Quirky Canadianisms: Canadian English as Our Cultural Heritage

by Karen Kemlo

Published at 2014-08-04

Lately there has been a fair bit of news coverage dedicated to Canadian English as a languagewhat it is, why it’s important, and how it fits in as part of our culture. But while our use of “eh” as a fitting end to a sentence and our (alleged) habit of pronouncing “about” as “aboot” might be what we’re most known for internationally, many Canadians might not realize some of the words they use on a daily basis are unique to our culture, aka, Canadianisms.


What exactly is a Canadianism? It’s a word or phrase that originated in Canada or has special meaning just in Canada. Even though Canadian English is often viewed as a perplexing amalgam of American and British English, there are some words and phrases that are absolutely unique to our country. Here's a quickand quirkylook at some of the things that make Canadian English unique.


We’ve Got Our Own Words for Things


First off, Canadians have our own words for some things, such as bachelor apartment, bank machine, chesterfield, eavestrough, grade one, parkade, runners or running shoes, scribbler, and washroom. However, these are not merely words for things that can only be found in Canada. Compare the American words for these same things and you get studio apartment, ATM, couch, gutters, first grade, parking garage, sneakers or tennis shoes, notebook, and restroom. Poutine, on the other hand, you might have a hard time locating outside Canada.


Two unique words that we get a lot of use out of once the temperatures drop are tuque and toboggan (aka a beanie or cap and sled to Americans). These words aren’t just different from the American vernacular for the sake of being different: these words have evolved as part of our cultural history.


Tuque is derived from Canadian French, with its first written appearance occurring in 1871. It is said that the style is in part thanks to the famed coureurs de bois, French-Canadian woodsmen and explorers who ventured into the woods of New France (which at the time, included part of modern-day Canada) and the North American interior to trade for furs. These traders reportedly kept their woolen nightcaps on during the cold Canadian winter days, giving birth to the knit cap’s style.


As for toboggan, this word can trace its roots back to the Mi’kmaq word for sled, topaĝan, which was later adopted into Canadian French as tabaganne, and then eventually became part of Canadian English.


We Spell Things Differently


People often notice that Canadian spelling differs from American in two ways that tend to stick out. We tend to keep the “u” in words like honour, colour, or neighbourhood, while Americans do not. We also like to hang on to that extra “l” in words like travelled, cancelled, or shovelled (a word that gets a lot of use come wintertime!).


Interestingly, while Canadian English is notable for its adherence to many British rules of spelling, there is one instance in which Canadians have sided with the Americans. While the British use an “s” to spell words like recolonise or recognise, Canadians at some point decided to go with the American way of spelling these words with a “z” (recolonize, recognize).  And remember: if you’re in Canada, it’s pronounced “zed,” not “zee!” This pronunciation actually comes from the original Greek zeta via Old French zede, and pretty much all English speakers worldwide pronounce the letter this way.


Terms to Keep in Mind


If you’re a Canadian travelling in the U.S., there are also some word differences you should be aware of.


In the U.S., kids go to college, but in Canada, graduating teens choose between college and university. What’s more, these words are not interchangeablein Canada, colleges and universities are very different institutions, where in America, these terms are often used interchangeably.


If you go to an American liquor store (which, remember, can be any old buildingdon’t bother looking for an LCBO), don’t ask for a two-four, a mickey, or a two-six. These alcoholic terms aren’t much used outside of Canada. Just in case you try anyway and an explanation is necessary: a two-four is often used to refer to a 24-case of beer, a mickey is usually a 375 mL bottle of alcohol (and often curved, supposedly to fit in the purchaser’s pocket), and a two-six is a 26 oz. bottle of alcohol. (This term is not even really correct anymore, but we use it anyway—the equivalent bottle now holds 750 mL, or, just over 25 oz.)


In Canada, we use a washroom, but our American counterparts instead use a restroom or bathroom. The British use a toilet. The point is, we all use it.


Lastly, we come to what is perhaps the most ubiquitous and beloved of Canadian establishments. Everyone in Canada knows what you mean when you ask if anyone wants anything from Timmy’s: of course you are referring to one of the Tim Hortons coffee franchises that can be found almost anywhere in Canada, and are considered to be somewhat of a Canadian cultural icon. (It was originally Tim Horton’s when founded by the famed NHLer of that name in 1964.) There are over 3,500 locations, including some in the U.S.—so the store might not be totally foreign to those south of the border. But even if you end up at a Tim Hortons in the States, the shop might not have a clue about what you want when you order the drink that every Canadian knows: a double double. That’d be a coffee with double cream, double sugar. It’s so simple, eh?


Why Canadianisms Are Important

As Canadians, we might get our share of ridicule for the way we speak and the way we spell, but at the end of the day, a lot of our uniquely Canadian words are indicative of our mix of cultural heritage: some French from Lower Canada when parts of Canada were known as New France, some British from the influx of British Loyalists leaving America during the American Revolution, and a fair bit of influence from historical First Nations’ languages, such as Métis, and many of our place names like Toronto.


In a world where the cultural heavyweight of America influences more and more cultures around the globe, it’s important to note that our unique words and phrases symbolize a lot more than just letters and sounds: they represent Canada and our culture to the world.