January 23, 2020

Who knew that swimming in natural bodies of water was a special sort of swimming in need of a revival and a retronym?

I just learned that, reading "THE SUBVERSIVE JOY OF COLD-WATER SWIMMING/Britons are skipping the heated pool and rediscovering the pleasures of lakes, rivers, and seas—even in winter" by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker.

Apparently, the shift to swimming in chlorinated pools was so extensive that people (in Britain anyway) started talking about "wild swimming." It seems to be a retronym (like snail mail and acoustic guitar).

Anyway, as you can see from the title, the article is about not just swimming in outdoor natural water, but swimming in cold water — because there are lots of lakes in Britain, and they're cold.
[S]erious cold-water swimmers recommend going in the water at least three times a week, in order to maintain the body’s acclimatization.... [Swimming in 40°F water,] I stayed in just long enough to experience what might be called the smug reflex: the sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing, and even enjoying, something that most people would find unfathomably off-putting....

Advocates of cold-water swimming dwell less on its risks than on the health benefits that it allegedly bestows.... [L]ittle research has been done on whether wild swimming benefits one’s mental state.... For people who have experienced trauma, the focus that’s required for cold-water swimming may be helpful, paradoxically, in generating a sense of calm and control....

Little focusses the mind so well as being in water so cold that, unless you are careful, your breath will literally be taken....
ADDED: I don't swim in the local lakes in winter (or summer, for that matter), but I understand feeling good about yourself for going out in the cold. I've been running at dawn all winter, and it makes me feel good about myself in a way that going out when it's hot never does.

Is "smug" — Rebecca Mead's word — the right word for how I feel? The OED definition is: "Trim, neat, spruce, smart; in later use, having a self-satisfied, conceited, or consciously respectable air." And: "The word has been in very common use from the 16th cent., and the earlier sense shades imperceptibly into the later, so that quotations cannot be separated." So "smug" evolved from positive to negative.

In 2010, the UW student newspaper called me "smugly inscrutable."

I think we experience "smug" as a portmanteau of "mug" (meaning "face") and "smile."

I wouldn't use the word "smug" for how I feel about running in the cold because I don't feel that unusual or special, and I don't think about how I'm doing this and someone else isn't up to it. It's really not that hard to do. It's just not bad to be out in the cold. The key is repetition — acclimatization.

25 comments:

lgv said...

"...having a self-satisfied, conceited, or consciously respectable air."

Self-satisfied - Yes. Conceited - No.

Unspoken self-satisfaction is fine, maybe something we all strive for. It is when we try to lord it over others for comparison that it becomes a pejorative term.

Swimming in the lake or ocean is always preferable and better for us than a chlorinated pool. It not very convenient for most of us. Oh, and that cold water can be a killer. It's also inherently more dangerous. I'm not swimming in a pool under 75F without a wetsuit of some kind.

Mr. Forward said...

Swim on ice
It may be dumb
Do it twice
For retro numb

Burmashave


Wilbur said...

Very few things come to mind that I would less rather do than dive into and swim in cold water.

I won't enter my open South Florida pool for 8 months out of the year. Too damn cold for Wilbur.

I lived the first 32 years of my life in central Illinois. I hope I never have to face that sort of cold again.

tommyesq said...

So, by inference, you agree with the "smugly inscrutable" tag?

Aunty Trump said...

I spent more time outside in the winter in Vermont than I did outside in the summer in Florida.

Rory said...

Should have a "W.C. Fields" tag.

tcrosse said...

Shrinkage.

Darrell said...

Now Althouse can take a dip each morning.

Darrell said...

The New Yorker not only says it's OK, they say Greta Thunberg would approve.

Jeff Brokaw said...

There is definitely something to this, having to do with using breathing techniques to conquer your body’s impulse to panic during fight-or-flight responses, which jumping into icy cold water definitely does.

Search for Wim Hof videos on YouTube.

Pretty amazing, the simple things we can do to control what feels like it cannot be controlled.

Howard said...

It's been called open water swimming in the States since forever.

Jeff Brokaw said...

Wim Hof breathing tutorial https://youtu.be/nzCaZQqAs9I

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Swimming, walking, even working in the cold is invigorating. As long as you know you can get back inside or out of the cold eventually, that is :-)

I'd rather swim in a cold stream instead of a warm algae filled lake. Gross.

I used to, in the younger hippie days, go swimming in the cold Sierra Nevada mountain streams and rivers where I lived for some time. IN the summer. Not winter. (I'm not completely crazy!) Even in summer the water is still icy cold coming off of snow melt.

A group of us would do this quite often. The best was hike down and find a deep pool, below a small waterfall, where the current had slowed and the water is crystal clear. So clear that 10 feet below you can see the rocks. Dive down and swish you hand in the sediment and find some small gold nuggets and interesting rocks. I still have a ring from the nuggets I found and a special rock. ring and rock

The water would take your breath away. Dive and float, weightlessly like in space, on the calm water. Feel the sun on the front of your body and face and the icy cold on your backside. But...soon you became adjusted to the water. Then....it is time to get out and climb onto one of the hot granite boulders that had been baking in the 90 to 100 degree temperatures. Instantly your [nude]body will dry off and the rock will steam with the moisture. Then...jump back in and repeat the process.

