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Thursday, December 12, 2019

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The Northern Name Game

When I took a job as the editor in chief of the weekly newspaper in Chetwynd, B.C., the last thing that I expected to trip me up was my spelling. Aside from my willingness to work in a two stoplight town three hours north of Prince George whose primary exports are coal, lumber, and brawling NHL middleweights, it was one of the things that got me the job. I was born and raised in Vancouver, and until October of last year was enjoying a perfectly cosmopolitan life in downtown Toronto, working as an intern for a major magazine and spending my late twenties in the same condition as most of my friends, a kind of existential stasis defined primarily by the relentless pursuit of cocktails and cool brunch spots.

But the thundering approach of my thirties told me that it was time to get some “real-world” experience, whatever that meant, and so I found myself packing the 1994 Honda Accord my father had generously decided to give me and heading west to Chetwynd. I spent many of my driving hours during the four days it took to cover the 3,000 kilometres between the intersection of Bloor and Bathurst streets and “downtown” Chetwynd thinking about ways in which I might screw up upon my arrival and receive a fist to the face, or worse, for my stupidity. Yet aside from mildly offending the wife of the town’s resident Elvis impersonator by mistakenly thinking that her husband’s self-professed passion was an ironic gesture – I had yet to discover that there’s no such thing as intentional irony up here – I haven’t made any terrible cultural miscalculations in my eight months here. None, at least, that have warranted the aforementioned fist to the face, a commonly used form of feedback in this town and others across Northern B.C.

I have, perhaps even more miraculously, avoided making any major journalistic blunders, a significant accomplishment for somebody who lacks any formal training in capital-J journalism. While I mistakenly assumed that my voice recorder was on in a few situations where it was not, asked a few stupid questions to people who didn’t deserve to have to answer then, and ran some conspicuously mediocre photographs in my first few weeks on the job – to be fair, I’d never had an interest in taking pictures before, much less ones that would go anywhere beyond my facebook profile – I haven’t, to my knowledge, made any errors of practice that couldn’t be described as normal parts of the learning curve. No, my biggest mistakes up here have involved my spelling, one of the few strengths that I thought I had brought to the job. Spelling is something of a lost art these days, of course, thanks to the proliferation of spell-check programs. But I’ve discovered that, at least in Chetwynd, they’ve found a way to defeat these programs.

There are no obvious spellings of first names in Chetwynd, and this is a lesson I have had to learn many, many times over, with predictably angry phone calls or emails from parents upset that I’ve misspelled their child’s name in the town’s only newspaper. Up here, something easy like “Tyler” becomes “Tylar,” and “Jordan” becomes “Jourdon.” Better yet, “Jeremy” becomes “Jermey,” and “Jesse” becomes “Jescey.” These creative spellings aren’t limited to kids, either, meaning that this is no generationally-locatable trend. Among older residents, there’s a Daun, a Suczan, and a Tannia, to name but a few. Chetwynd residents are a predictably conservative bunch, but when it comes to filling out a birth certificate they have a long tradition of transforming into convention-busting radicals.

I am, to be clear, not trying to mock these creative spellings. Upon closer inspection, they have a kind of curious logic to them. In a place like Toronto or Vancouver such apparently deliberate misspellings would produce a relentless campaign of playground teasing for the child and quite possibly a visit from child protective services for the parents. But places like Chetwynd don’t have the cultural diversity of a Vancouver or a Toronto – or even a Prince George – and so creative spellings are a pragmatic way of avoiding the kind of confusion that would be the inevitable result of a class that had seven Tylers, four Jeremys, three Ashleys, and six Jordans, all spelled exactly the same way. More importantly, given the limited pool of family names inherent to any small and geographically isolated community, it circumvents the impossible situation of having two or three children in the same class with the exact same name, first and last. In the Vancouvers and Torontos of the country, multiculturalism is a defining part of everyone’s daily lives, whether they like it or not. In Chetwynd, such opportunities, from an inter-cultural relationship down to something as simple as a steaming bowl of Pho at lunch, simply don’t exist. In their absence, the creative spelling of first names is about as close as they can get to it.

I have, in the weeks and months since I discovered this facet of Chetwynd life, managed to avoid making too many mistakes with first names. I check the spelling every time, even if I presume to know how it should go, and on those few occasions that I forget I am reminded that the naming culture in which I grew up and the unwritten rules associated with it doesn’t exist here. As far as important lessons for a young journalists go, it’s been an interesting and instructive one.

Chetwynd, June 11 – 910 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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