CAN YOU SPEAK CANADIAN?
For the first time since 1967, there is a new edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles. Assembled over years by an international team of linguists, the dictionary’s goal is to assemble a time-tested catalogue of words that were invented in Canada or are “distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage.” The National Post rounded up the highlights, which feature a made-in-Canada kaleidoscope of racial slurs, drinking terms and words that sound dirty but aren’t.
Countries all around the world feature unliveried police cars, but Canada is the only one to assign these vehicles with the magnificent term of “ghost car.” Everywhere else, they go by the more pedestrian terms “undercover car” or “unmarked car.”
Another excellent Canadian term
for a vehicle that the rest of the world is too stubborn to adopt. A cube van refers to the type of two-axle moving truck typically rented out by U-Haul. Incredibly, online analyses by dictionary editors found almost no mention of this term outside Canada.
Easily one of the most surprising entries on the list. While “by-law” originated as a British term, only Canada has taken it up as an almost universal descriptor of a community-specific law. The rest of the English world has municipal laws, to be sure, but they refer to them as “regulations” or “ordinances” or subsections of a “code.”
The dictionary is utterly filled with hockey terms that, while not necessarily Canadian, are considered Canadianisms simply because we have so many hockey fans. The Gretzky Effect refers to how Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 helped to popularize hockey in California and other warm-weather U.S. states. Notably, this appears to be a skill unique to the Great One. While English football great David Beckham was similarly exported to Los Angeles in 2007, North America still refuses to care about soccer.
A string that is used to attach a possession to one’s body to prevent it from being lost. While this could conceivably refer to wallet chains or corded key holders, Canadians usually use “idiot string” to identify a length of string used to bind two mittens to one another.
A nickname for beer, often employed when the beverage is being used to substitute for a proper meal. This term is almost never seen outside Canada, possibly because they have healthier drinking habits — or are at least more direct about it.
Another clever term invented to smooth over Canada’s national drinking problem. A Molson muscle is a beer belly, and the term is almost certainly not endorsed by the Molson Coors Brewing Company.
Thanks to their unique brand of English, Newfoundland punches far above its weight in contributions to the Dictionary of Canadianisms. This one — which has likely caused no end of confusion on safety-conscious Alberta work sites — refers to being annoyed. “I’m poisoned with the lot of ’em I am,” reads a 2009 example cited in the dictionary in which a Newfoundlander complains about Danny Williams’ government.
HAD THE BISCUIT
Deep sixed. Bought the farm. Gave up the ghost. The term “had the biscuit” doesn’t need to specifically refer to death, it just refers to the state of being finished, spent or done with something. There is speculation that the term originated in the First World War, when dying soldiers were placed on “biscuits,” or field mattresses.
Not an exclusively Canadian term, to be sure, but it was invented here. Author William Gibson was in Vancouver when he first included it in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome. However, Canada can lay claim to monopolizing another “cyber” word: Cyberbullying.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine a sexual connotation for this word. In fact, as IMDB informs us, there are at least five X-rated movies with this exact title. However, in Canada, beaver fever is a decidedly unsexy parasitic disease transmitted in part thanks to beavers. The term is not exclusive to Canada, but seems to be in wider usage by simple virtue of us getting sick from beavers more often.
The only term on this list exclusive to Manitoba. It refers to the apparently popular wintertime Manitoba practice of grabbing onto a passing car for a free ride. The National Post would like to take a moment to remind our readers that this is a very dangerous pursuit.
Most of the English-speaking
world knows this word to mean the end of a romantic relationship. But only in Canada and parts of Alaska is it a joyous annual event to denote the day when ice in a neighbouring river, lake or harbour begins to break apart in the spring. And in the Yukon, at least, both river and romantic breakups have a weird tendency to coincide.
This was a slur against Anglo Canadians used in some corners of Quebec. The intent is not known (Anglos eat a lot of crawfish?), but no less than Quebec premier Réne Lévesque said in interviews that the term was a feature of his Gaspé childhood.
So in response, Canadian Anglos referred to Réne Lévesque and his friends as “peasoupers.” These are hurtful terms, to be sure, but Canada can at least take pride that they merely seem to be based on a group’s particular food preferences. In the vast global catalogues of insults and slurs, it usually gets way worse.
Another pejorative term, but surprisingly, it has nothing to do with people of Italian heritage. Used exclusively in Newfoundland, it’s employed by urbanites to refer to the inhabitant of a coastal settlement — sort of like calling someone a hick or a yokel.
Speaking of Italians, here is an exclusively Italian-Canadian term used as a jocular slam against non-Italian white Canadians. It means “cake eater,” and refers to how most of Canada prefers sweet white sandwich bread — in sharp contrast to the more sophisticated bread tastes of Italians.
This can refer to the Canadiandesigned Robertson screwdriver or it can be an all-purpose slur against any number of white ethnicities. The darker corners of Canadian history have featured the term “square head” being hurled at Germans, Swedes, Poles or simply English Canadians.
This one’s not a racial slur. It’s a B.C. term for a logger, and “does not seem to have been derogatory,” says the dictionary. As B.C. logging terms go, it’s also notable for not containing the “f-word.”
Canada proudly has our own, better, French people than the ones in Europe. Naturally, this has necessitated an Anglo term to differentiate someone from Rimouski rather than someone from Avignon. In French-speaking areas of Canada, the usual term is “French from France” or “those damned French.”
Particularly in the territories,
English features a lot more borrowing from aboriginal languages. While “skookum” (good) is the most well-known, parts of interior B.C. once saw heavy usage of “hiyu,” meaning “many.” “Saturday night was a hiyu success,” reads an 1899 example unearthed by dictionary editors.
The spring breakup in Dawson City, Yukon.
Wayne Gretzky, tearing up at a press conference after his trade to the L.A. Kings was announced in 1988, leading to the birth of The Gretzky Effect.