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Cold Words from a Hot Desk: On Writing a Polar Dictionary

Read Monday, 16 Jun 2014

Bernadette Hince is developing a dictionary of Arctic and Antarctic words. She’s also one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows – and she reports from her desk at the Wheeler Centre to give us a taste of her project.


Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Here at this hot desk on the mezzanine corridor of the Wheeler Centre, I’m chewing my way through Arctic and Antarctic words as I begin writing a grand polar dictionary. Yum.

Do you remember the fun you had as a child, trying to make someone laugh while they were going red in the face trying not to? The Inuit have a word for that game you used to play – aaqsiiq. In this traditional northern game, the winner succeeds in making the loser utter a noise (typically laughter).

2000 Naqi Ekho and Uqsuralik Ottokie in Jean Briggs (ed) Interviewing Inuit elders vol 3: Childrearing practices. Nunavut Arctic College, Iqaluit: page 113.

We used to be silly. Aaqsiiq was the name of a game where we would try to keep a straight face while trying to make others laugh.


Image by Debra Tillinger/NOAA’s National Ocean Service

Another word that’s come up this week is Adelaite. Sounds as though it should be someone from Adelaide, doesn’t it? But there’s another meaning. When you are in the polar regions, it’s an occupant of the British Antarctic Survey base that existed on Adelaide Island (off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula) from 1961 to 1977.

Navigator John Biscoe sighted this island in 1832, and named it to honour Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, who married William IV and became Queen Adelaide. Yes, the same person the Australian city of Adelaide is named after.

How do I know about aaqsiiq and Adelaites? By spending the last 25 years looking for quotations like this one in polar literature:

1967 British Antarctic Survey Newsletter 5 (Aug): page 5.

He and John enjoyed the hospitality at Adelaide, which they repaid by dog driving tips, and by John taking some ‘Adelaites’ on a trip northwards.

Writing dictionaries is heaven. I’m so glad to be here.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.