Can’t Wait to Meet You, Neighbour: Spelling and Grammar Are Political

by Jessie Hale

Published at 2013-04-08

With the first Canadian Target stores opening in Guelph, Milton, and Fergus last month, Canadians no longer have to wait for weekend road trips to Buffalo to get their fill of the telltale red-and-white bullseye. The news was unwelcome to many Canadians, who fear that the intrusion of yet another American big-box chain will hurt indigenous businesses. So when Target began promoting themselves north of the border, they wanted to look friendly, unobtrusive, and polite. Target’s slogan? “Can’t Wait to Meet You, Neighbour.”


The word “neighbour” wasn’t chosen merely to fit with the how-d’ya-do tone of Target’s Canadian promotional activities. The little “u” in the distinctly Canadian word serves a political purpose. We don’t want to take your culture away from you, Target is saying (or wants you to think it’s saying). We want to be a part of it! Imagine the outrage if Target had announced how pleased it was to meet its Canadian “neighbors” and to become a major “center” for shopping.


I’m fascinated by the way that spelling, grammar, and usage can become deeply political. While some decry so-called political correctness, arguing that a word is just a collection of letters, editors know that words have power. The words “native” and “Native” mean very different things. The singular “they,” previously the bane of persnickety grammar enthusiasts, is the chosen pronoun for many people who don’t identify with either side of the male/female gender binary.


Of course, we’re all familiar with at least a handful of hurtful slurs one should never say, but some are contentious. Have “lame” and “dumb” been far enough removed from their origins that they’re no longer disablist? Editors always have the Canadian Oxford Dictionary on hand to look up what words mean. But what, and how much, do they mean culturally?


Whatever your opinion about Target, it’s clear that it thought long and hard about how to suit its words to its message. There’s no question that Target  hired an experienced Canadian copy editor to go through the promotional materials with a fine-toothed comb. Editors need to make sure that words are used not only correctly, but also sensitively. As Target knows, even one letter can make a big difference.