University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Rows of school chairs with slang words written on the desk arms: Mans ting, nize it, ahlie, miskeen
Illustration by Albert Tercero
Culture & Society

Do You Know Toronto Slang?

Youth are drawing from several languages spoken by the city’s immigrants to create a novel form of English

Derek Denis remembers the exact moment, in 2015, when he learned the word mans. An assistant professor of linguistics at U of T Mississauga, Denis was speaking with students about the word man being used in the place of “I,” which researchers had begun hearing in immigrant neighbourhoods of London, England.

A young woman raised her hand: “But we have something just like that here.” The student sent Denis messages she had received from friends. Sure enough, there was mans being used for “I,” as in, “Mans has work in the morning, how about you?”

Denis was floored – as a biologist might be after seeing a newly discovered species of bird for the first time. The reason, as he explains, is that pronouns, linguistically, are like concrete. They hardly ever change. As other words move fluidly in and out of style, “I”and “you” and their cousins remain constant. This use of mans (like man in England) was completely new – and, in the history of the English language, quite rare. “Pronouns tend to be one of the most stable aspects of the grammar, so this was really cool to me,” he says.

As a linguistics researcher, Denis had become interested in what happens to language when immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds come together in one place, such as London, New York, Paris or Toronto. What is emerging from these cities, usually from working-class neighbourhoods, he says, are “multi-ethnolects” – dialects of the local language that include words from multiple ethnic groups.

Denis has been studying the Toronto version of this phenomenon – Multicultural Toronto English – since 2015, and has become an expert in what’s popularly known as “Toronto Slang.”

He says mans is the best-known example of Toronto Slang, thanks in part to a Drake appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2016. In a sketch called “Black Jeopardy,” the Toronto-born musician says, “It’s really good to be here, dawg. I couldn’t take the TTC but mans made it over anyway.”

Where mans came from is a bit of a mystery: Denis says it has no direct analog in other languages spoken in Toronto. The earliest mention he could find was in the online Urban Dictionary, in 2006 (where it appears as manz); it doesn’t show up on Twitter until 2010. In an academic paper published in 2016, Denis writes that the most obvious theory is that the word came from London’s man, but he argues this is unlikely. Because London and Toronto have large Jamaican communities who use similar versions of Jamaican Creole, it’s quite possible mans/man evolved in each city independently, but from the same Caribbean language.

In four years, Denis has documented dozens of Toronto Slang words and phrases, which he tracks through conversations with people he recruits for his research. He also uses YouTube, which includes videos of people talking about Toronto Slang.

A young man in a red shirt who is carrying a backpack smiles as a young woman wearing overalls and a yellow top is talking to him
Illustration by David Sparshott

Many words come from Jamaican patois. But Somali and Arabic are also big influences, says Denis. From Somali (but originally Arabic), Toronto slang draws wallahi, meaning “I swear,” as in “Wallahi, mans didn’t take your phone.” Arabic gives us miskeen, a pathetic person or situation.

Borrowings from these three cultures are so prevalent in Toronto Slang partly because the city is home to many immigrants from these places. But there’s more to it than that, says Denis.

Word choices reveal more about us than simply what we’re trying to say. Our style of speaking, our pronunciation and the word variants we use – our “idiolect” – reflect elements of our background and how we want the world to see us. “There’s an aspect of Jamaican culture that’s cool,” says Denis. “So, taking words from that culture is also seen as cool.”

It can be controversial, too. Drake, for one, has been the target of criticism for using certain words (originating in the Jamaican or Somalian communities, for example) that some argue he doesn’t have an authentic claim to because he is not from these communities himself. Denis says he plans to explore this question of “cultural appropriation” in the next phase of his research.

Denis’s interest in Toronto Slang stems partly from the fact that he grew up in Scarborough, where many of the borrowed words originate. But he also wants to document a new dialect spoken by young people – especially those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants – so they’re not labelled as having a language deficiency. (According to Denis, this has occurred in the U.S. in the Black, Mexican-American and Indigenous Hawaiian communities.) “These kids are simply speaking the dialect they learned,” he says. “There’s nothing cognitively wrong with them.”

Although multi-ethnolects have emerged in several cities, Toronto Slang is uniquely Canadian, says Denis, reflecting our own cultural makeup. “We pride ourselves on being a multicultural society, and this is the linguistic result of that,” he says. “I think it’s something to be proud of.”

A Concise Guide to Toronto Slang

Mans: I, we, me, us, them – but also a general plural noun. Influence from Jamaican patois and London but homegrown in Toronto.

Ting: Thing, casual relationship. From Jamaican patois but a homegrown Toronto meaning.

Ahlie: “Eh” or “right.” A confirmational word. From patois.

Wallahi: I swear to God. Literally “by God.” From Somali (borrowed into Somali from Arabic).

Bucktee: General pejorative. From Somali word for drug addict (but derogatory, like “crackhead”).

Nize it: Shut up. A clipping of “recognize.” (“Recognize you’re out of line and shut up.”)

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  1. 21 Responses to “ Do You Know Toronto Slang? ”

  2. Sara Habibi says:

    "Man" is Farsi (Persian) for "I." There are huge Persian communities in both London and Toronto. Please pass this on to Prof. Denis.

  3. Eamon McDermott says:

    So there are Jamaicans and Somalis living in Toronto. Is there any indication that this slang has spread out of these communities?

  4. Harvey Sean Fox says:

    Been gone from T.O. for years. This is all good and new. Thanks for sharing, and keep it coming.

