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The Oxford English Dictionary in Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, June 19, 2019. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn
Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn
Research & Ideas

The Great Canadian Word Hunt

Canadian meanings of “soaker” and “bush party” don’t exist in the Oxford English Dictionary. A U of T linguistics prof is aiming to change that

With more than 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, how many of these would you expect to be Canadian? Six thousand? One thousand?

Try about 700.

The OED staff know their coverage of Canada falls short, so, earlier this year, they teamed up with Sali Tagliamonte, a U of T professor of linguistics. Tagliamonte is reviewing words and phrases from her research, and, with the help of one of her grad students, is compiling a list of candidate words for the OED.

For a decade, Tagliamonte has been visiting small towns north and east of Toronto to conduct and record interviews – to study how people in these communities talk. Through these conversations, she has identified words, phrases and senses of words that have gone previously undocumented.

She learned that a “goer,” for example, is a spirited child. And that in Timmins, Ontario, “miner’s mouth” refers to someone who swears a lot.

Having grown up in northern Ontario, Tagliamonte knew that a “soaker” is what you sometimes get when you step in a deep puddle or snowdrift. The word exists in the OED, but the Canadian sense does not appear among the definitions, which include “a drunkard,” “one who soaks something” and “a drenching rain.” Tagliamonte thought everyone knew her childhood meaning of the word – until she started her research. “You live in the north, there’s always deep snow in winter. Your feet get wet; it’s a soaker.” Turns out it’s a Canadianism.

She also knew that “a suck” is a whiny or sulking person. And a “bush party” occurs when friends gather in the woods around a campfire to drink and talk. These senses aren’t in the OED either.

Tagliamonte plans to submit these words along with dozens of others to the OED for consideration. To give the dictionary’s editors a sense of how frequently they’re used (which will help determine whether they will be included), she’ll provide counts for how many times each term appears in every 10 million words. “Many of them are very infrequent,” she says.

According to Katherine Connor Martin, the head of lexical content strategy for Oxford University Press, the dictionary team looks for new words – and assesses how meanings of existing words are changing – mostly by reading national newspapers and other major publications. This makes it difficult to track word use in more isolated rural areas, in specific neighbourhoods or among particular ethnic groups. “Because those words are not as visible, we rely on linguists such as Sali who are working with these language communities,” she says.

To be recorded as Canadian, Martin says, a word must be “overwhelmingly associated with Canada,” or have originated here. Some words become Canadian even though they came from elsewhere. “Parkade,” for instance, originated in the U.S., but is now chiefly used in western Canada and South Africa.

And even if a word itself is not Canadian, one of its meanings can be. An “atom,” for example, is a fundamental particle of matter, but in Canada, uniquely, it also refers to a level of sport for children.

What further complicates matters for the OED is that many Canadian words aren’t used across the country: you’re unlikely to hear anyone outside of Saskatchewan call a hooded sweatshirt a “bunnyhug.” And only in Quebec is a convenience store a “dep” (derived from dépanneur.)

“Words don’t follow national boundaries,” says Martin. “Some do, but a lot of them don’t.”

Establishing whether a word is Canadian is one matter, deciding if it gets into the dictionary is another. According to Martin, the editors assess the length of time the word has been in use (several years is usually a minimum) and its frequency of use over time.

The OED also takes into account where the word comes from, since words from smaller populations of speakers (such as Canada) won’t be used as frequently overall as those from larger ones (such as the United States).

Martin, who is American, encourages University of Toronto Magazine readers to contact the dictionary through Twitter or its website with words they think might be unique to Canada. “Anyone can give us their Canadian words,” she says.

You can also tell us about words you think may be distinctly Canadian in the comment box below.

Katherine Martin’s Favourite Canadian words

 

Bargoon

A great bargain. “There’s a playfulness about it, which is nice.”

Gong show

Like “amateur hour” or “a chaotic situation.” “Even though it was an American television show, folks in the U.S. don’t say that.”

