Tag Archives: Canada

Don’t get your knickers in a knot!

Since I’ll be spending my vacation in Britain this summer, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the language we have in common – or do we?

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British English is different from Canadian English which is different from American English, although I imagine that 90 per cent of the words we use are understandable to each other. A rose is a rose is a rose after all.

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Nonetheless, there are words that are used in both Britain and North America, but have different meanings depending on the continent. It’s these words that we travellers must beware, lest we receive puzzled looks, outright stares or requests for translation. In the interest of self-preservation, I’ve learned a few of them, but there are endless traps for unwary visitors:

  • Flat. We North Americans think of this word as an adjective that describes a piece of paper (not wrinkled) or the calm state of a body of water (Lake Ontario is flat today; not a hint of wind or waves). In Britain, it’s a noun synonymous with an apartment. (Suzy finally moved out of the house and is sharing a flat with two colleagues.)
  • Lift. In Canada, this is a verb used when one plans to pick something up from the ground or a shelf (Be careful when you lift that glass bowl – it’s heavier than it looks!). Across the pond, however, it refers to an elevator (Hold the door to the lift, please. I’m coming!)
  • Boot. When we hear this word, the thoughts of those of us in northern climes turn to the foot coverings we wear throughout the long winter (The snow comes nearly to the top of my boot.). In England’s more salubrious climate, it refers to the trunk of a car. (Open the boot so I can fetch my other pair of shoes.)
  • Jumper. In Toronto, this term is ghoulishly used for someone who commits suicide by throwing themselves in the path of an oncoming train, but it’s much more innocuous abroad; it simply refers to a sweater. (Did your grandmother knit you another ugly jumper for the holidays?)

So, pitfalls lurk everywhere – around any corner, there could be disaster. For hapless, helpless tourists who want to prepare, there is probably help online, but I think I’ll wait to be surprised – and, undoubtedly, embarrassed.

P.S. Feel free to send me your own examples – and how you learned to appreciate the other meaning. Vive la difference!

 

Photo credits: creativecommons.com

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O, Canada, Part 2

I recently made a trip to New York City with three Canadian friends who were eager to experience the delights of the Big Apple for the first time. 

Travelling in the United States as part of a Canadian contingent, I was once again reminded that the two countries have some similarities, but also many differences, some of which are reflected in their terminology. 

Some of these differences are due to their relationships with Britain, the nation that gave birth to both countries: the Americans were the rebellious children, rejecting their parents’ authority and determined to forge a new path for themselves, while the Canadians were the good children, following the lead of their parents in creating a governance style and institutions.

This divergence is reflected in the language, with many Canadian terms and spellings (e.g., humour vs. humor) often hewing more closely to those used in Britain. Yet, don’t make the mistake of thinking Canada – or its language – is a mere clone of either its mother country or its sibling to the south.

Money is the one indication that we’re no longer in Canada. Not only are we spending greenbacks (U.S. dollars, so named for their green colour) rather than using Canada’s coloured currency, but we must pull dollar bills out of our wallets, rather than loonies or toonies. 

Loonies? No, that doesn’t make me a candidate for the loony bin, aka the insane asylum. Canada has phased out its one- and two-dollar bills, introducing coins instead. The golden one-dollar coin bears the likeness of a loon, one of the birds with distinctive calls found on Canadian lakes, hence the affectionate, ubiquitous name, the loonie. 

Its success prompted the creation of a two-dollar coin. With typical Canadian wit – many popular comedians hail from the provinces –it was dubbed the toonie. Two dollars, brother to the loonie … perfect!

It’s enough to drive a non-Canadian to drink – but that, too, can be fraught with difficulties! You might be offered a sip from a mickey, a small bottle or flask of alcohol that contains about 375 milliliters, or offered a Bloody Caesar. It’s similar to a Bloody Mary, but it uses tomato-clam juice, rather than straight tomato juice. And if it’s coffee you crave, the drink of choice north of the border is often a double double: coffee with double cream and double sugar.

Different, eh?

 

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O, Canada (Part 1)

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.

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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!

 

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