SPEY CASTING.

I’m a big Ian Frazier fan (and anyone interested in Russia should get his wonderful Travels in Siberia), so I read his “The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” even though it’s long and I have no interest in fly fishing, and I didn’t regret it a bit. The point of LH interest shows up in this sentence: “It was a red 1995 Chevy Tahoe with a type of fly rod called a spey rod extending from a holder on the hood to another holder on the roof like a long, swept-back antenna.” Naturally, I was curious about “spey rod,” and a bit of quick googling took me to this Wikipedia article, where I discovered that it is so called after the River Spey. But if it is from a proper name, shouldn’t it have a capital letter? Well, not necessarily; it depends how close a connection is felt to its geographical origins. For example, Brussels lace always takes the capital, but the sprouts can be either Brussels or brussels; frankfurter is always lowercase, because its German origins have been forgotten except by the historically minded. How do we decide which to use when we’re writing something for which proper usage matters, or when we’re copyediting? Why, we look in a dictionary, an easy decider for these essentially arbitrary matters.
Except that spey isn’t in the dictionary, not any of them, not even the OED (though it does have speys [< Old French espeisse < espeis 'thick'] Obs. rare. A thick or dense part of a wood). So all one can do is check Google Books to see what other editors have done, and we discover it seems to be about fifty-fifty; the Outside editor who worked on the Frazier piece went for lowercase spey, and I think I’d do the same, since presumably most fishermen aren’t aware of the origin in a Scottish river. But this is an example of why large dictionaries include so many words most people have never heard of; they may not be used often, but when they are, it helps if there’s an official way to write them.

Comments

  1. It seems this sense of Spey just might be in OED, only under the headword “switcher”, buried in this quote:
    1893 J. Grant in Westm. Gaz. 25 Feb. 8/1 One of the best old Spey fishers was my father,‥who had the reputation of being a crack switcher.
    Can’t find the original source, but from what little context there is, “Spey” might well apply to the rod used for switching (as opposed to the river, though that wouldn’t be impossible either).
    And then there’s this, s.v. “roll n.2″:
    1960 Edwards & Turner Angler’s Cast x. 101 The Spey cast‥is the simplest roll cast.
    So apparently the readers and/or lexicographers didn’t think Spey merited its own headword – they definitely came across it. You’d have to look at the slips to see if the question ever came up. Anyway, if it had, and had gone the other way, looks like OED would have had it capitalized.

  2. “Vy you call dem Hamburgers und Frankfurters? I yam from Wiesbaden!” —If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock

  3. …since presumably most fishermen aren’t aware of the origin in a Scottish river…
    I beg to differ. In the UK I would guess 100% of anglers have knowledge of the link and because the River Spey itself and the ‘spey’ cast feature heavily in angling literature of all kinds I would think a high proportion of international anglers are also aware of the link.
    It’s a bit like saying most academics aren’t aware that the Harvard system of referencing has its origin in a University of that name.
    Try “spey casting” on You tube.
    best
    PK

  4. Any Scotch whisky drinker would surely know the Spey, home of, for example, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glen Grant, Cardhu, Glen Livet …

  5. I beg to differ. In the UK I would guess 100% of anglers have knowledge of the link and because the River Spey itself and the ‘spey’ cast feature heavily in angling literature of all kinds I would think a high proportion of international anglers are also aware of the link.
    My apologies; I guess I was thinking of US anglers because of the Frazier piece. But I also call your attention to the fact that the Wikipedia article says “The name most likely came from the River Spey in Scotland” (emphasis added), which suggests the connection is not as obvious as all that.

  6. Also, I’m pretty sure 100% of anglers don’t have knowledge of any given fact, in the UK or elsewhere.

  7. …100% of anglers don’t …
    Fair enough. Perhaps I over-claim on that (but not by much.)
    I have deleted the next part of this comment which started to talk about in-groups and out-groups and the languages and reference points of subcultures. Instead, I’ll leave that the to the linguists. I probably know more about fish.
    best
    PK

  8. I remember a university profesor stressing how important the mathematician Abel was, citing as proof that “abelian groups” are normally spelled with a lower-case “a”, a highly unusual distinction.

  9. My first response was that every fly-fisherman of my wide acquaintance in several continents would capitalize Spey, and know why.
    Then I looked around a bit and found my acquaintance is not representative, imagine that.
    See for example long technical discussions of Spey casting, switch casting, two-handed rods, and so interminably (for non-fisherfolk) on at:
    http://www.stripersonline.com/t/870650/spey-rod-for-stripers
    Some of the writers don’t capitalize Spey consistently even within a single post.
    The Spey cast is a cast most easily done with a two-handed salmon rod, but it can be done with a single-handed fly rod as well. A ‘Spey rod’ is a bit of a misnomer.
    Thank you for the Ian Frazier article, I had not seen it previously. I’ll read anything by him, like John McPhee he can make any subject interesting. In this case since I am fascinated by steelhead as well, it’s a real joy.

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