Monday, May 4, 2015

Ode to Timbuktu.

The name of this bag took me back a long, long time ago:

Older family members then would say something like "This place (somewhere totally remote or unfamiliar, usually upcountry as opposed to an urban locale) is as far away as Timbuctoo."

From the Urban Dictionary comes this description:

So, I learned a new idiom as a child and vaguely recall being told Timbuctoo -- the older spelling variation of what is now called Timbuktu -- was somewhere in Africa. The Internet makes it easier today to find out more fascinating tidbits about this exotic African city which was also recently in the news because of a civil war:

From here to Timbuktu

No one knows who started the phrase but it dates from the mid 1800s.

(Contributor: Darwin)

I would suspect that it was a result of the avid interest with which Europeans and Americans followed the progress of explorers in newspaper accounts.

Today the popular statement, " From here to Timbuktu" conjures up images of remote, isolated and distant parts of this earth. Very few people are aware of this ancient city's location, and fewer still ascribe any kind of civilization to this historic area. Timbuktu is located in the western African nation of Mali at the edge of the Sahara.

In the English language we talk of traveling "from here to Timbuktu," suggesting a journey to faraway and difficult-to-approach places. It means someplace far away, it gives the impression that it is almost unreachable and certainly only the most brave and adventerous would go there. It also means an almost infinite amount of something.

In the days when the saying started, it was a very far away place that only explorers you could read about would go. It also became Africa’s most famous city, becoming a metaphor in the West for an exotic and distant land, thus the saying: “from here to Timbuktu.”

In fact, it was so difficult for Europeans to reach the fabled city and center of Islamic learning, that in 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the town and return with information about it. The Scot Gordon Laing arrived in September 1826 but was killed shortly after by local Muslims who were fearful of European discovery and intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 traveling alone disguised as Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast. He later gave an account to the British counsel in Tangier, Morocco in 1813. He published his account in an 1816 book, The Narrative of Robert Adams, a Barbary Captive (still in print as of 2006), but doubts remain about his account. Only three other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and the German Oskar Lenz with the Spanish Cristobal Benítez in 1880.

According to a popular etymology its name is made up of: tin which means « place » and buktu, the name of an old Malian woman known for her honesty and who once upon a time lived in the region. Tuareg and other travellers would entrust this woman with any belongings for which they had no use on their return trip to the north. Thus, when a Tuareg, upon returning to his home, was asked where he had left his belongings, he would answer: «I left them at Tin Buktu », meaning the place where dame Buktu lived. The two terms ended up fusing into one word, thus giving the city the name of Tinbuktu which later became Timbuktu.

However, the French orientalist René Basset forwarded a more plausible translation: in the Berber languages "buqt" means ""far away", so "Tin-Buqt(u)" means a place almost at the other end of the world, resp. the Sahara. The place name is said to come from a Tuareg woman named Buktu who dug a well in the area where the city stands today; hence "Timbuktu", which means "Buktu's well".
Sources: AND AND


So, is this quaint idiom still in use today? Well, exploring further, I found this piece of online ribald humour:

Linguistic humor, Timbuktu

The National Poetry Contest had come down to two semifinalists: a Yale graduate and a redneck from Wyoming. They were given a word, then allowed two minutes to study the word and come up with a poem that contained the word. The word they were given was "Timbuktu".
First to recite his poem was the Yale graduate. He stepped to the microphone and said:
Slowly across the desert sand
Trekked a lonely caravan.
Men on camels, two by two
The crowd went crazy! No way could the redneck top that, they thought. The redneck calmly made his way to the microphone and recited:
Me and Tim a-huntin went,
Met three whores in a pop up tent.
They was three, and we was two,
So I bucked one, and Timbuktu. 
The redneck won hands down!

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