What did that chicken say?
Although Canada is an officially bilingual country, a large majority of Canadians do not speak a word of French. Every day there are millions of Canadians reading French labels, listening to French telephone messages and sitting through French safety announcements — and having no idea what they’re hearing. They might assume that every appearance of French is a pitch-perfect translation of English — but they would be wrong. Below, some of the ways in which francophones don’t see Canada quite the same as anglophones.
TO FRANCOPHONES, CANADA HAS 14 PRIME MINISTERS
There is no word for “premier” in French, which means that Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial leaders are known as “prime ministers” or, more precisely, “first ministers.” As a result, Justin Trudeau isn’t the prime minister, he’s just the federal one.
CANADIANS CAPTURED JUNO BEACH ON “J-DAY”
The “d” in “D-Day” doesn’t stand for anything. Much like the term “H-Hour,” it’s just a easy-to-remember military term for the first day of an operation. For the French Canadian units who stormed Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, however, the invasion of Normandy was to start on “Jour J.”
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS IS KNOWN AS THE CHAMBER OF COMMUNITIES
French-speakers refer to Canada’s lower house of Parliament as the “Chambres des Communes,” which roughly translates as the room or chamber of communities. This is actually a more accurate version of what the term “House of Commons” actually means. A popular misconception is that the House of Commons is a “house of common people.” In fact, since the earliest days of the English House of Commons, the word commons has been a derivation of “communes” — meaning that the assembly is a collection of community representatives.
THE DOMINION OF CANADA TRANSLATES TO THE POWER OF CANADA
Canada was founded as a “dominion,” a nominally independent country within the larger British Empire. Although the term is largely outdated, Canada’s official full name began as “the Dominion of Canada.” But French-Canadians picked an empirically superior term to refer to the new country. They lived in “la Puissance du Canada” (the “Power of Canada”).
QUEBEC DUCKS SAY “COIN-COIN,” NOT “QUACK-QUACK”
When it’s not shaking down Montrealers for signage violations, the Office québécois de la langue française is compiling detailed instructions on the correct way to speak French in Quebec. One of their lists lays out the proper onomatopoeia to refer to animal noises. Dogs say “wouf,” cats say “ronron,” chickens say “cot-cot” and ducks say “coin-coin.”
THE NAKED GUN MOVIE IS KNOWN AS POLICE OFFICER ACTING FARCICALLY
The comedic pinnacle of Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen has a surprisingly unfun name in French: L’Agent fait la farce, which roughly translates into “Police Officer Acting Farcically.” This is a specifically Quebec quirk. In France, the film is called “Is There a Movie to Save the Queen?”
HARRY POTTER USES A “BAGUETTE” TO CAST SPELLS
While English speakers know a baguette only as a slender type of French bread, in French it’s a pretty versatile word roughly meaning “stick.” Chop sticks are baguettes, drum sticks are baguettes and the various magic wands of the Harry Potter universe are baguettes, too.
FRANCOPHONES DON’T LOOK FOR WALDO, THEY LOOK FOR CHARLIE
While English Canadians hunted for the be-tuqued figure of Waldo, their francophone neighbours were on the lookout for “Charlie.” This is a function of Where’s Waldo’s shrewd publishers, who gave the character a culturally specific name in every market where the books were sold. In fact, he’s known as “Wally” in Australia and the U.K. It also means that whenever a politician named “Charlie” doesn’t make a public appearance for a while, Quebec media gets to write “où est Charlie?” Speaking of Charlies, the silent film legend Charlie Chaplin is known to the world’s French speakers as “Charlot.”
FRENCH-CANADIANS HAVEN’T BEEN CHANGING THEIR WORD FOR “INDIGENOUS” EVERY 10 YEARS
Every decade or so, English Canada feels the need to change the name for its first peoples. There was “native,” then “Aboriginal” and now “Indigenous.” But in francophone quarters, First Nations, Metis and Inuit have been known pretty consistently as “autochtones.”
THE BIG DIPPER IS KNOWN AS THE BIG BEAR
The Big Dipper is the most recognizable constellation to almost everyone in the Northern Hemisphere. But while anglophones know it by its resemblance to a type of scoop, in French Canada it’s known as “the big bear.” And, since all French nouns are gendered, their word specifically refers to a female bear. This is in keeping with the constellation’s Latin name, Ursa Major, which also denotes the star pattern as a female bear.
A chicken would never utter a vulgar cluck in Quebec — it’s a “cot-cot” in that province.