From Bikini Atoll, we travel four and a half thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean to the far north of Canada, arriving just a few hundred miles outside the Arctic Circle for the story of a place whose numerous entries in our dictionary include a byword for a rich bounty or deposit; an untrustworthy madman; a single-player card game; a prison cell, and, probably most unusual of all, a word meaning ‘to transport fresh rather than pickled herring’.
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The location in question here is Klondike, the name of both a river, high up in the Canadian subarctic, and the area of land that surrounds it, not far from the Alaskan border. The Klondike flows for around a hundred miles through the hills of Canada’s Yukon territory, before meeting the larger Yukon River at Dawson City. From there, it winds its way through Alaska and eventually empties out into the Bering Sea, more than seven hundred miles to the west. But how did this one isolated tributary come to have such a varied entry in the dictionary? It’s simple: there’s gold in them there hills
The Klondike gold rush began in the August of 1896, when miners in the area discovered gold in the Klondike River (in a location now aptly named Bonanza Creek). As news of the discovery spread -eventually becoming known in the United States the following year -it triggered a mass migration of prospectors and gold-hunters keen to
cash in on the find, and over the next three years, some hundred thousand adventurers made the journey from the USA to the Yukon Territory. In the two years from 1896 to 1898, the population of Dawson City alone increased from a little over five hundred to more than thirty thousand.
The gold rush, of course, didn’t last. By 1899 the story had fallen out of the press, and as similar bounties began to be discovered elsewhere many of the prospectors moved on. The Klondike’s time in the spotlight was over – but it had nevertheless left a lasting legacy on our language.
Just one year after gold was discovered in the area, the name Klondike had begun to be used as a byword for a treasure trove, or any similar mine or deposit of valuable material. Klondike fever had established itself as a general name for any gold rush, regardless of its location.
By the turn of the century, a form of the card game patience called Klondike had emerged, possibly because it was invented by or proved popular among the prospectors of the Klondike region. The sheer isolation of the area eventually led to the name being used among American criminals as a punning byword for a prison cell used for solitary confinement. And the madcap single-mindedness of Klondike prospectors, driven by nothing more than their desire for gold, had led to the name becoming a byword for madness or derangement: Klondyke Mad – not fit to be trusted. From the craze that set in August 1897 around the Klondyke gold-bearing district.
But of all the word’s later meanings, however, perhaps the strangest or most unexpected emerged in Scotland in the 1920s:
Klondyke (v.) to export fresh fish, mainly mackerel, to the Continent, direct to factory ships for processing on board.
Precisely why the practice of selling and transporting fresh herring, and later mackerel, should become known as Klondyking is unknown. Perhaps the term relates to the fact that these fish needed to be packed and transported in ice, and an allusory reference to a distant place in the high Canadian subarctic somehow fit the bill? Or perhaps this practice was so lucrative and could be turned around so quickly compared to smoking or pickling, that the get-rich-quick attitudes of the Klondike’s gold prospectors inspired its name? Whatever the reasoning, the term – perhaps the strangest of all linguistic legacies of the Klondike gold rush – remains in use to this day.