I just spent four days in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was there to attend the annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, which was a marvellous fun event (and not without its educational aspect). During the conference, I hosted some word tasting breaks. Two of the words we tasted were Halifax and Haligonian.
These are words with a notable vertical extension. The capital H’s make me think of the uprights on the two bridges that allow motorists to cross the harbour from Halifax to Dartmouth, or vice versa. Halifax has that eye-catching x at the end, which, in this instance, makes me think of the word meeting an abrupt stop, cutoff, collision, or even explosion. Haligonian, on the other hand, just goes on, the f replaced by g, the ax dulled to onian.
The effect on the sound is similar: although both begin with the breath and liquid (the same as start halitosis, which reminds me that I had just eaten smoked salmon with onions when I conducted the tasting of these words), Halifax fires off the teeth and lips and flies back to the back of the mouth to hit at [k] and then hiss away with [s], like broken glass or a punctured tire or a few other percussives with entropic dénouement. Haligonian skips the fire-off and goes straight to the back, but the bounce isn’t as hard, and instead of immediately hissing on the tongue tip with [s] it goes through a long, lip-rounding /o:/ and touches twice softly on the tongue tip with the two nasals.
Are you wondering what the relation between Halifax and Haligonian is? Unless you’re from Halifax, you may well wonder. On the other hand, if you’re from Halifax, you know what a Haligonian is: you are one. Haligonian is the adjectival form for people and things pertaining to, or residing in, Halifax.
Hmm. It does not from this follow that gonian is the adjectival form of fax. Someone from Carfax is not a Cargonian. Your fax machine’s toner and paper are not gonian supplies. The real reason for Haligonian lies in etymology – false etymology.
Where does the name Halifax come from? Well, the city in Nova Scotia took its name from George Montague-Dunk, the second Earl of Halifax. The Halifax of which he was earl was (and is) a town in west Yorkshire. It has existed since before the year 1100, which makes it harder to know for sure where the name comes from. In the 1500s, some scholars proposed that it was from Old English halig feax, ‘holy hair’. Why would it be called that? Well, there is a legend – possibly started around the same time – that the head of John the Baptist is buried there. There’s also another legend about a maiden who was murdered by a lustful priest whose advances she spurned.
From this halig feax, anyway, came a Latin version of the town name: Haligonia – that’s halig plus the common onia suffix you see on many place names. And it is from that that the adjective comes: Haligonian. Of course it could be Halifaxian or Halifaxer or Halifaxish or whatever, but those are obvious and expected. People love an in-group thing, an unexpected deviation that gives you special knowledge. And, certainly in the Nova Scotian city, there is a pride in knowing that the denizens are Haligonians. It’s just one of their things.
But do you remember that I said that it was false etymology? Yeah. It very likely is. It’s more likely that the town’s name comes from Old English halh-gefeaxe (which would have been pronounced similarly to how we might say “halhyafaxa” now). This means something like ‘coarse grass area in nook of land’. Which is a more sensible and plausible name for a place, really, if you can say it in one or two words.
But the designation Haligonian is established now and isn’t going anywhere. You may find it to be like polygon or goon or Lego or goalie or haggle or any of quite a few words that use some of the sounds. That’s rather different from hallux and Carfax and Shadowfax and fax machine and effects and fix and such like. You may or may not find the Hali connection to be strong enough to override the difference in the ends of the words.
Halifax in Yorkshire apparently had a reputation as a place of draconian punishment (including a decapitation machine that anticipated the guillotine by centuries). The 17th-century poet John Taylor wrote, in his “Beggar’s Litany,” “From Hell, Hull, and Halifax, Good Lord, deliver us!” I can tell you that I felt no need to be delivered from Halifax, Nova Sc0tia, when I was there. (As to Hull and Hell, Canadians will tell you the former no longer exists, now being part of Gatineau, and the latter was looking set to freeze over until the Leafs were knocked out of the playoffs.) You may wish to be delivered from Haligonian, but you are unlikely to get your wish unless you leave Halifax. Regardless of its origin, it seems it won’t be gone any time soon.