Sivataaqvik — Biscuit Day

Taissumani: 2007-07-20

By Kenn Harper

Although many of the whalers who came to the Canadian Arctic were rough-and-tumble types, a number of the ships' captains were devout Christian men who observed the Sabbath. On some ships, all work stopped at midnight on Saturday night and did not resume for 24 hours. Often the ship's doctor or the captain himself would conduct divine services.

The Inuit quickly learned which captains observed the Sabbath and which did not, though they can only have had a rudimentary idea of the reasons behind this forced and artificial abstinence from activity.

Margaret Penny accompanied her husband, William Penny, a well-known whaling master, on a wintering voyage to Cumberland Sound in 1857. Penny observed the Sabbath, and Margaret recorded in her journal for Sunday, Oct. 11, that six or seven whales were seen, and that divine service was held at 2 p.m. She wrote that, "The Esquimaux seem to understand very well that they are to respect this day, for they go about very quietly & forego their usual occupations."

For the Inuit, time had been governed by the seasons, the regular ebb and flow of the tide, the coming of light and dark. But it had never before been broken up into artificial units wherein every seventh day was one of refrain from unnecessary labour, no matter how conducive the weather might be to profitable or pleasurable activity.

This new regime necessitated new words, and in particular there was a need to define this artificial seven-day period. In Inuktitut, there is a verb, "pinasuaqtuq," to describe working or being active. In Baffin Island and some other parts of the Arctic, the root of this word, with an appropriate suffix, "rusiq", became "pinasuarusiq" – a unit of time measuring activity, therefore a week.

Individual days also needed defining. And the most important day for the pre-Christian Inuit was not the Sabbath but the day before the Sabbath, for this was the day on which most whalers paid off the Inuit in their employ. Of course, money was an unheard-of commodity in the Arctic. Rather, the whalers paid their assistants in goods like guns, ammunition and clothing, and with food items, like tea, coffee, molasses, sugar, and the ever-popular ship's biscuit.

The Inuit have a word, "siva" which Lucien Schneider's dictionary defines as "the solid part of a piece of blubber or fat that was melted over a fire." By analogy, because of its hardness, some Inuit used this word to describe the ship's biscuit that was so popular a food item.

One of the joys of Inuktitut, a characteristic that makes it so capable of describing new concepts, is its ability to add an affix or a series of affixes to modify a root word and give it a new or related meaning. In this way, in Baffin Island, siva + taaq (an affix showing getting or acquiring) + vik (an affix denoting the time when something occurs) becomes "sivataaqvik" – the time when you get your biscuits. And that day was Saturday.

Today in Baffin communities the word "sivataaqvik" still means Saturday. Of course, when one hears the word, no-one thinks of biscuits anymore. The word has become lexicalized – it has a new meaning divorced from the sum of its parts. But it was once the most important day of the week – the day when rations were given out. Biscuit Day.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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