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A Rose is a Rose?

by Stephen Lautens


June 23, 2000

Darn it. You turn your back for a few minutes and someone goes and changes things on you.

My wife and I were driving up to the cottage for the first time this season and missed our turn off the main road. While we were away they changed the name of our street.

I had to call the township about something else. When we were getting a phone installed we found out everyone's street number was wrong, and now thanks to us all our neighbours now have to send out change of address cards. I don't think we'll be going to the street party this year.

While I had the municipality on the line I asked why the name change.

I'm a bit of an amateur historian, so I knew a little about the area around the cottage. In the 1820s the surrounding hills were logged to provide the British Navy with masts for their sailing ships. Every once in a while one of the logs that got away more than 150 years ago rises from the bottom and floats to the surface of the lake. It may never see the British Empire, but one now adorns my shore as a handy bench to catch the morning sun.

They used the Squaw River to get these hundred-foot logs down to the lake. As close as I can tell, the Squaw River has had that name for more than a century and a half. The newly renamed road that runs along side it was the Squaw River Road.

I can see you're already way ahead of me.

The township tells me that no one in the area had a problem with the name. It had existed for years without comment from any of the local Native groups.

But last winter someone from Ottawa was driving by on the highway. They must have slowed down on their way to or from a sensitivity training course just long enough to be offended and jotted down the name of the river and street. The person wasn't of aboriginal extraction - just someone wanting to assert some backwoods political correctness.

"Squaw" is an Algonquin word that simply means "woman". In that language - and I must confess my own Algonquin is a little rusty - it has no other or offensive meaning. It was picked up as slang by early settlers to refer to any native woman. Linguists say the belief that it also could refer to a certain part of the female anatomy is just not true.

But we'd rather change an historic name than take the time to understand the history. By the way, I saw that Oklahoma also just voted to change everything named "Squaw".

It's like all the fuss a few years back when an American public official used the word "niggardly". He lost his job over it due to the clamouring of various groups who assumed this word for cheapness was a slur aimed at the black community. A quick look in the dictionary shows that "niggardly" comes from an Old Norse word hnøgger, which has nothing to do with black people. For the record, the offensive word comes from the Latin niger, meaning black.

But don't let facts - or a couple hundred years of history - get in the way of righteous indignation.

Or am I just being niggardly?


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