Tag Archives: culture

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?


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.


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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The Proverbial Proverb — Words(s) of Wisdom

My father, a high school teacher, was a master of the proverb – those short, pithy sayings that express a traditionally held belief, such as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apple_clipartIn fact, his lectures were so liberally sprinkled with these phrases that a few of his students made a list over the course of a year. The variety was endless, with the total climbing into the hundreds. Although my Dad passed away eight years ago, every time I hear myself spouting one of these time-tested phrases, it brings him to mind.

After being passed down from generation to generation, proverbs become a familiar part of the general phraseology of a culture, and they reflect that society’s values.  For example, the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” originated in Africa, where a strong sense of community is still a common cultural characteristic and people in addition to a child’s parents take responsibility for developing his or her moral character. In North America, we use the proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” because we believe in a strong work ethic.

Here are a few more of my favourites; feel free to share some of yours with me!

  1. Many a true word is spoken in jest.
  2. Every cloud has a silver lining. (We North Americans are optimistic.)
  3. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (A
    proverb from the U.S., a culture of risk-takers)
  4. Brevity is the soul of wit. 

I’ll end now so that you’ll find me witty!

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The Name Game

“What’s in a Name?”  the playwright, William Shakespeare, famously asked in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a bit, says Jessica Taylor, a lecturer in linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of the ways language shapes social life, and Taylor offered some insights into names during a lesson at last week’s SPUR Young Scholars Day at the university.

Names, she said, not only identify individuals, but they point to social meanings that may vary according to culture. In Italy, for example, Romeo is a serious name that translates to Pilgrim to Rome.  To English speakers, however, the name often connotes a lover, a colloquial meaning based on the hero in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Different versions of a name can also indicate how close a relationship two people have. The boss may call his employee James; his best friend may call him by his nickname, Jim; while his mother may be one of the few people who calls him Jimmy, his childhood nickname.

These linguistic layers of meaning  certainly cast a different light on the rest of the quote from Romeo and Juliet:  “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


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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.


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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