August 27, 2005

Ultima Toolies

I'm used to noticing new things in old books, usually descriptions or situations or emotions that went past me before but now catch my attention for some reason. Last night I was surprised to learn a new word from a book that I've read at least once before: Ross Macdonald's Black Money, originally published in 1965.

Lew Archer has tracked Leo and Kitty Ketchel from LA to a mansion in "Santa Teresa", Macdonald's alias for Santa Barbara. Kitty is speaking. Lew, as usual, is thinking.

"Leo made a lifetime of enemies. If they knew he was helpless, his life wouldn't be worth that." She snapped her fingers. "Neither would mine. Why do you think we're hiding out in the tules here?"

To her, I thought, the tules meant any place that wasn't on the Chicago-Vegas-Hollywood axis.

                                                                                   [p. 189, 1990 Warner paperback edition]

When I hit that passage, I had absolutely no memory of ever having seen or heard the word tule, in that book or anywhere else.

The OED says that tule refers to

Either of two species of bulrush (Scirpus lacustris var. occidentalis, and S. Tatora) abundant in low lands along riversides in California; hence, a thicket of this, or a flat tract of land in which it grows.

and gives citations back to 1837

1837 P. L. EDWARDS Jrnl. 20 July (1932) 26 Driving her along the margin of a bulrush or Tule pond she turned about.
1845 J. C. FRÉMONT Rep. Exploring Expedition 252 principally on acorns and roots of the tulé, of which also their huts are made.
1850 W. R. RYAN Personal Adv. Upper & Lower Calif. I. 298 The Indians of the party were despatched to hunt up the banks of the river for toolies.

The etymology is given as

[ad. Aztec tullin, the final n being dropped by the Spaniards as in Guatemala, Jalapa, etc.]

and the pronunciation is as suggested by the alternative spelling toolies.

The AHD entry explains further that

Low, swampy land is tules or tule land in the parlance of northern California. When the Spanish colonized Mexico and Central America, they borrowed from the native inhabitants the Nahuatl word tollin, “bulrush.” The English-speaking settlers of the West in turn borrowed the Spanish word tule to refer to certain varieties of bulrushes native to California. Eventually the meaning of the word was extended to the marshy land where the bulrushes grew.

Merriam-Webster's Unabridged has similar information, as does Encarta, which adds that "to be in deep tules" is a Hispanic expression meaning "to be in trouble with the law".

The OED has toolies, glossed as "Backwoods; remote or thinly populated regions.", with citations back to 1961 -- but curiously, flags it as a Canadian regional term rather than a Californian one:

1961 R. P. HOBSON Rancher takes Wife i. 22 We're plenty far back in the toolies at Batnuni.

Kenneth Millar (who wrote as Ross Macdonald) was born in Los Gatos but educated in Canada, for what that's worth.

Among the dictionaries I checked, none besides the OED gives tules, under any spelling, the meaning that's apparent in the Black Money passage. And glancing through the first hundred Google hits for {"in the tules"} didn't turn up any similar figurative uses, except that Bret Harte's short story In the Tules does make an implicit pun on Ultima Thule. However, the hits for {"in the toolies"} are a different matter:

Ok proof I've lived in the toolies just a tad too long, as I find that amusing.
There was a sense that we were out in the provinces, in the toolies.
At the time, this stretch of the old Route 66 was still "out in the toolies."
Please picture me and two tiny little kids in a very small stone house WAYYY out in the toolies.
You may find that it sometimes have you stopping so far out in the toolies that no hotels/campgrounds are anywhere nearby.

And so on. This seems to be a case of a word in fairly common use that is spelled one way when it's meant literally, and a different way in a figurative meaning. I wonder if it was Millar's choice to spell it "tules" in Black Money, or the idea of a copy editor at Knopf?

[Update: several readers have pointed me to a lovely page about the natural history of tule marshes of California's central valley, which also cites "out in the tules" as an equivalent to "out in the sticks". This page also mentions the "tule fogs", which several correspondents including Arnold Zwicky have described to me as their strongest association with the word.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 27, 2005 05:58 AM