Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

On June 22, 2014 · 2 Comments

I don’t think I’ve ever milked three articles from a single small town before. Earl Grey, a village in Saskatchewan struck the trifecta once I considered it’s origin though. I’d mentioned in the previous article that one source said, "the district was then known as Snorum." Did anyone else find that amusing? Snorum. It sounded like it must have been the most boring spot on the planet, so boring it put people into a snoring sleep.(¹) The unnamed Canadian Pacific Railroad official who suggested Earl Grey as a preferable name did the town a favor.

Earl Grey, formerly Snorum, Saskatchewan, Canada

That same source From Buffalo Grass to Wheat: a History of Long Lake District noted that Earl Grey settlers came from "… Austria, Germany, England and Scotland. Others came from Ireland, Norway, France, Sweden and eastern Canada." I never did discover the source of the original name, Snorum. I think the Swedish settlers may have been responsible. Let me explain.

Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

"Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum" was a common Swedish children’s rhyme of the period, and may still be for all I could determine. I couldn’t find a literal Swedish translation for this nonsensical string of words. Apparently it wasn’t much more meaningful than all of the words happened to flow well together. It wouldn’t be any sillier than something the "Nanny nanny boo-boo" uttered by American schoolchildren. Kids are like that.

The chant derived from a Danish phrase, "Snip-snap snurre, basselurre." used similarly. The Danish version even appeared in a Hans Christian Andersen story, "Hørren" (the Flax). In it, the phrase appeared three times as the flax was harvested, turned to linen, used as an undergarment, cut to rags, turned into paper, and printed into a book. Each time it was reborn for a new purpose until it was burned finally at the very end of its long, productive lifespan.

I consulted a Danish dictionary and found a better explanation. Translation software provided an approximation of its original meaning. Life is a Snip, a Snap and a Snurre (to spin). Death is a Basselurre. The dictionary went on to explain that Basselurre was a meaningless word (et meningsløst ord) that simply completed the children’s rhyme of life and death. That seemed to be a pretty grim topic for a child’s chant — confrontation with one’s own mortality.

Snip, Snap, Snorum also became a card game at least as far back as the 18th Century and probably earlier.

The Villages of Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum

Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

Thanks for bearing with the tangent. I had to go through that elaborate explanation to tie the topic back to geography.

I uncovered a Swedish-language description of the towns of Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum, which I shall paraphrase as best I can. An iron ore mining company wished to open new facilities near Jörn in northern Sweden, in 1836. Few people lived there at the time, however, and the company wouldn’t have enough miners.

Hej14aug2010” by Enar NordvikOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, Five villages were created, Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum, each named for a different word in the children’s rhyme. Mining in the adjacent area petered-out quickly and the settlements never amounted to much, although the mere fact that someone named them like this was fantastic. Most of the settlements were never more than a cluster of homes or farms. Hej was probably the only one that became a true village.

Now to search for towns in North America named Nanny-Nanny and Boo-Boo.

(¹) When I was young and whenever we happened to be driving in Virginia’s exurbs outside of Washington, DC, and spotted the control tower at Dulles International Airport, my dad would always say: "That’s the world’s most boring airport. Why? Because it’s the dullest (for the 12MC audience that doesn’t speak English natively, it’s a play on words). That, or he’d call it the "Golf Ball Hall of Fame" (look at the tower and you’ll understand why). I think it’s mandatory for all fathers to tell bad jokes.

Earl Grey

On June 19, 2014 · 1 Comments

The 12MC audience anticipated my next move again. This time it was "The Basement Geographer" who flagged British prime minister Earl Grey and the Grey Cup in a comment responding to Gray vs. Grey. Those will be mentioned along with other topics today. I knew that could be a risk when I mentioned the prairie town of Earl Grey in Saskatchewan. I interpreted this as a sign of an engaged conversation and I appreciated the input.

Earl Grey, Saskatchewan

Anyway, let’s talk about Earl Grey, the rural town and its namesake. There have been seven men with the the hereditary title Earl Grey. Earl referred to a Peerage of the United Kingdom in this context, not to some dude named Earl although that may have been much more entertaining. According to the History of Earl Grey as published in "From Buffalo Grass to Wheat: a History of Long Lake District,"

…this settlement began when a settler spent the winter of 1903-04 in a dugout in the side of the hill near where the old school stands today. The district was then known as Snorum. It was surveyed about 1885. When the village was incorporated in 1906, a C.P.R. [ed., Canadian Pacific Railroad] official suggested that it be called Earl Grey in honor of the Governor-General, Earl Grey.

This particular Earl Grey was also Sir Albert Henry George Grey, 4th Earl Grey and more importantly for this story, Governor General of Canada between 1904 and 1911. "He is probably best remembered as the donor of the Grey Cup, the trophy awarded to the champion team of the Canadian Football League."

Earl Grey Pass, British Columbia

The Canadian Geographical Names Data Base included one other Earl Grey, a mountain pass bearing the name in British Columbia. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park explained the origin on its guide to the Earl Grey Pass Trail.

During a visit to British Columbia in 1908, Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor General… crossed the Purcell Mountains on a trail that connected the East and West Kootenays. He traveled up Toby and down Hamill Creeks, over a 2,256m pass which was later named in his honor… The Purcell’s so impressed Earl Grey that he had a cabin built for his family’s vacation in 1909. The remains of the structure still stand on Toby Creek, one kilometer from the Eastern trailhead.

These two Canadian geographic features along with numerous roads and schools spread throughout the Provinces were all named for Albert Grey.

