Voices July 03, 2017
Raising a glass to Canada's founding debates
As Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we have the chance to use a rare word: sesquicentennial.
The Latin word sesqui turns the number following it into “one and a half” of whatever that number is. Since a centennial marks a one hundred year anniversary, a sesquicentennial makes it one hundred and fifty.
While the Latin word centum can mean “one hundred,” it can also refer to an indefinitely large number. So, if you say you ate a hundred potato chips, we know you mean you simply lost count.
Although sesqui occurs in Latin literature most often as a prefix, it does show up a single time as an independent word. The philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, when discussing metrical patterns in poetry, uses it to describe a ratio between long and short syllables.
In poetry, the two short syllables in the pattern called a dactyl are considered to be equal in length to the one long syllable that comes before them. That’s why the word dactylus, which means “finger,” is a good name for this pattern.
Take a look at the index finger in your left hand. You will notice the two short parts of the finger follow the one long part. Is the length of the two equal to that of the one?
Another pattern in poetry is the iambus, in which there is a short syllable and a long syllable. Cicero, doing the math, notes the long syllable is twice as long as the short one.
The third poetic pattern Cicero mentions is called a paean, in which there are four syllables: three are short, and one is long. Cicero, again doing the math, uses sesqui as a standalone word to describe the ratio of the short syllables to the long syllable as “one and a half.”
I am surprised we don’t have more examples of sesqui used as an independent word. In our day, it could be quite a handy term for ordering a “super-sized” portion of anything.
For example, a regular six-ounce serving of wine could be upgraded to a nine-ounce portion. Wouldn’t it make sense to call that portion a sesqui, making use of the elegant Latin word as upscale shorthand?
If enough of us start ordering food and drink using sesqui, then over time I think it could catch on as a new slang term in English. In any event, I will be making use of it to toast Canada’s sesquicentennial, with sizable portions appropriate for the occasion.
By the way, the word paean is also a word referring to any joyous song of tribute. No doubt the ancients named the metrical pattern used in composing such songs after the very name for those songs: paeans.
If we were to toast Canada’s sesquicentennial with a sesqui of our favorite beverage, what could we sing about in our paean? Since we are in the mood to “super-size” (excuse me, I mean “sesqui-cize”), we need to go above and beyond what our national anthem teaches us about Canada.
For me, the best way to learn about Canada’s history is to study the political and philosophical arguments at its birth. The indispensable book for this purpose is called Canada’s Founding Debates.
Louis Riel, one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, led the Red River Resistance when the Hudson’s Bay Company, without a vote from the people affected, sought to transfer Rupert’s Land (and thereby the Red River Colony) to Canada.
In a footnote to one of Riel’s speeches in Canada’s Founding Debates, William Gairdner notes the debate at the time was whether rights are “real concrete claims and protections against particular governments or abstract universal rights of all men regardless of place or history.”
Gairdner characterizes the “more English view” as seeing rights as concrete and particular, whereas the “more French view” considers rights as universal and abstract. The Irish statesman Edmund Burke warned that abstract “metaphysical rights” easily lend themselves to being redefined by governments to mean almost anything.
This debate from Canada’s founding is still with us today. Considering the matter, Riel said (March 16, 1870): “After all, there is here in some respects distinction without a difference. We complain not because we are British subjects merely, but because we are men. We complain as a people — as men — for if we were not men we would not be British subjects.”
Perhaps the Canadian genius for compromise, bringing together English and French, is to find the truth in both views. So, how about a paean to Canada’s sesqui of rights?