You never know until you know. This post takes in: a highly-informative road crossing; polar bears and the naming of the Arctic, and a tale of high adventure in the Canadian High Arctic from my friend Simon Heath.
The first part of this post comprises words from a Twitter thread I posted on Thursday 25 April 2019, having returned from a work-related day in Westminster. Here is the thread, followed by the tale it told…
Crossing the road behind me in Westminster this afternoon was a gent who remarked to a woman on his bemusement that so few people know that the word “Arctic” is derived from the Latin for bear, and that the word “Antarctic” refers to a lack of bears in that neck of the woods.
I was tempted to turn to said gent and compliment him on his having made this perhaps the most interesting and informative road-crossing of my life.
Yet perhaps, had I spoken, I might have spoken too soon…
Having done a rudimentary wee bit of research* just now, it seems that the words Arctic and Antarctic do indeed have a bear-related derivation.
But it is a bear not of the Earth, but of the skies.** Regard:
“The name arctic originates from the word ‘arktos’ which is a Greek word that means bear. The name originates from ursa major and ursa minor constellations that represent the great and little bear respectively. They are seen in the northern hemisphere where they point the north star, hence the name Arctic.”
I take as my source an article from WorldAtlas.com, entitled What Are The Origins Of The Names Arctic And Antarctica?
And what of Antarctica? WorldAtlas says:
“Antarctica means ‘no bears are all mythical’. It is true that there are no bears in Antarctica, but the name comes from a Roman version of the Greek word that is antarktike. Anti-‘ is commonly a synonym for the opposite in English as well as in Greek. Thus, Antarctica means opposite of Arctic land, ‘Anti-‘ plus the Arctic which forms a compound word.”
I certainly knew none of this before. Thank you random bloke who happened to be crossing the road in Westminster right behind me today! I wonder a) who you were and b) what other matters of – to coin a phrase – “general ignorance” bemuse you?
A widespread loss of plot?
The story does not end there. As ever, Twitter takes up the tale.
It turns out that there was a fair bit going on in Westminster that day (as there always is). The Extinction Rebellion protesters may have moved their operations City-wards that day. But I saw a tweet from Gyles Brandreth, indicating that not only were the unusual Royal pairing of Harry and Kate attending the ANZACDay service at Westminster Abbey, but Mr Brandreth himself had been out filming in Westminster. Was there something in the air that day (something that might also have possessed my fellow road-crosser)? Brandreth says:
“Interesting morning filming around Westminster. Separately 3 people (a receptionist, an MP, & a journalist) said ‘Everyone’s lost the plot.'”
The lovely Michelle Parry-Slater responded to the odd and serendipitous moment of learning I got to enjoy in that thread with the following words:
“You never know until you know.”
Simon Heath: High adventure in the Canadian High Arctic
My friend Simon Heath got in touch, too. It turns out that his decades-long fascination with Scott of the Antarctic and all things Antarctic and indeed Arctic meant that he was already hip to just how these two continents got their names.
We continued chatting about matters Arctic. Simon told me that he has “a photo of me with my anti-polar bear rifle taken in 1990 in the Canadian High Arctic.”
I replied that I sincerely hoped he had never had occasion to use this device, and that I would love to hear the tale of how we came to have it in his possession. Simon was so kind as to tell me the tale of his second Arctic expedition (on which the photograph was taken), and to allow me to include both photograph and story here.
Here’s Simon story of high adventure in the Canadian High Arctic:
I had been in the High Arctic on an expedition in 1987. That one was in Spitsbergen. I wrote about it in Melancholia on Ice.
The summer of 1990 found me 500 miles from the north pole once again. On remote Axel Heiberg Island.
The threat of polar bear attack was very real and all parties were required to travel armed with powerful rifles that we hoped never to use.
We also shared this Arctic wilderness with wolves and musk oxen. The wolves once walked right through our camp as we watched, dumbfounded. But it was a musk ox that brought the occasion on which I thought I would actually need to use the rifle.
A lone local bull who we assiduously avoided whenever he came near because of his fearsome temper was making threatening advances toward a group of scientists returning across the floor of a dried-up river valley. We felt sure that the bull would charge, and would only be deterred by the noisy retort of a rifle being fired over his head. So I walked a very long and wobbly knee’d walk out to interpose myself between him and my colleagues, chambering a round as I did so.
I took aim with the rifle and began hollering at the bull to clear off. He took a few paces nearer and snorted. Squeaky bum time. I hollered some more.
Then, miraculously, he turned and trotted away. My legs were like jelly as I walked back to camp.
As I went to clear the weapon I realised that I’d failed to chamber the round correctly. If he’d charged me I’d have suffered a jam or mis-fire and would have suffered the ignominy of being bulldozed and killed or seriously wounded by 400kg of speeding behemoth. A lucky escape all round.
We never saw a polar bear that summer although I did walk nervously alongside fresh tracks on a mud flat for half an hour one sunny and memorable afternoon.
* I am paraphrasing here one of my most-quoted lines of recent times, which orginates from the great Stewart Lee: “He hasn’t done the most basic research.” You can see this line in its original habitat here:
** Here’s another bear (of the skies, not of the earth)/north pole connection that occurred to me after the writing of this thread. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is located in the Arctic. In Superman II, the not terribly nice General Zod invades said Fortress alongside his equally not-nice chums, one of whom is named Ursa… which is of course the Latin for bear!
- Beautiful post-it note calligraphy by MJCarty. Is there no beginning to my talents?
- Moody skies over Westminster photography by MJCarty.
- Polar bear doodles via Wikimedia Commons.
- Photograph of Simon Heath in 1990 provided and used by kind permission of Mr Heath.
- Polar bear illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, via Wikimedia Commons.
- Musk ox via Wikimedia Commons.
- Polar bear tracks via Wikimedia Commons.