Grey or Orange?

bergamotto by mariella44, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Earl Grey Tea, however, was named for a different Earl Grey. I figured I should check that out since I was already examining geographic features named Earl Grey. The tea referred to UK Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who was the grandfather of Albert Grey, the former Governor General of Canada.

Lord Grey’s most remarkable achievement was the Reform Act of 1832, which set in train a gradual process of electoral change, sowing the seeds of the system we recognise today… One of his other legacies is the blend of tea known as Earl Grey. He reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic present, of tea that was flavoured with bergamot oil. It became so popular that he asked British tea merchants to recreate it.

Bergamot oil came from the pressed peel of the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), an infrequently encountered sour citrus grown commercially in a small handful of places. The majority of those orange groves concentrated historically around the Calabria region of Italy, especially within the Province of Reggio Calabria (map), also recognized informally as the "toe" of the Italian boot. According to the Consorzio del Bergamotto (Consortium of Bergamot),

The bergamot is cultivated along the Ionian coast of the Province of Reggio Calabria, specifically between the towns of Villa San Giovanni and Gioiosa Jonica;  an area of about 1,500 hectares produces 20,000 tonnes of fruit, which yield an average of 100,000 kg of essence.

The Consortium provided an English-language video with much more information.

So remember,

  • Black tea infused with obscure citrus: 2nd Earl Grey
  • Canadian Football League championship: 4th Earl Grey

Feel free to drop those distinctions into your next cocktail party conversation if you need to disperse a crowd.

Gray vs. Grey

On June 17, 2014 · 10 Comments

I’ve always had a terrible time remembering how to spell a certain word that describes a mixture of black and white. Should it be gray or grey? In a sense I understood that it depended upon geography. The adoption of simplified spelling in the United States through the efforts of people like dictionary publisher Noah Webster in the early 19th Century certainly had an impact. I uncovered a little mnemonic that helped me out. The word grAy applied primarily to America; the word grEy applied just about Everywhere else. That introduced problems and exceptions too. It seemed somewhat dismissive to consider the United States as representing all of "America" for instance. Also certain proper terms such as Greyhound were always spelled with an E regardless of geography. Still, I’d discovered a simple enough mnemonic even with its limitations.

According to,

Gray and grey are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed.

I’m not a grammar expert. Readers have to spend maybe five minutes on 12MC to understand that. I only wanted to know if the same ratio held geographically. I figured the percentage might be a little fuzzier because certain placenames would have existed prior to the polarization of gray versus grey between English-speaking nations. Either way, I was about to find out.

Gray and Grey in the United States

The United States’ Geographic Names Information System referenced 1,962 gray placenames and 550 grey placenames. That came a lot closer to 4:1 than the stated 20:1, although it marked a clear preference for the "Americanized" version.

Twelve Mile Circle loves anomalies so I examined the list of places in the United States that fell on the counterintuitive side of the spelling divide. The 550 were much more interesting to me than the 1,962.

Two Grey Hills
Two Grey Hills by Chuck Coker, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Two Grey Hills fascinated me in particular. What a wonderfully descriptive placename even if the two namesake hills in the embedded photograph didn’t look all that grey or gray. The photographer noted that he’d captured this image outside of the Two Grey Hills Trading Post (map) in a remote corner of western New Mexico.

The trading post dated back to 1897.

… over a century old, and one of the few remaining historic posts on the Navajo Indian Reservation, is the primary source of authentic regional rugs and tapestries. Made of hand spun yarn from the fleece of naturally colored local sheep in shades of gray, brown, black and white, they are known around the world as the finest in Navajo weaving… Operating in isolation for over 90 years with no identifying signs, it is well known only to Navajos.

The price of intricately handwoven Two Grey Hills rugs can run into the thousands of dollars, easily.

Grey and Gray Everywhere Else

The Gazetteer of British Place Names included 24 instances of Grey and 11 instances of Gray. The overall totals were much smaller than GNIS because the British database included only populated places, not every conceivable geographic feature like its US counterpart. Britain certainly demonstrated a preference for grey in its placenames although nothing approaching 20:1 in my unscientific sample. Canada, however, surprised me when the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base returned 93 grey placenames and 112 gray, or fairly equal. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was given "the spelling system can be said to follow both British and American forms." That seemed to be the case for grey/gray at least as far as Canadian placenames were concerned. Maybe our Canadians readers can tell us if there’s a spelling preference for other usages.

Gray Rink, Gray Saskatchewan

Nonetheless I selected a gray in Canada, the small prairie village of Gray, Saskatchewan, which is not to be confused with Earl Grey, Saskatchewan about 111 kilometres farther north (map).

Gray is a small community located 25 miles southeast of Regina. It was established in 1911 as an agricultural based town. Gray and the surrounding area is home to over 130 people and attracts people from a 35 mile radius for it’s many activities. Like most small towns in Saskatchewan, Gray has experienced the ups and downs in it’s population base and is currently in a growth position.

The village used the Americanized spelling of Gray and referenced miles rather than kilometres on its website. I began to wonder if someone might have slipped the border a little farther north during the night when nobody was looking. Then I noticed that social activities in Gray seemed to focus on its hockey rink. Clearly, Gray belonged in Canada.

Next I conducted some serious investigative journalism as the 12MC audience has come to expect over the years. Wikipedia claimed, without attribution I might add, that the village "…has a hockey team called the Gray Hounds." This statement violated the Greyhound rule and required additional fact-checking.

I found no verifiable evidence for the existence of the Gray Hounds. Indeed, the Men’s recreational hockey team in Gray went by a completely different name: the Screaming Os.

Oh my.

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