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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, say to language, “You look parched,” and language says, “Ooh yeah, I’m gasping for a cup of tea,” and I say, “Wait a moment, I’ll just pop the kettle on…”
Coming up in today’s show: getting toasty! Not as in warm. Or stoned.
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And thanks to Christopher Taylor Timberlake Fine Art Jewelry, here’s the etymology of ‘Arctic’. Ἄρκτος was the Ancient Greek word for ‘bear’. But the region is not named after the polar bears, but because of the Great Bear and Little Bear, the constellations that are always in the night skies of the Northern Hemisphere. The brightest star in Little Bear is Polaris, the North Star and, for the last thousand years or so, the Pole Star, as it appears to be stationary above the North Pole. So, that which was northerly was, in Ancient Greek, ‘ἀρκτικός’ - near the bear. Thus the region up at the top of the world near the bear got its appellation, 'Arctic'. 'Antarctica' is simply a contraction of ‘anti Arctic’, as it is at the opposite side of the globe to the Arctic. And, of course, it is bear-free.
Quick note before we begin: if you visit theallusionist.org/transcripts, you’ll find episode transcripts, which are helpful when the audio is a little unclear, as it is in places today. I think you’ll understand why, given the location of some of the guests. On with the show.
HZ: Where are you speaking to me from right now?
AMY LOWITZ: The geographic South Pole.
HZ: If it weren’t dark outside, Amy Lowitz could look out the window and see the actual South Pole marker.
AL: I’m here at the South Pole, working for the University of Chicago on the South Pole telescope as a winter telescope operator.
CHRISTINE MORAN: I’m Christine Moran ... I’m on one year leave to operate the South Pole telescope down here at the South Pole and Antarctica with Amy Lowitz.
HZ: And when did you last see daylight?
CM: April,-ish? I think at least 3-4 months of total darkness, or close to it.
HZ: And a few weeks after the sunlight disappears for the last time before the totally dark months of Antarctic winter, something odd starts to occur. People start to forget - what was it? ...Words! And they drift off without finishing their...uh...
ALLISON BARDEN: It happens! It happens.
HZ: ...Sentences! This is Allison Barden, also known as Sandwich. She did a variety of jobs in Antarctica on and off for ten years, summers and winters.
AB: Just from personal experience... sometimes you just stare off into space, or stop sentences in the middle of them, and forget what you were talking about. Or sometimes you lose the word for a common thing, and you... slow down a little.
AL: I’m definitely more prone to being spacey, more prone to occasionally losing words or not being able to come up with the exact precise word that I wanted.
AB: People are pretty supportive of each other. “Yep, I get it. Forgot what you were saying? Yep, I’ve been there.” And it becomes part of your communication; you just start to understand, yep, that’s how it is.
HZ: This phenomenon is known locally as ‘getting toasty’.
AL: So ‘toasty’ is sort of an Antarctica slang term that refers to all of the mental and personality changes that happen when you’ve been trapped in the Antarctic polar darkness for a little too long.
HZ: So if someone’s being a little cranky then you could say they are being ‘toasty’.
AL: Or if someone walks into a room and can’t remember why they’re there or can’t come up with a word or does anything a bit mentally silly and out of character, you might accuse them of being ‘toasty’.
CM: Or you might use it as an excuse for why you were late or slept in or forgot a meeting.
AL: So I think the medical term mainly encompasses what people mean by toasty is T3 syndrome or Polar T3 Syndrome.
HZ: The altered thyroid function that is Polar T3 Syndrome is one possible explanation for toasty behaviour.
TOM BARANSKI: It’s not a well studied and well described phenomenon.
HZ: Tom Baranski is an endocrinologist.
TB: An endocrinologist is a physician who treats hormone diseases, like diseases of the pituitary, or the thyroid, or the adrenal gland. The most common one is diabetes. It is oftentimes the case that people who have problems with the thyroid describe fuzzy thinking or brain fog. Brain fog is the term I hear.
