Lyrics · Trivia · Word of the week

Word of the week: taiga

The shortest “Word of the Week” item so far on this Blog is this one about kakistocracy. I first heard the word on a quiz show back in March. As that earlier piece notes: “Some of these … pieces are about words that have come up in a few different contexts in the weeks beforehand (like palimpsest and crummy) and others are triggered by a specific reference (like CamelCase and Breakonium). I have only come across kakistocracy once, thanks to a quiz show. I wonder when it will next appear in my day-to-day life.” For the record, it hasn’t appeared since then. I have not encountered the word “kakistocracy” again outside of these pages.

A few weeks ago, watching a Celebrity edition of “Eggheads” (yes, another quiz show), I heard the word “taiga” for the first time. The question asked for the name of the birch forest that comprises 17% of the earth’s landmass. The options were: taiga, steppe, tundra. A BBC Breakfast presenter went for a wrong answer (steppe I think) and, like me, had never heard of taiga. It makes up one-sixth of the landmass on our planet and neither he nor I had heard of it. How is that possible? I gave up Geography at school at the age of 14 but even so am surprised that this stretch of forest, ranging across most of the northern hemisphere, was unknown to me. As this short piece on the BBC Nature website puts it: “The taiga is the largest land habitat – a northern zone of coniferous forests, stretching right round the planet from western Alaska to eastern Siberia. In the winter the temperature can drop to as low as -50 degrees Celsius and the taiga is blanketed in snow. Many of the trees have to survive being partly buried in snowdrifts.”

Part of it stretches across Scotland, and across the northern states of the USA, where it is known as The Great North Woods. I am familiar with this phrase from a Bob Dylan song, “Tangled up in blue” (the opening track on the album “Blood on the Tracks”). It includes the words, “I had a job in the Great North Woods / working as a cook for a spell / but I never did like it all that much / and one day the axe just fell”. Dylan rarely sings it that way. He changes pronouns, and sometimes whole verses, when singing his songs live. This clip from a 1975 performance (the year the album was released) changes not just the personal pronoun (from “I” to “he”) but also the job and the geographical location: “He had a job in Santa Fe / working in an old hotel / but he never did like it all that much / and one day it just went to hell”. (It’s at 1:29 for those of you who want to jump straight to it.) That clip has over 20 million views and this one, from a London show in 2000, has under 6,000. It also changes the pronoun, but the rest of the verse is the same (it begins at 1:49).

I enjoy the way that Bob Dylan modifies his lyrics when singing live, and always listen out for it. I’ll also be listening out for any further mentions of the word taiga in the months ahead. As with “kakistocracy” it may be some time before I hear it again.


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