**disclaimer. We did have alternative substances and cold beer to encourage the entire experience :-D

I miss those days....sigh.

CJinPA said...

Comedian Adam Carolla often talks about the benefits of jumping in his cold pool every day. Got his son to do it this year. Not a lake, but cold.

Michael said...

They have been doing this for a very long time. Men’s and women’s ponds at Hampstead Heath. Year round swimming. See “Pond Life” by Al Alvarez.

Christy said...

Much like DBQ's experience, I've a beloved icy mountain river with a small waterfall and a huge boulder at the base for sunning. The boulder has a perfect slide into the water with a hydraulic current at the base which pulls you under and spits you out several yards downstream. A glorious Summer day.

stlcdr said...

It makes me chuckle when the Brits (re)discover something that various cultures and groups in the rest of the world has done for ages, and are doing. I'm sure my relatives will explain - yet again - how this makes the Brits superior.

tim maguire said...

If the pool is cold, I want to know why they don't do a better job of heating it. But if the lake or ocean is cold, then I get in anyway and don't mind that it's cold because it just is and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Marc said...

There was an article in the Guardian the other day about wild swimming somewhere or other in England: the danger in that case was water pollution. The local people, so the report went, are organizing themselves to advocate for cleaning the human waste out of the local river. It is apparently shot into the river without any treatment at all.

There are 600,000 miles of sewer pipes across the country and the average age is 33 years. Some pipes in cities along the eastern seaboard are nearly 200 years old. Some are even made of wood.

Tsk. I know that, locally, people talk about it being safe to swim in the McKenzie River but shudder about the Willamette. Every summer I see people in the Willamette, however, and don't recall reading about deaths consequent.

Marc said...

The English seem to find it more necessary and/or useful to name phenomena or actions than we in the US do. I'll say, 'I went swimming', and if the meaning isn't clear in context, I'll say, 'went swimming at Amazon pool' or 'went swimming while at the coast' (which does in fact mean 'went swimming in the Pacific'). The English have had to invent 'wild swimming', I guess (don't have the OED at this point, alas); my recollection is that in older English usage, if e.g. William Cobbett had indulged in any such nonsense, he would have gone 'bathing in the river' and meant by that what we mean when we say 'swimming'. While I admire the English creativity with their own language, it would be more than faintly ridiculous to call swimming in the Willamette River here in Eugene 'wild swimming'.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

@ Marc

My husband's family lives in the Eugene area (raised in Lorriane and family in the area since the 1840's) and I am familiar with the Willamette River. Hadn't ever heard that it was not safe to swim in or polluted. However, I wouldn't swim in it anyway.

The WEIRD thing about the Willamette is that it runs North. In Calif, where we are rivers generally run either to the West or in the Sacramento Valley go South. Consequently, I get so freaking turned around in Eugene because my mind tells me that when I am standing near the river going downstream....I should be facing South or West. But...it is the complete opposite. Gah!!! I get so lost in that place. I need a compass.

Ditto the river that runs past my brother's home. The Umpqua. Oregon rivers are just wrong!!!!

:-)

WhoKnew said...

Thousands of people swim in Lake Michigan every summer and that can be damn cold (especially on the Wisconsin side) I gave it up years ago but not because of the cold. I like winter and cold weather as long as Ma Nature doesn't overdo it and drop below zero. In that case, I'm happy to stay indooors

Leslie Graves said...

Growing up, we lived about half-a-mile from the Wisconsin River. Our parents took us swimming in it 3-4 days a week during the summers. This was off of sandbars that one can see off of the Highway 23 bridge that is overlooked by the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor's Center on County C in Wyoming Valley.

The water in the Wisconsin River tends to be a dark brown color due to tannic acid contributed by tamarack swamps up north. Because of the coloration, you can't really see what's coming down at you in the current until it touches you. Could be a branch, a turtle, a school of minnows.

When I heard that regular people (i.e., non rich) lived in towns and cities with things my folks referred to as "municipal swimming pools", I was amazed that kids like us had the chance to swim in clear, clean water where little fishies didn't periodically brush over your legs and you didn't run the risk of getting thwacked by a stick in the current.

Of course, at my age, I now think that river swimming is the height of luxury and that all children should have the opportunity to regularly experience its cold delights.

Lindsey said...

To me, swimming in lakes and ponds results in brain amoebas

Marc said...

The Guardian doesn't disappoint, and publishes a critique of 'wild swimming' as an indulgence of the 'privileged urban elite' and so forth. Miss Cosslett rambles on but doesn't indulge her fiery inner Marxist nearly as fiercely as I had expected, based on the header text.

My husband's family lives in the Eugene area (raised in Lorriane and family in the area since the 1840's) and I am familiar with the Willamette River. Hadn't ever heard that it was not safe to swim in or polluted.

Probably when I've heard people talk about 'not swimming in the Willamette' they've been talking about discreet stretches of it. There is a 'beach' at one of the city parks where the flocks of geese and ducks fertilize the river non-stop, and there are always people and children in the water there in summer. And there are stretches adjacent to homeless camps where there's probably a higher level of pollution than elsewhere.