When I emigrated from the United States to Canada a number of years ago, I gave little thought to the potential language differences I might encounter. After all, I had a new marriage to build, a job hunt to conduct and new friends to make. New words were low on my list of concerns.
In fact, I had visited relatives in Canada many times as a child and didn’t remember hearing anything unusual, other than the accent with which my cousins spoke. As I prepared to make the move north, my friends said to me, jokingly, “Well, at least you won’t have to learn a new language.”
How surprised they would be to realize that while, yes, citizens of both countries speak English, there are many words and phrases that they would find mystifying here in the Great White North, as we lovingly call it. If Americans think about Canada, they generally picture it as their friendly neighbour to the north and leave it at that. Those who don’t live in border states generally give little thought to the idea that Canada is a country with a different culture, other traditions and words that would be as foreign to them as Australian slang.
It’s easy to pick a Canadian out at a restaurant or a highway rest stop. He or she is the one inquiring about the location of the washroom. Not the toilet or the restroom: the washroom. Euphemistic perhaps, but in keeping with the Canadian tradition of politeness.
And Canadians buying food or drink in the same locales will pay for them at the cash, not the cash register.
I loved discovering these differences as I settled into life in Canada, and I still maintain a mental catalogue. Thanksgiving, for instance, is a statutory – not a public – holiday, referring to the fact that it was established by provincial or federal statute. Hydro refers to (hydro) electricity, not to water; I receive my monthly hydro bill in the mail.
If I choose to stay home from work due to illness, I book off sick, and if I’m laid off from my job and obtain unemployment insurance, I’m on the pogey. This might depress me so much that I eat too many squares – or bar cookies, as they’re known in the U.S. – or drown my sorrows with a two-four, a case of beer with, count ‘em, 24 bottles.
Each time I come across a new Canadianism, it delights me. Why shouldn’t language be rich and diverse and reflect the place where it’s put into practice? Such words are hallmarks of a distinct culture and a reminder not to lump all English-speaking countries together. As the French say – in another context, of course – Vive la difference!