This weeks column is, like, really
On this ramble through leafy wealds of birch well discover how
the word birch connects with fascism, canoes, Ukrainian surnames, moose calls and
even with lubricious and delicious fertility rites. Well commence our tiptoe through
the birchen boscage with a fillip of botany.
Genus: Betula > betula Latin, birch
Family: Betulaceae, the birch tree family
French: bouleau < *betullus Latin, probable
spoken variant of betula
Birch < birche, birk Middle English < birce,
beorc Old English. Akin to Ukrainian bereza, German Birke, Old
Norse bjï¿½rk, Sanskrit bhurja. A very old Indo-European tree word, its
root *bherja means that birch is the bright tree, a reference to its
chalky-white bark. The words birch and bright are cognates, words
stemming from the same root cluster in Indo-European: *bhel, *bher, *bhrek, all
of which give words related to shining whitely, shimmering, blazing, burning. The
Ukrainian word for the month of March is Berezen time when the birch trees
flower. And there is that refreshing Russian potion, berezovyi sok (birch
ITS BJï¿½RK ! ! !
Let us not omit that bizarre gamine, Icelandic singer and actress
Bjï¿½rk Guï¿½mundsdï¿½ttir, known simply as Bjï¿½rk. She bears a fine, ancient Viking name
meaning birch tree.
Birching & Fascism
In English the noun became a verb, to birch. Birching was the now-discredited practice of flogging British
schoolchildren with birch twigs tied into a nasty, welt-raising bundle. Pious pedagogues
even had a sad little saying to accompany their sadomasochistic act: I must send you
to Birchin Lane . The cheap pun recalled an actual London street. Even in
Shake-speares time Birchin Lane was well known for second-hand clothing stores,
being lined with apparel emporia where an impecunious Elizabethan swain might pick up a
bargain in a maroon velvet doublet.
The punitive use of birch is ancient. The fasces (Latin, literally
fastened bundles of stout sticks) had ceremonial importance among Roman
magistrates where it was carried before them in processions as a symbol of their power
over limb and life. The fasces were usually birch rods tied together with a red leather
thong with an axe stuck in the midst of the rods, or the bundle of birch was tied together
with a red ribbon as a cylinder around an axe. This recalled a time in Rome s early
days when criminals were flogged and scourged with the birch rods and then beheaded with
In 1919, an Italian totalitarian named Benito Mussolini brought
together an anti-Communist group of thugs and street rabble called Il Fascio di
Combattenti the band of fighters. Soon other Fasci had sprung up. By 1921
Mussolini was in parliament and founding the Partito Nazionale Fascista National
Fascist Party. He called himself Il Duce the leader and gave
hope to other political criminals of the world, including Hitler in Germany who liked the
trappings of fascism, such as borrowing the birch rod and axe symbol, although privately
Hitler thought Mussolini was a vulgar if deadly clown. Took one to know one.
The birch has not always been happy in its political namesakes. One
thinks of the John Birch Society, another mob of anti-Communist, right-wing zealots,
founded in the United States in 1958 and named after a U.S.A.F. intelligence officer,
supposedly the first American killed by Chinese Communists in 1945.
Of about sixty world species of birch, ten are native to Canada and
the northern United States , six of them tree-like, four shrubby. Yellow Birch, Betula
alleghaniensis (Botanical Latin, of the Allegheny Mountains ), has wood that takes
stain and polish well, thus finding extensive use in woodwork of all kinds. In the
prairies and in parts of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories grows Water Birch,
Betula occidentalis (Latin, western), while our Maritimes is the homestand of
Grey Birch, Betula populifolia (Botanical Latin, with leaves like poplar). Bouleau
blanc and bouleau ï¿½ papier are both Canadian French terms for Betula
White Birch Uses
White Birch, Paper Birch, or Canoe Birch, is a species with many
varieties and forms. The botanical binomial is Betula papyrifera (Latin,
paper-bearing). Because of its resistance to water and decomposition, birchbark of several
species has been used as a medium to write on as far back as ancient India where bhurja,
the Sanskrit word for birch, was noted as suitable to contain the text of sacred poems.
Several of the oldest extant manuscripts are on birchbark. Birchbark was used to make a
quick pair of snow glasses by many northern peoples. During trips over snow in bright
sunlight, a strip was tied around the head. Two small slits made in the bark over the eyes
permitted some vision. Oil of Birch with its aroma of wintergreen is still used by tanners
to make Russian leather. The oil imparts an anti-mould quality that makes Russian leather
a useful cover for books worth preserving.