What Polar T3 is: they followed some relatively young, healthy men, who were going to be stationed in Antarctica, they did some studies on their thyroid hormone function before they went to Antarctica, then after six weeks in Antarctica. What they discovered was that when these men were in Antarctica, their bodies changed the way that they make one of the hormones, T3 - our thyroid makes two different types, T3 and T4. T3 is the more biologically active one. And it increased the total amount of T3 that was made. We don’t know why the body would do this. It’s probably an adaptation to the exposure to the cold conditions; and the T3 is the signal to generate more heat.
HZ: Ah, so the Antarctic darkness might not be to blame for the toastiness?
AL: Right, and even in places where it’s not dark, you see T3 syndrome where it’s especially cold, regardless of darkness.
HZ: The day I spoke to Amy and Christine, the temperature outside at the South Pole with wind chill was -76.7 degrees Celsius, -106 Fahrenheit. Another factor is the altitude.
AL: Because that’s another thing - here is we’re at 9300ft of altitude, so we’re also functioning on a lot less oxygen than might be ideal.
HZ: But the altitude, the temperature and the darkness might not be the main culprits either.
TB: My guess is there are many other factors: being in a dark environment, crowded environment, sequestered away, may have effects on psychiatric function that may present with difficulty forming words or difficulty thinking.
HZ: Yes, if you’re one of the skeleton crew that stays through the winter at the handful of year-round Antarctic bases, you can’t really get out or go very far. And your social circle is pretty limited.
AB: You don’t see any new people; you’re with the same people for months at a time, there are no planes in or out, there’s no new anything. It’s the same buildings, the same work schedule, same people. I wonder how that affects us.
HZ: Sandwich spent some winters at the biggest base on Antarctica, McMurdo Station, home to more than 1,000 workers over the summer, not counting the stream of tourists and visitors. But over the winter, there are only 150 people living there. And right now, at the South Pole, including Christine and Amy, there are 46 people.
CM: Of course, anyone in an isolated environment undergoes some personality changes... We don’t have much to talk about because the weather’s the same everyday. There’s no traffic here, no lines, there’s nothing to complain about, other than the stuff that we’ve already complained about in the past. And also you’ve told most of the same stories before and there’s only so much personal life you can say that hasn’t been said before. People also have less of a high standard of social interaction. So I feel like some of the conversations that you have where you lose words or maybe sound a little weird are just a product of there being only 46 people here.
HZ: So perhaps toastiness is just cabin fever, and it’s not the fault of the thyroid at all.
TB: If you get on the internet and type in ‘stop the madness thyroid’, there’s an unbelievable number of sites that will blame any symptom on thyroid hormone metabolism. Unfortunately, all too often it has nothing to do with your thyroid; but people want to blame thyroid and thyroid hormone.
HZ Exonerate the thyroid! So, to sum up: not many studies have been done on toastiness and Polar T3 Syndrome, and it's not known what causes it. Luckily, it isn’t incurable.
AB: It’s pretty short term; I don’t feel it’s done permanent damage or dangerous detrimental damage. It’s just some anecdotal thing people notice.
HZ: Provided you haven't completely lost all verbal abilities during the dark months, another thing happens in the Antarctic stations which is common in small or isolated societies: new vocabulary.
AB: It’s kind of got its own language in a way. It’s very layered. To talk about it, it’s one of those things you have to explain to get the joke. Most Antarcticans understand it when they assimilate back into civilian life; you have to explain, go back a couple of steps, explain why that’s funny or why that happened.
HZ: Guess you had to be there, if you want to understand such slang terms as toasty, and ‘fingee’ - that’s someone who’s new to Antarctica, or ‘boondoggle’, a little jaunt away from your station, or -
AL: Consistent with T3 syndrome, we’ve forgotten the words! [they laugh]
AB: For example, the ice. It’s called ‘the ice’. And the first time you hear it referred to as ‘the ice’, people chuckle, they think that’s cute. By that time, you’ve already forgotten it’s a novelty. But it’s one syllable, rather than ‘Antarctica’; it’s kind of hard to say, it doesn’t flow in a sentence so well. But you say, “How many times have you been to the ice? I’m going back to the ice in October.” That’s everybody’s common referent for it, at least in the American program.
CM: I tend to - and I’ve heard other people do it as well - call anywhere that is not Antarctica 'the real world’.
