Lesson #278: God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise

“God willing and the creek don’t rise” might be my favourite expression of all time though I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone use it in real life. This came up for a reason today.

Because we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like with his job keeping him out of town quite a lot, my best friend tends to call me during the week just to check in.* Tonight, he was telling me about how the way he knew he was really stressed out is that he drove 45 minutes to work this morning with country music on the radio. He *hates* country music. Then, of course, it got into me making fun of him and the fact that his line of demarcation for what is south and what is not is whether or not you can get boiled peanuts.** Then, somehow, we got onto southern-isms even though my experience with living in the south was more like living on another planet and his experience with living in the south was going to visit his parents in Florida on breaks from prep school/college. This led us to “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” Naturally.

There is not a lot of good (read: reliable) information on the expression, but here’s what I could find:

The first known appearance of the expression is attributed to the late 18th/early 19th General Superintendent for Indian Affairs, Benjamin Hawkins in response to a Presidential request to return to Washington during his time in the south. Hawkins capitalized the word Creek leading to speculation that he was referring to the Creek (Muscogee) people, who were native to the area and not a body of water.

The speculation that Hawkins was referring to the people, not the water isn’t actually far-fetched given that a. Hawkins was the principal agent to the Creek tribe, b. the Creek would periodically send raiding parties to trading posts and c. Hawkins was well-educated and wouldn’t likely have made such a grammatical mistake.

You can read more (but not much) here, here and here. None of them are particularly reliable, but it’s the best I could do. Idiomatic expressions aren’t particularly well documented.

*And I can always tell how much he’s had to drink by how soon into the conversation he reminds me he loves me.

**I’ll refrain from repeating his assessment of boiled peanuts. It’s not a glowing review. I don’t like nuts (except pecans and cashews) so I’ve never had them and can, therefore, neither confirm nor refute his statement.


Lesson #276 : Winnipeg and Minnesota

Autobiographical note: I intended to do some research into the origins of the Indo-European languages on account of my ongoing (informal) Turkish lessons, but wound up spending the better part of 12 hours in the emergency room with a friend, so today’s lesson will not be very long.

I randomly read today (from a not-so-reliable source) that both the words Winnipeg and Minnesota mean “murky water.” Winnipeg is Cree and Minnesota is Sioux. I decided to look this up somewhere around hour 7 of the wait, having finished the book I had with me.* I have to admit I got a little distracted while looking this up.

I have always known that the word Canada is from the Huron word kanata meaning “settlement” or “village.” I think we were taught that in grade 2. But it turns out that six of the 13 province/territory names are also aboriginal in origin. These include the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec and the territories of the Yukon and Nunavut. I knew that of Saskatchewan (because, well, just look at it), Ontario (because that’s where I went to school) and Nunavut (again, just look at it). The Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website has a decent, but by no means exhaustive, list of cities and towns with aboriginal names — including Winnipeg — that can be found here. My favourite? Rimouski, if only because it means “land of moose” and my best friend is convinced that everyone in Canada has a moose for a pet.**

Anyway, once I got back from my educational sidetrack, I also verified that Minnesota means “murky water” in Sioux. Etymonline says “cloudy water.” Good enough for me.

*I have had a smart phone for less than a year and I have absolutely no idea how I lived without one before that. In fairness, I was overseas from the time the first smartphones came out until just before I got my smartphone, but still. It’s amazing how easily accessible information is these days and how quickly I have adapted to having access to that information at all times.

**He doesn’t actually believe this because he’s not a complete idiot, but nearly every time I talk to him, especially if he’s been drinking, moose come into the conversation. It has been this way for as long as we’ve known each other.

Lesson #116: The History of Maple Syrup

It turns out that the history of maple syrup is pretty interesting, so we’re just going to keep on the maple syrup theme for one more day.*

There is no precise date for the discovery (invention?) of maple syrup, Iroquois legend holds that the discovery of maple sugar was purely accidental (all the best things are!)** Early settlers in Canada reported as early as 1685 that the Native population in the northeast were making it. A 1685 paper given at the Royal British Society noted, “the Savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises, in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet ….”

The native tribes used birch bark buckets to collect the sap from the trees which had been slashed in a V-shape and then fitted with hollowed out reeds to act as taps. Once this process was complete, hollowed out trees were used to boil the sap down, most of it all the way down to maple sugar because the sugar doesn’t spoil. The syrup would be consumed as a drink and the sugar would be used for cooking.***

Some historians argue that the process by which maple sap is extracted and boiled down into sugar was too technologically advanced for the native populations at the time and they could not possibly have been responsible for the discovery, but I’m inclined to believe in the evidence academia presents. If the British settlers at the time were reporting that the First Canadians were doing this, it’s likely that happened. The British weren’t exactly known for not taking credit for things.

*I told you I love maple syrup.