Betula papyrifera is widespread across much of Canada and
provided a smooth, waterproof shell for one of the yarest vessels ever invented by
humankind. The canoe was light, easy to repair, lasting, and resilient, and was the first
transport over the inland waters of North America. Voyageurs first traded for canoes and
opened up what would become Canada through trading for furs. Native peoples of the eastern
woodlands traditionally made the boats in early summer when birchbark stripped easily.
After long swatches of birchbark had been sized and cut, white pine, spruce, or tamarack
roots were dug up and boiled taut to make the tough thread used to stitch seams. Those
seams were sealed waterproof with pine resin or spruce pitch applied with a hot stick.
Canoe frames and thwarts were made from cedar soaked in water so it could be bent to the
Birch Moose Calls
The birchbark horn was a swatch of the papery bark sewn into a cone
shape. The Ojibwa and other Algonkian peoples blew through the cone making the papery
layers resonate and imitating the anxious foghorn basso of a female moose in heat.
rogan < houragon Canadian French < onagan
Ojibwa, bowl, container
Birchbark rogans were used by First Peoples all across northern
America . They were essentially waterproof bowls, buckets, and containers used to keep
food for long periods of time, sometimes being buried or cached until needed. Birchbark
strips were sewn tight with spruce-root thread and the seams sealed with spruce resin.
Rogans also held maple syrup, up to five gallons in one case.
A Glass of Birch, pardner, and the first cowpoke who snickers
gets a bellyful of hot lead! Several liquid delights were made from birch. Birchsap
ginger ale and birch syrup were widely known in the pioneer west. Birch wine, an old
continental cordial, is made from the thin, sugary sap of Betula alba, European
white birch. The sap is collected in March, boiled down slightly with honey, cloves, and
lemon peel, and then fermented with yeast. Birchwater tea, an infusion of the leaves, was
once a specific for gout and rheumatism. And we mentioned above that refreshing Russian
potion, berezovyi sok (birch drink).
Besides the obvious southern English ones like Birch and its northern
equivalent Birk are surnames like Birkin, from a West Yorkshire place name meaning birch
wood, Birkenshaw birch shaw where shaw is an Old English word for copse,
thicket, or small wood. French has a Bouleau surname. German and Scandinavian languages
have surnames with the root, e.g., Birchmeyer birch farm, Birckholz and
Birkenstock birch wood, and Bjorkstrand birch beach. A surname of
Byelorus is the White Russian Beresten birchbark box where for some lost
reason the ancestor was named after such an object. Russian surnames containing the root
for birch tree include Berezin and Berezov. One Estonian surname is Kask birch.
Latvian has Berzins < berzs birch and Kalnberzins < kaln
Latvian, mountain berzs.
Ukrainian has the usual type of birch last names like Berezko = bereza
Ukrainian birch + ko surname suffix. But Ukrainian also has a group
of unique and sometimes humorous surnames formed like Shakespeare was in English, namely,
an imperative followed by a noun object. Some are actual surnames; others are names
created by humorists and dramatists. Among the actual surnames is Lupibereza peel
the birch indicating either a woodsman or an ancestor who beat others or was beaten
himself (?). A few others in this subgroup of playful Ukrainian surnames:
Peciborsc cook the borsch
Tovcigrecko stamp the buckwheat
Vernidub pull out the oak
Nepijvoda dont drink water (comic name of an
alcoholic ancestor ?)
Canadian Birch Place Names
Our maps are speckled with multiple Birch Lakes , Birch Rivers, Birch
Islands. But the singingest toponym is Birchy Cove on Newfoundland s east coast.
Central Saskatchewan has the town of Bjorkdale, either from a Scandinavian surname, or a
pioneer descriptive in Swedish or Norwegian where it can mean birch valley. A
summer resort in Alberta was given the birchy name of Betula Beach in 1960. Black slaves,
loyalists to King George, fled the American Revolution and arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783.
Some settled at Birchtown on the edge of Shelburne. Their village name honours
Brigadier-General Samuel Birch, a British commandant who gave them food and shelter before
their trek north.
In northern Ontario is Wigwascence Lake, an Englishing of an Algonkian
decsciptive containing wigwas-, the root for birch trees. Compare
Ojibwa wigwasigamig birch bark lodge.