HZ: Within Antarctica, it's none too surprising that many places are named after explorers - Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen for example - and monarchs, because they always get a piece of that action. But not all place names are enshrined in the Atlas... Yet.
AB: Things get very localized there. Even at McMurdo, there’s a feature that’s a place people know called Sausage Point.
HZ: Beneath the surface of Antarctica are buried many remnants from past Antarctic expeditions. A few years ago, staff were drilling to prepare a site for a new building, and a foul substance started squirting out of the ground. It was several tons of rotten sausage.
AB: And everybody called it Sausage Point after that.
HZ: And, of course, special terms are coined because people need to express concepts and items which aren’t in the lexicon of warmer countries. ‘Bergy seltzer’ - the sound of air trapped in an iceberg being released as it melts. ‘Snotsicle’, frozen snot. And when excrement dropped upon excrement freezes into a big stalagmite, that's a ’poonicorn’.
AL: I've heard the term 'ice wife' or 'ice husband' which is where a relationship... what happens on the ice stays on the ice. The concept of, regardless of whether one or both members of the partnership has significant others back home, it's understood that the relationship, however close it may be while you’re in Antarctica or however serious it may be while you're in Antarctica, it does not exist once you are off the ice, so I think that's what's meant by the idea of ice wife or ice husband.
HZ: There’s more workaday slang too.
CM: Our jackets are called ‘Big Reds’ because they’re very large and red.
AL: There’s Little Red, the smaller, less insulated version of Big Red.
CM: Yeah, there’re a lot of terms related to our clothing, extreme cold weather gear.
AL: It's very important!
HZ: One term that refers to clothing and sundry other items is ‘skua’. A skua is a type of Antarctic gull with a reputation for brazenly grabbing whatever it wants.
CM: But in the slang context it refers to where we put used items that we no longer want but could still be useful to someone else.
HZ: So if you lost your hat or ran out of shampoo, you’d go and rummage in the skua closet or skua pile.
CM: It can also be a verb: “Amy, you should skua that shirt..”
AL: So that means if you tell someone to skua something it means they should put it in skua because it’s not worth keeping.
CM: (It’s actually quite a nice shirt she’s wearing.)
AL: Thank you.
AB: We have a lot of military slang that’s been adopted as well, because the US military has had a presence on the ice since the late 20s. So we get a lot of language from the military; we get a lot of language from New Zealand, because McMurdo and South Pole operations are based out of Christchurch.
HZ: And there are linguistic reminders that the first permanent Antarctic stations were operated by the navy to start with.
AL: For example, our sleeping rooms are called ‘berthings’, much like on a ship. The cafeteria is called the galley. There are even architectural hints of it - a lot of doors will have a little window on them, a lot of those here are round, so they look like portholes. They’ve even made nods to that history in the architecture of the building.
HZ: Amy and Christine are a couple of months away from the end of their year at the South Pole. After ten years on and off in Antarctica, Sandwich works in the Bay Area at present.
AB: And if you talk about things you had in your recent jobs - well, my recent jobs were Antarctica, and it’s very unique situation, so if you start to explain it, I call it ‘Dropping the A-bomb’, because it takes over the whole conversation. “Whaaat? You were in Antarctica?”
Thanks so much to today’s guests: Sandwich, or as her mother knows her, Allison Barden, who told me about all this in the first place; endocrinologist Tom Baranski; and Amy Lowitz and Christine Moran. Amy and Christine have both been posting about their experiences at the South Pole - I’ll link to their twitters and websites at theallusionist.org/antarctica, so you can take a look at their photos of the South Pole station, and the amazing night skies outside - one upside to the polar darkness.
This episode was sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go bathroom spray. Before you unleash the poonicorn, spritz the water in the loo with Poo-Pourri, and its essential oils will conceal your pong like the Antarctic ground concealed tons of rotten sausage. There are lots of different scents available, shop at poopourri.com, and to get 20% off your next order, enter the code 'WORDS'.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Cheeka Eyers and Devon Taylor. Martin Austwick plays the music. Thanks to Kathleen Unwin, Tom Crawford, Delaney Hall, Ryan Keisler and Julie Shapiro.
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