Saturday, November 27, 2010




: a highly ornamented ceremonial pipe of the American Indians

I must begin by pointing out one of the most glorious benefits of technology—the glitch. This morning I woke up to an email that looked like this:

Merriam-Webster Logo
Word of the Day
November 27Audio Pronunciation\KAL-yuh-met\
a highly ornamented ceremonial pipe of the American Indians

Where it says "November 27" in huge, bold letters, it should actually say "CALUMET." The word of the day is not "November 27." If it was, I would have to discuss this particular day, how it falls between November 26 and 28, how this was the day that Saint Anastasius began his reign as Pope in 399, and Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and in 1910, Penn Station opened its doors to a chilly New York City. Or I would talk about how in choosing the current date as the word-of-the-day, the etymologist was, in fact, implying the word TODAY, the concept of the ever-present, the current moment, the now.

But the word is actually CALUMET—a word stolen by the English from the French to brand upon the Native Americans. It means "peace pipe." Pipes were carefully and artfully crafted, an act to complement the religious ceremony of tobacco smoking among Native Americans. The pipes are often adorned with elements significant to the owner—feathers, beads, human or animal hair. Smoke from the CALUMETS is believed to carry prayers to the creator.

There are nine CALUMET towns or cities in the United States. CALUMET City, Illinois, was the birthplace of CALUMET Baking Powder Company (1889-1929 [General Foods buyout]). This brand featured an image of a Native American silhouette on their packaging. CALUMET containers appear in the pantry storage scenes in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Some read this as a symbol supporting the reading of the film that suggests it is a commentary on the Native American genocide. The inclusion is certainly thoughtful on Kubrick's part—we do know the Overlook is built on a Native burial ground. The CALUMET is, at the least, a clever irony.

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