kayaks of Siberia and Alaska. Qajaq is simply Inuit spelling for ‘kayak’. Of course the Inuit had no written language, and this spelling was invented by missionaries. Zimmerly doesn't mention where the word came from in his book. It could well have been a local name which was picked up by the white men and spread by them as a generic term as a matter of linguistic convenience.

If I understood Larry Gray correctly as he spoke about his Greenland experiences, sometimes each specific type and even individual kayak had a certain Inuit name. Chris Cunningham wrote “Qajaq shows up in HC Petersen’s ‘Skinboats of Greenland’ glossary as the Greenlandic term for a kayak.”

The Aleutian ‘Baidarka’ offers no clues. Baidarka simply means ‘small boat’ in Russian, the language of the first explorers of that vast chain of islands.