  5. Alan Nanders says:

    Immigrant groups and newcomers have shaped Toronto's language for generations. I immigrated to Toronto with my parents as a 12-year-old boy from West Berlin in 1956, with four years of grammar school English to my credit. In an attempt to lose my accent, I quickly became aware to what extent "Toronto speak" was shaped by various immigrant groups. While first and second generations of Italian-Canadians would frequently refer to opening or closing lights, instead of turning them on or off, many of the immigrants students from Central Europe referred to the white bread sandwiches of Anglo-Canadian fellow students as "cake bread," as we munched on our hearty rye bread fare.

    Also for generations, it seems, immigrant students at Toronto's Parkdale Collegiate mispronounced the first name of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. They pronounced his forename like "Joffrey" instead of like "Jeffrey." Toronto streetcar drivers coming down Roncesvalles Avenue toward King Street and Parkdale C.I. passed a TTC stop at Geoffrey Street, and called it out as "Joffrey." The pronunciation stuck. I wonder if there is a similar explanation for the quaint Toronto pronunciation of "Spadina" Avenue, rhyming it with "China" instead of with "Tina," as is the practice outside the GTA.

  6. Mark Bernier says:

    Another possibility for further investigation is corporate slang. When a work force is multicultural it is quite interesting to see how certain words or phrases get incorporated into daily use -- sometimes to label a device or method that no one has a good word for.

  7. Jase Todd says:

    Toronto is a cultural mosaic. I'd like to read more articles like this. Really cool video, too!

  8. Jack Chambers says:

    The intrusion of "mans" into the pronoun system (for "I") is interesting and unusual for all the reasons Derek Denis says. Newfoundland English has a similar intrusion with "buddy" for "he/him" (but not apparently "she/her"). Here is a sample from Memorial University files (1982): "and certainly when he jumped in over the fence, buddy's left the grave and he runned for the woods." Dictionary of Newfoundland English has other citations from 1980s but it is certainly older than that in the vernacular.

  9. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Prof. Derek Denis responds:

    @ Sara: I didn’t know that “man” was Farsi for "I," but it makes sense. Farsi and English are distantly related (both are Indo-European languages). What we do know about the development of new pronouns is that they tend to develop from nouns for humans. However, I think it’s unlikely that this is the source of Toronto’s “mans." It's an interesting coincidence, though, and possibly a catalyst for its spread among Farsi speakers.

    @ Eamon: Yes, there is evidence. In my research, it comes from observation (including use and metadiscourse online), usage and attitudes surveys, and sociolinguistic interview records.

  10. Maruta Voitkus-Lukins, '69 Univrsity College says:

    In Latvian slang, from at least the 1930s, possibly earlier, "mans" (being the singular possessive adjective, meaning "my" for a masculine speaker) has been in circulation.

    Except that the pronunciation would be more as if it were written "muns" in English.

    Could "mans" for I, me, myself have come from Latvian?

  11. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Prof. Derek Denis responds:

    @Maruta: With Latvian, it's very similar to the Farsi case. Latvian is also distantly related to English as an Indo-European language and the use of "mans" as a pronoun in both Farsi and Latvian seems ultimately to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European *mon- meaning "human" (from where English gets "man").

  12. Cynthia says:

    I noticed that the article doesn't talk about the influence of Cantonese or Mandarin (for example). And it's not like those communities are any less well established than, say, Jamaicans. Interesting

  13. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    From Josée Labrosse (MEd 1995 OISE)

    What a novel area of study! I’ve been curious about how language (including body language) influences relationships, based on my personal and professional experiences since the early 1980s. These include an interracial and intercultural marriage, medical education and work in inner-city health and internationally. My son now studies sports broadcasting in Toronto. He introduced us to Multicultural Toronto English through You Tube videos that used Toronto Slang to report on the Raptors. This might be of interest to Toronto "mans" fans.

  14. Martha Dowsley says:

    Asian-originated slang was evident to me growing up in Toronto in the 1980s when Asian fast food workers asked "to stay, to go?" rather than "for here or to go?" The phrase was very widely used by the 1990s.

  15. Lise Winer says:

    "Mans" is almost certainly from or influenced by the Rastafarian "I-mans" for the first person pronoun.

  16. Rebecca T says:

    I agree with the Caribbean reference to Toronto Slang. Many words are derived from multiple West Indian countries, especially in music and sports. At the Raptors parade, "soca music" was playing on the trucks. Twenty years ago I would have to "revert to my Canadian accent" and today I can speak Caribbean "patois" at an executive table and everyone understands me.

  17. Paul Van Loan says:

    The word "thing" was being used in Toronto and the Niagara Peninsula as early as the 60s, referring to a cohabiting couple, as in "Are you two a thing now?"

  18. Dr. Virginia Stead says:

    Great article, thanks.
    Pronunciation guides would be helpful too.

  19. Peter Cook says:

    Would a woman in Toronto use "mans" for "I"?

  20. Luis Jacob says:

    This is such a fascinating article. Thanks for this.

  21. Michael Harrison says:

    An earlier slang word for Toronto, is Trawna dating in my recollection to the 1940s. I always think I can detect an person who says Tor-on-to as one not born here. Another, local to U of T, is Skule. It relates to "the little red schoolhouse," which was the home of the School of Practical Science, the precursor to the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering.

  22. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Prof. Derek Denis responds:

    @Peter Cook: Mans is highly gendered but it’s not completely restricted to men. I have overheard women use it but it is rare. This was also found in London with the man pronoun.