There is a paddling term that stinks. It needs to be changed. But changing the name people use for a thing can be difficult, and sometimes we assume names don’t really matter that much. Shakespeare’s famous line, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” is often interpreted to mean that names are not important.
This assumption is dead wrong. In actual fact the Shakespeare line is not an argument to ignore names, but to discard them if they are inadequate. Juliet, who utters this line in the play “Romeo and Juliet” is telling her fair Romeo that he is misnamed, that he is not a Montague. She tells him to take off his name and identify himself with her instead.*
Imagine that instead of calling it a birthday we called it our “placenta discarding day” or our, “causing mother to howl in pain day.” Would we bake a cake for such a day, would we gather to sing a happy song? Probably not, but fortunately it is aptly named. We call it our birth day, the day we became an entity outside our mother’s womb, took our first breath of the air of earth. We celebrate the best part of it, not the blood and pain and extravagant loss of the water world of prenatal bliss. It is right that we do.
Some of us, gripping paddles in our hands like placards at a rally, would like to change the name of an activity we love, but which either has no name at all, or has a real clunker. Someone named it badly, and it is time to fix that.
So, what is this name? This misfortune, this grievous insult? I’m putting off typing it. As soon as you read it you will cringe. I’m thinking of the beautiful activity, and I don’t want to taint it with that word. People know the name, and are embarrassed by it. They hang their head when it is said out loud. The old name, harsh as Orc guttural, has a certain descriptive quality which is not entirely inaccurate. But certainly not the name a lover would use. Juliet would not approve. It is not the name an enthusiast would use, not the name an aficionado would use. The name must, I’m afraid, be written, if nothing else to be examined for it’s inadequacy before suggesting a raft of better alternatives.
The name is Gunkholing. There I’ve typed it. If you google the term you will quickly discovery that the majority of references are for saltwater cruising and involve not only the visiting of “gunkholes” but going from place to place in search of them. Gunkholes are secluded shoreline places with gunk. Gunk, according to Wikipedia is any filthy, sticky, or greasy substances. This is the identical definition found in my trusty desk copy of the Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language. Gunk, in this context is supposed to refer to the mud and slime that is evident at low tide in saltwater marshes, estuaries, and bays.
The application of the term to freshwater locations is secondary, occurring I suspect because no other term has been widely used.
It is time to change all that.
So, before suggesting alternatives, this first post will critique the word Gunkholing. There are three main reasons for abandoning it outright, and a further one for questioning it’s use in my world of freshwater paddling.
1. Is the Gunk the thing? The mud and slime of marshes and estuaries is seldom sticky or greasy. Slippery, yes, and when you step in it up to your knee or deeper, it can be difficult to get out of, but most of the mud is made up of fine silts and decaying organic matter. One might just as easily describe it as silky, soft, or smooth. I will grant that such mud can be filthy. Filth is from the root word for putrid, and since there is decay at work in such places, fair enough, yet the attraction of such places lies not in the filth. So why include it in the name?
2. Where is the hole? Most places enjoyed by gunkholers are bays, bights, inlets, and coves. If these are holes, they are atypical. Holes evoke first and foremost a sense of depth, but in fact, most gunkholes are shallow. Holes are also generally round. Not very common in gunkholes.
3. Does it describe the love for doing it? The term is often used with an attached apology; “gunkholing, if you’ll excuse the term,” or similar phrases. Why keep apologizing, why not create a better term?
4. And finally, since the level of water in freshwater marshes and swamps moves less dramatically, usually a yearly and not daily cycle, the mud is generally covered for most of the year — only peaking out where reeds, rushes, sedges and grasses have not yet colonized. Take away the mud from the experience, and you take away a lot of the sense of filth.
In the next post I will review some better alternative names, and tell you the one that a small group of us paddlers have settled on.
*"It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name which is no part of thee take all myself."