Keener

An especially eager student. “I like it because it’s both a more accurate way of describing that kid in your class at school, but also slightly kinder than some of the words that we would use in American English.”

Toonie

A Canadian two-dollar coin. “This is wonderfully inventive, combining ‘two’ and ‘loonie’ (which is itself a charming word for a dollar coin). Blended ‘portmanteau’ words can sometimes be grating, but this one works well.”

Vinarterta

A cake consisting of thin alternate layers of shortbread and a cardamom-flavoured filling made from prunes, plums or other dried fruit, typically eaten during the holidays. “This word entered Canadian English via Icelandic immigration to settlements such as Gimli, Manitoba. Interestingly, the cake itself has evolved differently in the two countries, so that nowadays Canadian vinarterta and Icelandic vinarterta are a bit different.”

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  1. 20 Responses to “ The Great Canadian Word Hunt ”

  2. Anne Alvarez says:

    What about, it "calls" for rain? No other English-speaking country says that, I think.

  3. Ted Clee says:

    Having grown up in Toronto, I remember "soaker" and "suck," as used in this article. Here in Texas these last 40 years, nobody knows about "chesterfield" (sofa) or "serviette" (table napkin), although I don't know if these are distinctly Canadian words. Interesting, eh?

  4. Gael Spivak says:

    I find it odd that this article doesn't mention the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps because Oxford decided to stop keeping it updated several years ago.

  5. John Banka says:

    A "jambuster" is a jelly-filled doughnut (not donut!) - prevalent in Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba (and possibly other western provinces).

  6. Susan Gingell says:

    I keep hearing that "bunnyhug" is a Saskatchewan word, but I grew up in southern Ontario and remember hearing this word when we lived in the Niagara peninsula. A soaker was what we got lakeside from being too close to the water's edge when a wave rolled in or if we slipped on the muddy edge of a pond, not just from puddles or melting snow. I remember having plastic bags for my feet when a soaker had rendered footwear, especially boots, wet and cold.

    Having spent a few years now in contact with Saskatchewan's farming community, I wonder if the word "iron," which I hear regularly to refer to large farm equipment, is distinctively Canadian.

    I wonder, too, if Prof. Tagliamonte has picked up on "canola," which referred first to an oil developed in Canada from what was widely called rapeseed. The Canola Encyclopedia on the Canola Council of Canada website says the term "canola" is derived from "Canadian oil." The official definition of canola is: "An oil that must contain less than 2% erucic acid, and less than 30 micromoles of glucosinolates per gram of air-dried oil-free meal." Nowadays many farmers and their communities refer to canola crop, canola fields, and canola plants. While the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed., lists "canola," it says its origin is unknown.

  7. Sali A. Tagliamonte says:

    Hey Canadians, if you know a community that has cool words and expressions, let me know. I go on a field trip every year in May to places far and wide across Ontario to hear local stories. See my website for more information and to find out more about Ontario words and expressions: http://ontariodialects.chass.utoronto.ca/

  8. Justin Pellen says:

    I've worked with a number of hockey players from Durham region who use the word "goer" when referring to a person who will fight anyone anytime.

  9. Paul Brett says:

    In southwestern Ontario, we said "I am all over dirt." And "avenue" is never said completely but always as "ave" such as Brant Ave in Brantford. Regionalisms are always fun.

  10. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    @Paul

    That's really interesting. What does "I am all over dirt" mean?

  11. Paul Brett says:

    "I am all over dirt" means I am covered in dirt. We also said "I am all over snow." My mother would tell us to take off our coats at the door because we were all over dirt or snow. It seems to be limited to the Brantford-London area of Ontario. There is a reporter on CTV Toronto who is obviously from the London area because he sometimes uses the "Ave" short form when discussing a Toronto street. I always wonder if Torontonians notice this. We also used the word "soaker" for getting a foot wet from sinking into a puddle or the edge of a creek.

