Where I come from, butternut is the name of a squash. If you say the word, you mean the squash. The squash, of course, is neither butter nor nut, and does not taste specifically buttery or nutty; neither does it look like any nut you’re likely to see, nor like any butter you’d want to eat.

But, as it happens, it goes very nicely with butter and with nuts. Melt the one and sprinkle the other, or use both in a soup with the squash. Or whatever. Butternut squash is one of the most agreeable squashes, as far as I’m concerned; complaisant in the cooking, the flesh a rich orange hue on the eyes, the texture neither grainy nor too stringy, and the taste soft and sweet and round. It’s not dissimilar in these respects to pumpkin, but it’s smaller, it’s easier to handle, and it has a much higher ratio of flesh to entrails. And it has perhaps the most appetizing name of all the winter squashes.

Seriously. Butter? Nut? Compare with kabocha, acorn, spaghetti (I mean, yes, spaghetti is nice, but come on, butter and nuts are really nice), Hubbard, delicata, buttercup – well, that’s not bad, but I think nut beats a flower – or pumpkin. The only negative to the name is its resemblance to better not, and even that is a plus for those of us who like plays on words: “Should I pass on the squash ravioli?” “You’d butter nut.”

Where does it get its name from? Is it somehow an exocentric compound, a bahuvrihi? No; it seems to take its name directly from the nut called the butternut. The butternut is an oily walnut, hence the name (honestly, I think macadamia nuts are butterier, but I guess they didn’t have those around in the 1700s when the walnut got the name). I don’t know that those who gave the squash that name in the 1940s thought it tasted like it; actually it tastes closer to roasted chestnut. More likely they used the name because of the colour. Butternuts were used sometimes to home-dye fabric, thus giving the cloth and a colour the name, and some of that fabric was used for some Confederate soldiers’ uniforms, which is why Confederate soldiers were sometimes called butternuts (whether there was also any intended impugning of their manhood I’m sure I don’t know). Not seen any of them lately? Well, butternut cloth is about the colour of the skin of a butternut squash: a light grey-yellow-tan kind of colour.

Of course, you can use butternuts with butternut squash if you have some and you want to. Walnuts can sometimes make my mouth sore, so I lean more towards pecans (though if it comes to nut butters, I prefer almond butter – to me, peanut butter seems a bumptious second to the almond kind, though the almond kind is runnier and has to be stirred). Here’s a recipe I made this weekend (as I tweeted it) for what I have decided to call butternut bacon soup, although there are no actual butternuts in it (if you make it, you can use them in place of the pecans and I’m sure it will be splendid). Actually, I didn’t use butter, either, but you certainly could.

  1. Quarter and slice an onion and fry it in red palm oil. Add a minced clove of garlic. Toss in a bit of maple syrup so it will caramelize.
  2. Halve two butternut squashes and scoop out the entrails. Put them face down on a baking sheet in a 400˚F oven.
  3. Once the onion is caramelized, add a litre of chicken stock.
  4. Once the squash is soft (the baking sheet will be all wet with squash sweat), take it out and let it cool face up.
  5. Clean the baking sheet off because you’re going to use it again right now, unless you’re just made of baking sheets.
  6. You didn’t turn the oven off, did you? It needs to be on still, at 400˚F.
    What? Well, turn it on again then.
  7. Get out your kitchen scissors and snip up about 3/4 of a pound of bacon onto the baking sheet. I like the Danish style but whatever.
  8. Add a bag of pecan pieces. Um, I guess 100 grams or so. As much as you easily hold in your hand in a bag. As many as you want, OK?
  9. Add them to the baking sheet, I mean. With the bacon. Which you cut into strips about 1 cm wide, right? Mix them together and spread out.
  10. Well, so read all the instructions before starting. Or do you want me just to do this for you?
    Stick the baking sheet in the oven.
  11. Cut the squash off the skin. Or the skin off the squash. Anyway, you want the squash into cubes that you can smush. Toss the skin.
  12. By the time you’ve done that, it’s probably about time to pull the bacon and nuts out and stir them up and smooth them out. Do that.
  13. Sprinkle some curry powder over the bacon and nuts. Stick them all back in the oven.
    I use Sharwood’s.
    Some! Like, to taste!
  14. Grab the squash by handfuls and smush it up and drop it into the stock. Stir it. Add a can of coconut milk and a couple ounces of sherry
  15. Once the bacon and nuts are all roasted – the bacon is looking towards crispy – I don’t know, ten minutes? Shit, I just look…
  16. Anyway, take it out and add it to the soup. Stir it all. Give it 10 or 15 minutes to simmer.
  17. Purée? You wanted it to be that smooth? Well, you could have done that before adding the bacon and nuts if you wanted. Too late now.
  18. I think the texture is nice, OK? I like it like this.
  19. If you happen to have some candied cashews lying around the house (like, in a bag, not on the floor), you can sprinkle them on each bowl
  20. Oh, I know what I was forgetting! Sprinkle some brown sugar on the bacon and nuts if you want before putting them in the oven.
  21. Yeah, it’s a little on the sweet side. Your call. Also you may feel like adding more salt. Or not.
  22. Anyway, this makes enough to feed two people several times this week. I hope you have room in the fridge.
  23. Did I mention the sherry?
    Oh good.
    Well, you can drink some, too, you know.

