Some of you may know that my wife, Aina, is a figure skater. She used to skate with touring shows; now she’s a coach. So, although I’m not a particularly good skater myself, I always welcome the opportunity to go skating with her, because it means I can watch her skate, which she does with an unwordly grace (yes, unwordly: not everything can be suitably conveyed with words). Tonight we went down to the nice rink at Harbourfront and I watched her, after a bit of warm-up footwork, take advantage of a patch of cleaner ice off in the side lobe to reel off axels and double salchows.
You may remember my mentioning salchows in my tasting of cognoscenti. (You will notice that I capitalized the jump names there. Now that I’m actually focusing on one, I find that although it’s named after a person, as the name of a jump it’s lower-cased.) The salchow is the jump with the memorably odd name. When I was first watching figure skating, in my youth, I heard them talking about “sow-cows.” It’s a funny word when you hear it like that – images of fat, slow animals spring to mind, quite at odds with the twiggy little things (and buffer but still lean guys) you see flying over the ice in conjunction with this word. It was some time before I saw it in print and connected the word with what I had heard. (Seen out of context, salchow is more likely to remind many people of Selchow and Righter, the original makers of Scrabble and Parcheesi. And the chow may make one think of something figure skaters don’t appear to eat too much of.)
So why is this jump – which has been referred to by some as a “half-axel” because, like an axel, it involves taking off and landing on different feet, but instead of taking off forward (only an axel does that) the skater instead three-turns from a forward outside to a backward inside edge, then swings the other foot and takes off – saddled with this odd name? Add toe pick and it’s called a flip. Take off on the other foot and it’s called a loop. But done as it is, it is among the ranks of eponymous jumps: like the lutz and the axel, it’s named after the skater who first did it in competition. The jumps’ originators were Alois Lutz, Axel Paulsen (funny they don’t call it a paulsen), and Ulrich Salchow.
Who was Ulrich Salchow? Geez, you people! How soon they forget! He only won the world championships ten times – a record, tied with Sonja Henie. I mean, OK, that was from 1901 to 1911, so maybe a little while ago, but still! He landed the first salchow jump in competition in 1909. (The first woman to land one in competition did so in 1920, but it was called “unladylike.” I beg to differ.)
And where does this name of his come from? Well, he was Swedish. That doesn’t mean his name was originally Swedish – actually, you’ll more likely see it in Germany, but it looks originally Polish to me (I don’t have solid evidence of that). Anyway, in Sweden, it was said, roughly, “sal-kov.” But it’s one thing to get Anglophones to say a ch as [k] and quite another to get them to say a w as [v], it seems. And how did the /l/ become a [w] on many tongues? Anybody who lives in Calgary ought to have a line on this one – listen to a Calgarian (or most any Canadian) say Calgary and you will hear that the /l/ has been relaxed so much that the tip of the tongue doesn’t touch, and you just get the raising at the back (characteristic of English /l/ after a vowel in a syllable), like [w] but less rounded. This is really a very normal and expectable phonological transformation. The extra rounding to make it a real [w] is just the cherry on top.
And the cherry on top is just what my beautiful Aina is when put in a rink. No sow, no cow, nothing half-axel’d about her: just an irruption of grace into the wintry scene, performing a jump that, by happenstance, has a remarkably graceless-looking and -sounding name.