Flew back from a week’s holiday, landed in a dystopian nightmare.
To be precise: Sometime in my absence, Saltspring Island became Salt Spring Island.
To explain why this matters, let’s retreat a bit. In the 19th century, what was at various times called Klaathem, Chuam or Admiralty Island became known locally as Salt Spring (or Saltspring) Island, the name coming from the brine pools (or is that brinepools?) burbling up on its north end.
Local usage tilts toward two words, though there’s hardly unanimity. (When have islanders agreed about anything but ferry fares?) The newest phone book has 62 listings that begin with Salt Spring, but only 13 for Saltspring. Several years ago, Canada Post declared the one-word version must be used on mail, but backed down after a minor revolt.
Never mind. Here at the Times Colonist, we have always stuck with the official version, Saltspring, as adopted by the Geographic Board of Canada in 1910.
This is how newspapers settle questions of usage: blind, unswerving adherence to the rules. This applies not only to place names but the language as a whole. Most publications in the Great Write North take as gospel the Canadian Press Stylebook (not Style Book), which lays down the law on such questions as whether to use “colour” (yes) or “color” (no), Afghan (noun) or Afghani (adjective), or eatable (can be eaten because not revolting) or edible (can be safely eaten).
Any heretic attempting to break ranks and indulge personal preference (say, percent instead of per cent) risks evisceration by a foul-tempered copy editor (ed. note: redundant), whose terminal dyspepsia can be traced to a steady diet of strong drink (ed. note: whisky when referring to Canadian or Scottish, whiskey when American or Irish) and weak reporters. Writers who use “suspect” and “killer/mugger/thief” interchangeably are subjected to an ear-twisting lecture (“No! The suspect did not rob the bank. The robber robbed the bank. The suspect is suspected of being the robber.”)
Without consistent application of the rules, we lose credibility, the argument goes. Without order, there is chaos. Lawlessness seeps into society’s foundations, which crack and crumble. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Roving gangs of feral youth burn crops and knock over liquor stores.
We do occasionally make mistakes with local names — for example, assuming that any school in the Sooke school district is in Sooke or that any business on Oak Bay Avenue is in Oak Bay. We stumble over the idea that Becher Bay is home to the Beecher Bay band, also known as the Cheanuh, also known as the Scia’new First Nation, which we somehow turned into Sci’anew, our application of apostrophes in aboriginal names sometimes resembling a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
In our defence, it should be pointed out that we have also had trouble spelling our own name: while the Times-Colonist became the hyphenless Times Colonist in December 1994, the files show pockets of resistance (hello, sports department!) held out like the Russians at Stalingrad for months, if not years.
Change comes slowly. It took us a long time to give up the term Western Communities, in part because no one was quite sure whether the mid-1990s replacement, the invention of boosters who wanted to give the area an image makeover, was West Shore or Westshore. Even today, there’s a confusion of proper names: Note that on Friday we ran a story about a woman who was sentenced in the Western Communities Courthouse after being arrested by the West Shore RCMP for a robbery near the Westshore Town Centre mall. We can assume the WestShore Chamber of Commerce wasn’t amused.
Change does come, though. Once upon a time, any TC reporter who wrote Pat Bay Highway instead of Patricia Bay Highway was dragged behind the presses and beaten, but that is no longer the case.
And now we have the shift from Saltspring to Salt Spring, as dictated in a memo from on high. “Every time we use Saltspring, we are sending a message that we know better than the people who live there,” read the directive. “That is not a good message to send.”
I shuddered. This was anarchy. What’s next, gay marriage, votes for women? This is Victoria (civic motto: We Fear Change).
“Back on the plane,” I said. “We’re flying to Peking.”
“You mean Beijing,” she replied.