There you go. Butternut squash is winter comfort food. Butternuts are, um, oily nuts. The word butternut is appetizing, probably not really because of its pattering sound like that of pecan pieces being dropped on the floor, I mean on a baking sheet, but just because butter and nut both bring tasty images to mind so quickly. Squash is not a pretty word but just eat it, OK?

pyroclastic, comminute

A day is a pyroclastic flow of time, from when you erupt into wakefulness first thing in the morning until you settle at last, still smouldering, into dreams again at the end. Time is continuous like a river or a rock, but as our daily events tumble forward under the gravity of existence and its myriad exigencies, we break it into hours, minutes, seconds, moments of various durations, starts and ends and passages. The crush of the morning and evening commutes, the commingled minutes and minutiae of our jobs and our shopping, the conflicts and comity, calms and enmities, of comrades and committees, the innumerable numismatic munificences and noetic illuminations, all tumbling together, edge to edge, happening to happening. The candle burns down, and as it combusts time busts; we rise bolder in the morning, but the boulder is at last the sand in the hourglass. A turn of a page, a lift of an eyebrow, an utterance, an interaction, a contretemps, all mutually triturated; even the lodestones of our most magnetic ironies are filed away. All is comminuted. Finally the dust settles, and it becomes fixed in memory: another day interpellated in life by the holy rolling stones of broken moments.

I have made allusions here that may not be plain. Let me tell you about a bit of history of which I first read in my childhood. On May 8, 1902, on the island of Martinique in the West Indies, the volcano Mont Pelée erupted. It spewed forth a pyroclastic flow: a nuée ardente, ‘glowing cloud’, a burning mixture of hot gas and stones, tumbling down the mountain at the speed of a jet plane. Pyroclastic is from Greek-derived roots, pyro ‘fire’ and clastic ‘breaking’, because the stones in it are breaking as they burn. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pyroclastic as “Designating, relating to, or consisting of rock fragmented by volcanic action or comminuted in the process of eruption.” Comminuted? It defines comminute as “To reduce (solids) to minute particles; to break, crush, or grind to small fragments or to powder; to pulverize, triturate” – from Latin com ‘together’ and minuere ‘make smaller, lessen’. In as little time as it took you to read those etymologies, the pyroclastic flow burned through the capital of Martinique – the town of St.-Pierre, the “Paris of the West Indies” – annihilating as it comminuted. More than 30,000 people died in a flash. Only one person in town lived, kept safe by thick walls from the burning that flashed through. The thick walls of a windowless prison cell. Auguste Cyparis, the man in the cell, had been locked up the night before after some contretemps in the street – a fight, perhaps? Did he kill someone? Only one person who knew survived, and that was Cyparis himself. Although he did not escape without burns, his crime saved his life; we may say his sentence was commuted by comminution. People who know French will recognize another irony: Saint Pierre means not only ‘Saint Peter’ but ‘holy stone’.

At the ends of our days, we are survivors, too, emerging with permanent marks at least in our memories from the holy heat of the day. But are we Cyparis, who set out to see Paris of the West Indies and ended up séparé, spared, and rescued from his prison four days later? Or are we the mountain, Mont Pelée, with a name so like that of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes – but actually just meaning ‘bald mountain’? Or are we the pyroclastic flow that peeled forth from it and pulverized as it poured down? Do we disgorge time, do we fragment time, are we burned by time but saved by… by what, exactly? Which thing saved Cyparis?