  12. Janet Purkis says:

    Re "I'm all over dirt": If you would like a literary reference for this construction, I first read this expression in the Robertson Davies novel A Mixture of Frailties (1958). The heroine of the novel, Monica, is studying in London, England. She is invited to dinner at the home of a couple of ex-pats from Saskatchewan. The man of the couple is painting when Monica arrives, and says "I'm all over paint" to explain why he can't shake hands with her.

    I am a Canadian ex-pat living in Australia. I went to U of T!

  13. Janet Purkis says:

    One of my favourite Canadian expressions is "fucking the dog," which means "looking busy while actually doing nothing." Hence, "dog fucking" is a common activity amongst people who do not want to work terribly hard but are too ashamed, or clever, to just sit down and have a smoke and a coffee.

  14. Tom McDonough says:

    "Bum" for posterior; in billiards (pool) "dog" for a ball teetering at the edge of a pocket; "blades" for ice skates; "squares" instead of the American "bars" (for desserts like brownies or date squares baked in a pan before being cut into squares or rectangles). Also, if Clee had not beaten me to it I would have said "soaker." In Canadian slang, "suck" can mean a kid who does not participate in rough games or sports. I am a U of T grad who has lived in the U.S. for years and am greeted with blank stares when I say "chesterfield" or "serviette."

  15. Pamela McDermid says:

    In the Wasaga Beach/Collingwood area, I have heard for many years, "I gapped it" used in reference to forgetting something.

  16. Peter Reich says:

    My favourites are "bungalow" as a one-storey house (different from the Wikipedia descriptions), washroom, two-piece washroom (as opposed to “powder room”), back bacon, peameal bacon, parkette, laneway, inukshuk, Nanaimo bar (not easy to find in Nanaimo — finally found one in a Tim Hortons there), butter tart, Muskoka chair, hydro (for electricity), basketweave (place with simultaneous exchange ramps between express and collector lanes on the 401). (Other local terms: “spaghetti bowl” [Los Angeles] and The Junction [Chicago] to describe intersections on interstate highways.)

  17. William Cumming says:

    As an expatriate Canadian canoeist living in Florida, I've taught many friends a term from my youth: "Lily dipper" is someone who moves their paddle through the water as if propelling a canoe but actually contributing nothing to its propulsion. They could be using a long-stemmed lily instead of a paddle. The term is definitely derisive. Another term from my youth was "breeks" for the breeches worn by all boys when I was in grade 8.

  18. Frances Clee says:

    I grew up with the idea that a serviette was made of paper and a table napkin was made of cloth. I don't know if that is just me, or not.

  19. Edward Schafer says:

    It is all. Have heard this many times in southern Ontario. Meaning it's completed or finished.

  20. Carol Shields says:

    Out east we say, "It's comin' on to rain," meaning that rain is imminent or just starting. "To come on + infinitive" can also be applied in other contexts, but it's more commonly used for precipitation (rain, hail, snow). Does this use of "come on" exist elsewhere in Canada?

    We also said "chesterfield" in New Brunswick, but "serviette" sounded weird (and overly formal) to me when I moved to Ontario. We said "napkin."

    Also, I remember being surprised that a friend from Windsor, Ontario, often used "anymore" to mean "these days," as in "People are so busy anymore. We used to have time to relax."

  21. Tom Stobie (SMC '72) says:

    "Braces" is a common but peculiarly Canadian word for "suspenders," which I have heard commonly in the U.S. "Breeks" I have heard, of late, mainly in the Maritimes, for trousers. I believe it is of Scots-Gaelic origin. I heard it first from my vairry Sco'ish grandfather. "Ge' oot the rrrooad" is similarly a very Gaelic, if less polite way of saying "Excuse me," common among the less sophisticated elderly around me in my youth. Use of this expression appears to have fallen out of favour, as has the Geordie dialect "any road" for "anyway." I remember the wheelchair used by my very elderly maiden aunt was called a "ridey."