In some reference texts one may see spurious etymology such as this
text: The basic wigwam, whose name comes from the Algonquin word wigwass
for the birch tree or its bark, consists of a frame of bent saplings covered with sheets
of bark and reed matting.
Actually the word wigwam stems directly from forms like wikwom,
wikawam, etc, in a variety of Algonquian languages like Abnaki, Delaware,
Massachuset and Ojibwa, where it means their house, a plural of week
his house. Compare Algonquian keek your house (second
person singular) and the evocative neek my house.
Evocative for me, the neek form stirs thoughts of the
monogenesis of all world languages. The Algonquian -n- with all its semantic
freight of first person singular (I, me, mine) and plural (we, us, our) suggests
Indo-European forms that carry similar meanings like noi, nous, nos, noster, nosotros,
nuestro. The Algonquian root for home or dwelling -eek- seems startlingly
parallel to the Greek root oik- that we see in the common Classical Greek word
for home, oikos. We see it more frequently in its modern English descendants like
the word economy, originally oikonomia literally the rules for running the
Thousands of such similarities in word forms exist all over this
earth, in languages that our teachers taught us have nothing to do with one another. This
is not, as we were falsely and lazily told, mere serendipitous happenstance. No, no, no.
This is similarity worth the investigation of all those interested in etymology and
language. Do not be put off by the howls of outrage from tenured language professors in
universities the globe over.
The linguists and anthropologists of The Smithsonian Institution in
Washington are made particularly uneasy by any attempt to link North American languages
with their Old World relatives. On an almost yearly basis, The Smithsonian issues hissyfit
bulletins denouncing all studies of the monogenesis of human language, decrying especially
the work of Merritt Ruhlen and his late mentor Joseph Greenberg.
Be suspicious of the Smithsonian dismissal of the works of Ruhlen and
Greenberg. In some part it is the nervous twitter of Phuds worried that their doctorates
in linguistics may need complete revision.
If this idea stirs you, read the works of Merritt Ruhlen. Begin with
the biographical entry on Ruhlen at Wikipedia. But do go beyond it and remember that it
was written by one who disagrees totally with Ruhlen. Get hold of Ruhlen's latest book
Lubricious Pre-Christian Fertility Rites
The Maypole, the resin-smeared phallic tree of European spring
fertility rites was often a skinned birch. See the quotation below. Other ceremonial
relics of tree-worship lingered well into the twentieth century, as Sir James Frazer notes
in The Golden Bough, his monumental study of folk magic and religion. In
mid-spring Russian peasants went into the woods to cut down a birch sapling, dress it in
womens clothes, parade it through a village, and then toss it into a stream as a
charm to bring spring rain to the fields.
In some parts of rural Sweden birch twigs in leaf were carried from
door to door by the boys of the village. At each cottage they asked for eggs. If they
received them, they put a sprig of birch leaves over the door and sang folksongs asking
for fine weather and a bountiful harvest.
Seeking the May in rural Germany involved young men of
marriage age cutting down a birch tree, skinning it, greasing it, and placing at the top
sausages, cakes, and eggs. Contests were held to see who could shimmy up the Maypole to
gain the prizes. In earlier European villages the birch Maypole, representing the renewal
of fertile vigour, was a fixture in the village centre where it was set and left in place
all year, to be put up afresh each spring.
Here is a description of the fetching of the Maypole during the reign
of Queen Elizabeth the First from the horrified pen of a puritanical scribe named Phillip
Stubbes who published it in 1583 in his Anatomie of Abuses. Notebut be not
overly concerned aboutthe wild vagaries of Elizabethan spelling which had not yet
been made regular by the wide use of dictionaries.
Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and
maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and
mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they
return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall.
And no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and
Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely Sathan, prince of hel. But the chiefest jewel
they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as
thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of
flouers placed on the tip of its hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this
stinkyng ydol, rather) . . . with two or three hundred men, women, and children following
it with great devotion. And thus beeing reared up. . .they fall to daunce about it, like
as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is perfect pattern,
or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that vive voce) by men
of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to
the wood overnight, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe
Lets end with lines by American poet Robert Frost:
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Hundreds more of my Canadian word stories are
available by clicking on the links below
Sales of my new book support
the continuance of this website.
$10.95 in all Canadian
McArthur & Company, Toronto
ORDER MY BOOKS ONLINE AT
Canadian Word Stories