Perhaps we are all three. We create time, we move with time and break it up, we survive the onslaught of time. And then we go back and do it again.


Does this word resonate with you? Does it have a hollow sound, a soft echo, or a rumbling? Does it seem to have a shape? It has that drum, of course, which is impossible to ignore. And it makes me think of hard things tumbling in the drum of my clothes dryer. On the other hand, to the eyes it might suggest a drum line, a long thin rank of people in a drum corps. Or you could just assume that it has an arbitrary association between sound and sense and leave it at that. (But what’s the fun in not even tasting the sound of it?)

You may recognize this word. If you don’t know just what it’s a name for, you may still remember it from high school geography. Something to do with glaciers? Didn’t I just blog about glacial stuff yesterday and the day before? Right, this must be something like… uh… It’s not a moulin, is it? Or maybe more like a monadnock or nunatak or…

Imagine a heap of gravel and dirt. Imagine it in the middle of a stream. Imagine the stream flowing around it, so that the heap turns into something of an oval or teardrop shape, almost reminiscent of a cross-section of an airplane wing (or perhaps a mandolin). Now imagine that the stream is a glacier. And that the heap is about 30 metres (100 feet) high, and the glacier is all gone now.

That’s a drumlin: an oblong hill that demonstrates that aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and glacier dynamics have some things in common. You can tell which way the glacier was flowing because the drumlin’s downslope is long and gradual in that direction, and steep and short on the upstream side.

They can be found in many parts of the world, not just near glaciers. After all, much of the world was covered with glaciers at one time (and I don’t mean last Tuesday, however it may have felt). They’re all over the place in eastern North America – it wouldn’t take me too long to drive to one. They tend to appear in clusters. Whether you’re in Berlin or Dublin, you’re not too far from a drumlin.

And if you’re in Dublin, you’re around where they got their name. Yes, like esker, this word comes from an Irish word. Irish Gaelic for ‘ridge’ is druim (pronounced like something between “drim” and “thrim”). That got a diminutive suffix, as either English drumling or Irish droimnín (droim and druim are pronounced the same), and from that we ended up with drumlin. I wouldn’t say phonological changes are glacial, whether by effort conservation or by analogy, but they do have their effect on the shape of a word.

So the word has an arbitrary association between sound and sense, originally. It didn’t come from a rumbling of tumbling boulders and sediment. But tell me now you can think of a drumlin without thinking of it in some vague way as having a drum shape.

Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word.


A murrain on my brain. As Bugs Bunny would say, what a maroon I am. I should have remembered you need more rain to make an esker from snirt. And so a commenter who goes by Rain, Rain informed me that there’s a rhyme geologists use to recall the difference between eskers and moraines:

The melt that flows
Into the drains
Leaves behind eskers
Not moraines.

But dirty snow
That just retreats
Leaves small moraines
Upon the streets.

I knew of moraine, of course. When I was a kid, we would often go hiking above Moraine Lake, near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. We’d go in early fall to Larch Valley, where there is a stand of (guess what) larch: deciduous conifers – they look like evergreens but their needles turn orange in the fall and fall on the ground. My parents, being from western New York State, were used to very colourful falls, and autumn in Alberta is for the most part basically a few days of yellow followed by the browns and greys of early winter. So we would go for larch and lunch. But first, or last, or both, we would climb the moraine.

That pile of moraine at the mouth of the lake gives you a million-dollar view. Well, OK, it gives you a 20-dollar view, at two dollars per peak. You see, it used to be featured on the back of Canadian $20 bills, and the valley the lake is in is the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The lake is kept a lovely colour by constant influx of rock flour. Rocks just keep coming down from those peaks. And the glaciers that feed the lake grind rocks, and rocks fall into them and so on. There are glaciers all around there, and when they move on or melt away they leave piles of rock in their wake, sort of like the slime a snail leaves, only completely different. Those piles of rock, like large versions of those dirt piles left at the end of the winter, are moraine (a word which comes to us from Savoyard French).