Autobiographical note: The spring I lived in a certain European Capital, my parents came to visit for my birthday and brought with them a bottle of maple syrup. One of the English guys I ran with was more excited about this than any one person should be over a condiment. I will not write his exact words, hilarious though they were, especially coming from his mouth, but I will say that his adoration for maple syrup may have touched on the sexual gratification of heavenly creatures.

**Interestingly, the only information I can find on the native term for maple syrup is Algonquin…sinzibuckwud, which means “drawn from the wood.”

***To read more, see here and here.

Lesson #67: The Inukshuk

Autobiographical note: I was blessed with a stupidly good sense of direction.* I can go somewhere once and six months later get myself back there without a map. It astounded my travel companions in Hungary that it took me less than three days to memorize the layout of the city and that when they thought I had no idea where we were going and was going blind without a map and I had to fight them every step of the way to trust me, I landed us back to a point where they knew where they were. It made me laugh when they just stood there in the square, perplexed, and went “how did you do that?” It’s really too bad this isn’t a marketable skill because I take an inordinate amount of pleasure from seeing how quickly I can learn to get around a new place.

Given that the symbol of the Vancouver Olympics is an inukshuk, I thought I’d look into them in more depth.

Here’s what I know about the inukshuk: they’re traditional Inuit structures made of stones to serve as navigational guides way up north where there are no trees or houses or roads to use as bearings.

Here’s what I learned: the plural is inuksuit, the word means “likeness of a person” in Inuktuit, they can be a single rock or many and can range from a few inches to a couple hundred feet tall, they were traditionally used as directional guides for travellers, but also to warn of danger, to indicate hunting or fishing grounds, to mark stashes of food or weapons, to mark a place of respect, or to assist in the hunt, there are different styles that mean different things, whether they indicate open water, direction, hunting or fishing grounds or a memorial. Most importantly Inuit tradition forbids the destruction of an inukshuk, which may explain the fact that so many survive and that they are one of the very few types of similar navigational guides that existed in the ancient world that remain intact.**

*How this happened is a bit of a mystery, to be honest. My maternal grandfather was famously bad with directions.

**More information can be found here.

Lesson #64: The Northern Lights

According to Inuit legends, the aurora borealis are created by the torches of the spirits of deceased friends and ancestors who are out to hunt and fish or seeking out the souls of the recently departed to lead them into the afterlife. Another tribe of Inuit thought the northern lights to be a game played between spirits (involving a walrus skull), and yet another Inuit tribe (specifically the Point Barrow Inuit) considered the auroras evil and armed themselves with knives.

More information on the native legends of the northern lights can be found here.

Lesson #49: The Taming of the, um, Turkey

Archaeology is awesome! It teaches history and anthropology all at once and offers insight into the way people lived thousands and thousands of years ago. And it’s a job I could never do because I don’t have the patience to dig for 20 years and only ever find pot sherds. I want there to be a flag that says “DIG HERE. SOMETHING IMPORTANT BELOW.”

Anyway, I ran across this article today and learned about how the turkeys we eat are descended from a breed first tamed by the Aztecs 2000 years ago. Cool! However, up until about 1100, they weren’t bred for their meat, but for their feathers.

Lesson #6: The Alamo is Downtown

A friend of mine is in San Antonio for a job interview (Hi Rach! I hope the interview went well!) and during the course of a conversation last night she asked, “did you know the Alamo is right in the middle of the city?” I did not. I have neither been to San Antonio nor studied Texas history.

Here’s what I know about the Alamo: It’s in San Antonio and the battle of the Alamo was a crucial point in the Texas Revolution. And something about (Davy,) Davy Crockett (king of the wild frontier!)

Here’s what I learned about the Alamo: It was originally named Mision San Antonio de Valero and was established as a Roman Catholic Mission by the Spanish in 1718 to work at converting the Coahuiltecan people. After a hurricane destroyed the San Antonio Mission in 1724, the site of the mission was moved to its current location and rebuilt. It was secularized in 1793 and in 1800 (or 1803 depending on which website you read) was home to a Spanish cavalry unit that nicknamed it “Pueblo del Alamo” after their hometown of Alamo de Parras and the cottonwood trees that grew along the banks of the San Antonio River. Alamo, it turns out, is the Spanish word for cottonwood. The Alamo was the site of the first recorded hospital in Texas history, which was housed in the Long Barrack and the roof was never completed on the Mission after the first attempt caved in due to a dearth of engineers. Most of what the Alamo is known for is the bold stand of the very outnumbered Texans in their struggle for independence from Mexico in late February of  1836, a 13-day battle they lost, though Texas eventually gained its independence on April 21st of the same year.*

Two quick notes: 1. While much is made of the Missions out in California (several of which I have been to) the Spanish also set up 26 Missions in Texas, of which five are in San Antonio.** 2. Davy Crockett was, at one time, a congressman for the state of Tennessee.***

*More information can be found here, here and here.

**The five San Antonio Missions are the Alamo, a museum currently under the supervision of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and the Missions Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada, which form the collective of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which is run by the National Parks Service.

***A brief biography of Davy Crockett can be found here.