On our recent holiday in Scotland, my husband and I discussed the difference between singularity and anomaly; specifically, we were trying to decide whether we would call the Corryvreckan one or the other (as one does).
The Corryvreckan, which is the strait between the isles of Jura and Scarba off the West Coast of Scotland, contains the world’s third largest whirlpool (following the Saltstraumen off of Norway, and the Moskstraumen, also off Norway), and is considered by many as the most dangerous scuba dive in the UK (there’s only a few minutes’ safe diving time there; when your bubbles start to go down, not up, you’ve overstayed your welcome). Planted underwater in the middle of the strait is a giant pinnacle of basalt (the same rock that created the Scottish Isle of Staffa, and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland); its position means that when tides flow in or out, they end up being churned into a broiling mass of suck-ships-under sea.
The name of Corryvreckan comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid. The English word whirlpool comes from Old English wirfelmere; in German this word paints the image of rolling dice (Würfel) on the ocean (Meer). Harmlessly small swirling vortices of water are known as whirlpools, and you can see them when you drain a sink or flush a loo. But the more appropriate word for the ship-eating monster-vortices is the Norwegian word Maelstrom; since they have several of the largest, most dangerous ones, I think it’s only fair that they get to name them.
Now, is it a singularity or an anomaly?
Singularity: “Anything singular, rare, or curious; the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual.”
Anomaly: “Something or someone that is strange or unusual; any event or measurement that is out of the ordinary regardless of whether it is exceptional or not.”
Our debate on which word to apply to the Corryvreckan is a tie, I think. While it’s not singular as far as being the only maelstrom in the world, it is distinct, unusual and extraordinary; it’s an anomaly in the geological and topographical sense, which gives it its power and dangerous currents. If you ever decide to check it out, don’t do it without a local guide unless you’re insane; if you are insane, enjoy washing your clothes with Cailleach Bheur.