But that pile of moraine at the mouth of Moraine Lake is not a pile of moraine. It’s more irony: the lake is surrounded by moraine and partly filled with it, but the moraine for which it is named is actually the debris from a rockslide. A big pile of rocks came down from one of the surrounding peaks and dammed off the end of the valley, causing the lake to form. The lake is more rain and runoff than moraine! Might as well call it Maureen Lake – to make a set with Louise and Agnes nearby.

esker, snirt

Toronto’s looking pretty Canadian right now, like scenes from my Alberta childhood. It’s had a bit of snow this winter. It gets plowed into piles on the sides of the street, narrowing sidewalks into couloirs. Those piles of snow have dirt mixed into them, dirt from the street, dirt from the air, dirt that was part of each snowflake in the first place. As the snow gradually melts and evaporates or runs away, the edges of these whilom alabaster piles get to looking rather dark and dirty. By late winter the piles are ugly-looking heaps half of snow and half of dirt. And when spring finally comes (in Toronto, you know it’s spring when the Leafs are out*), what you have left are vaguely serpentine piles of dirt. The long, sketchy graves of winter. It takes a few spring rains (or, in Alberta, just lots of wind) for them to disappear… they usually do before the following winter.

So what do we call those dirt piles?

I want to call them eskers.

That’s not strictly accurate. An esker is a bigger thing. It’s a huge pile of gravel and dirt left behind by glacial run-off. Huge as in from 3 to 200 metres high, and from 100 metres to 500 kilometres (yes) long. These streetside left-behind piles are orders of magnitude smaller. And snow heaps aren’t glaciers. But these are still, um, micro-eskers. Yes? Everything involved is smaller? Or should we call them uskers? Iskers? Oskers? I’m the asker…

Where does this word esker come from, anyway? That k makes it look suitably northern, something from Inuktitut or maybe a Scandinavian language. You know, like nunatak or, um, Eyjafjallajökull. It hasn’t been worn down by English from a k to a c.

Just the opposite, in fact. It’s been changed by English from a c to a k. The source word is eiscir, pronounced like “eshker.” Can you guess where that’s from? A hard c before a high front vowel? Something Celtic, maybe? Yes. Irish. They have them in Ireland, and that’s where we got the word.

But what if Canadians don’t want to call our dirt piles eskers? We’re in the country that, having a one-dollar coin called a loonie and wanting a name for a two-dollar coin, chose not, say, doubloon but rather toonie. This is a country where if a hockey team wins three in a row it’s a three-peat (unless it’s the Leafs, in which case it’s a miracle). So a mixture of snow and dirt, or a pile of dirt left over from snow… um, snirt?

Does that give you a suppressed laugh or snicker? Perfect. That’s what Oxford says snirt means… in Scotland. But that seems not to be too broadly used elsewhere, even if it does have a sound like a narrow giggling snort. And few people would think it’s a shirt with an arm cut off. No, in current common North American usage, snirt means… a mixture of snow and dirt. Here, look at this article: “The failure of US farm policy? It’s in the snirt.”

So we can use it, then? Well, yes, for the late-season dirty drifts. But what about for the piles of dirt after the snow is all gone? Is it an esker of ex-snirt? Maybe an exnirt? Can that be said to exist?

Well, whether exnirt exists as a word or not, we sure had lots of the thing in Exshaw.


*The Leafs are the local hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, not Leaves, who, if they make the playoffs at all, are usually knocked out early. And leave just as the leaves are coming.

kyabuka, kiabooca

How do you pronounce kyabuka?

How about kiabooca?

Are you sure?

You get that they’re two spellings of the same thing, of course. But what thing, now?

I’m watching the Oscars and drinking sparking wine right now (Santa Julia, from Argentina, a Champagne-tasting $15 bottle), so I’m going to mess with you a bit more. How do you pronounce Genghis Khan?

Yeah, maybe not. Kahlil Gibran?

Yeah no.

Here’s the thing. English expectations regarding pronunciation of non-English names, including transliteration of non-English names, have changed very much over the last century. Back when Kahlil Gibran was writing, a name pronounced /d͜ʒɪbran/, which we would now render as Jibran, was automatically spelled Gibran, because g was used for that sound before high front vowels, just as was the rule in English spelling. And the name that was really more like “chingis” but was taken as “jingis” was spelled with a g as well.

