Taissumani, Aug. 30
Anorak – The Hijacking of an Inuktitut Word
“Annuraaq” is a perfectly good Inuktitut word used in all Canadian dialects. It refers to garments or articles of clothing. It some contexts it can mean upper garment or shirt.
In Greenland it has the same meanings, but can also have a specialized meaning to describe a tightly hooded, short-bodied pullover jacket. In white, these form part of the national costume for Greenlandic men.
Whalers who frequented the Greenland coast during the 1800s borrowed the word and adopted it into their language, with the spelling “anorak.”
It has been used in Britain for over a century to mean a jacket or coat, with a hood, and usually resistant to rain. It is shorter than a raincoat. The hood is generally fringed with fur or imitation fur.
Ironically, in North America, including Canada, the word “anorak” is not generally used to describe this type of outer clothing. But the word is becoming more well-known. Kenny McCormick, the cartoon character on South Park, wears an orange anorak.
In December 2006 a Montreal playwright, Adam Kelly, performed a one-man play called “The Anorak.” It was about the madman who murdered 14 women at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989.
Asked why the play was called “The Anorak,” Kelly explained: “Just before he shot himself, he took off his coat, which was an anorak, and wrapped it around the end of the barrel of the gun. It was a very strange thing to do. It wasn’t going to stop the bullet. It wasn’t going to muffle the sound. There was no reason, really.”
But back to Britain, where the Inuktitut word came into common usage, albeit with a modified spelling, as a popular article of outdoor rainy-weather clothing. As borrowings go, so far this one was fairly mundane and predictable. But the word’s evolution was not yet complete.
Among railway enthusiasts there is a particular kind of hobbyist who is obsessed with seeing and making note of all rolling stock of a certain type, or belonging to a certain company, or — you name the criterion, and there will be someone wanting to see and document it.
These obsessive individuals are known as trainspotters. (Just to make the issue more confusing, the hobby, trainspotting, has nothing to do with the cult film of the same name.)
Because trainspotters must be out in all kinds of weather in pursuit of, or in wait for, trains as yet undocumented by them, the anorak became their favourite outerwear.
For those who are not trainspotters, this particular hobby is seen as the refuge of dull, unimaginative people with an obsessive interest in detail. Trainspotters are seen as boring, as nerds, as geeks. And for some reason – perhaps because their favoured clothing, the anorak, was also seen as unfashionable - anorak morphed onto a new meaning.
Today, in British slang, an anorak is a person with an incomprehensible interest in arcane detailed information on any subject that the rest of the population regards as boring. Even on a routine subject, one can be deemed an anorak if he cannot restrain himself from spouting his detailed knowledge on his chosen subject to anyone within earshot. The anorak offers “overly-detailed discussion and arcane trivia on hobbyist topics.”
And so we have classic car anoraks, birdwatching anoraks, aircraft that have landed at Heathrow airport anoraks, and so on. Conrad Black has occasionally been called an anorak for his obsessive discourse on any number of topics.
It’s been a strange journey indeed for the Inuktitut word “annuraaq,” borrowed by whalers over a century ago as “anorak,” and used now in British slang to describe geeky, obsessive individuals insistent on sharing their hard-won knowledge with those of us who probably don’t care.