And then we started to be more aware of how other languages spelled things, and – more to the point – more accommodating of it, and everything changed. Except for spellings that were already established. Which we have come to reinterpret according to our current standards, where, in non-English names, g is always /g/ regardless of what it’s before.

Obviously kiabooca is an old-style English spelling. But while kyabuka looks really “foreign,” with its double k’s and that additional angular y – so stylish – it, too, relies on an old-style convention. If we were to borrow in this word today, we would take it straight from Malay, which, after all, is spelled (now) with the Latin alphabet. We would spell it kayu-buku. In Malay, kayu means ‘tree’, and buku means ‘knot’. If it grew in England we’d call it knotwood. It’s a tree that’s very knotty. It makes a nice ornamental wood.

But the problem of representing in English spelling what those who first wrote it down were hearing – after all, the phoneme we represent as /u/ doesn’t sound the same in all places in all languages – was also knotty. Other recorded spellings since it was first written in English in the early 1800s include kiabouka, kiabuca, kyabuca, and kyaboka. What do they all have in common? They all spell /aɪ/ as i or y rather than as ay. They spell it assuming the English “long i” – which is particular to English and came about as the result of the Great Vowel Shift in the 1400s and 1500s, before which English pronounced “long i” just like in, for instance, machine.

The spelling is very ornamental, of course. So many ways of putting it down. English is a bit knotty that way, eh? Or naughty, anyway. Well, it wood be.

Oh, did you want to know more about kyabuka wood? Here’s a bit from Edward Balfour’s 1885 Cyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia:

The kyaboka wood of commerce is brought from Ceram, N. Guinea, the Aru and other islands of the Moluccas, to Singapore, being much esteemed as a fancy or ornamental wood for cabinet-work. Of late years its estimation seems to have decreased in Europe, but it is still much valued by the Chinese, and is sold by weight. It is sawn off in slabs from 2 to 4 feet long and 2 to 8 inches thick. It resembles the burr of the yew. It is used for making small boxes, writing-desks, and other fancy ornamental work. It is tolerably hard, and full of small curls and knots ; the colour is from orange to chesnut-brown, and sometimes red brown.


Some places have oom-pah-pah. Some have the hurdy-gurdy. Some have the tam-tam. Some have the kazoo. To this clan of musical instruments (and styles) with onomatopoeic names add this pleasant piece of work from East Africa: the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is an eight-stringed lyre-type instrument with a wooden frame and a gourd base. It’s popular among the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania. It name is thought to come from the sound of the lowest string (“nya”) and two of the higher strings (“titi”); since it’s played in an arpeggiated style without stops on the strings, a three-note pattern of low-high-high is common enough.

There’s nothing about the sound of it that would make an Anglophone think immediately of “nya,” mind you – we think of that as a taunting nasal sound, “nyah-nyah.” (Oh, yes, by the way: it’s like “nyah,” not like “nye a.”) The higher strings, too, are a little lower than what you might expect from “titi” in our world filled with high clear bell-type sounds. Sound impressions and onomatopoeia do have a strong cultural basis.

For that matter, you might expect something more Polynesian, what with the faint taste of Tahiti in this word. Or you might expect something ancient Egyptian, reminiscent of Nefertiti, the wife of the pharaoh Akhnaten. You’d be too far south and possibly too modern for her, but at least you’d be in Africa, and you could draw two happenstance connections: first, the headdress of Nefertiti has a fan-like shape vaguely reminiscent of that of the nyatiti, perhaps with her head as the gourd; second, Akhnaten is the name of an opera by Philip Glass, who makes much use of arpeggios – but actually far more in the Balinese line, not the nyatiti playing style. Oh well.

If you look on YouTube for videos of people playing the nyatiti, you will find quite a few. You will find videos of westerners (and East Asians) playing it in a mannered, calm style, held at table or chest height. And you will find videos of Luo people playing it the way you’re supposed to, down at ground level between their legs, with one foot tapping against the frame and the other tapping bells, playing a lively tune and often singing along.

Someone went to the trouble of putting together a YouTube playlist of 78 videos of nyatiti music. Have a listen to at least one (I recommend number 57, if this blog insists on starting it at number 1 – click on the menu top left and scroll down):

If you’d like to find out about other stringed instruments you may have been unaware of, Iva Cheung did a series of tweets on them, with videos: https://storify.com/IvaCheung/lesser-known-stringed-instruments