Take Off, Eh?

I’ve read some interesting debates online recently pertaining to the differences between UK and US English. Just last week, our own Hise highlighted the differences between the two Englishes when it involves the punctuation surrounding dialogue. Boy (George), do people take this stuff seriously. As well they should, though—our wondrous English language is as essential to us writers as pickled sheep’s eyes dipped in fruit bat guano are to pregnant women. Utterly indispensable. But I ain’t going there. Neither pregnant women nor the Limey/Yank debate, nosiree. Not even fruit bats. No, I want to talk today about a different type of English, and one that oftentimes gets completely overlooked in these discussions: Canadian English.

Let me begin with a story. When I first arrived in this vast, slightly bewildered country from England in the late ’80s, I quickly found work in a group home for abused/neglected teens. Back then, I’m mildly ashamed to say, I smoked. A lot. Cigarettes, mostly (but I didn’t inhale, I swear). So, one evening I was involved in a stressful situation dealing with a kid who was flipping out about something or other, and once calm had returned, I said (ostensibly to myself, but for some reason the words emerged as out-loud speech instead of innermost thoughts… no doubt my first mistake), “Boy could I use a fag right about now.” All of a sudden, I had the rapt and wary attention of every teenager in that home. You could have cut the silence with a great big silence cutter (I was far lazier with my metaphors back then). They stared. I stared back. Someone laughed nervously and said “duuuude” under his breath. In that shaky skateboarder voice—you know the one. Now, don’t get me wrong, it ought to go without saying that the humour of this moment isn’t at the expense of gay people, it’s at the expense of a stupid, bigoted word alongside my own naivety and the propensity of adolescents to tend toward the homophobic. A perfect storm of awkwardness, really.

A related story, set in the same location, involved an evening in which I was helping another kid with her homework and needed to erase something (back when there were, uh, exercise books and pencils and, I don’t know, quill pens dipped in squid bile and stuff). It was some difficult math problem and I knew I was in over my head, so after getting further frustrated by everyone’s apparent indifference, I announced to anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot, “Trying to help Sally here, guys, but I really need a rubber.”

Silence again.

© DC Comics and Warner Bros.

People giving me that Heath Ledger as The Joker face.

Then general ridicule.

You get the idea. We (sundry English speakers) walk a common road, but it really behooves (“behoves” in the UK, and I’m not even kidding) us to know the many points at which it forks before we stumble so far along Laughingstock Avenue we can’t ever find our way back and die of an increasingly common disease known as humiliatus lexichosis.

So what is Canadian English? To answer that question, and purely for the purposes of illustration, I am going to use over-emphasis and exaggeration right now and demonstrate it by picking a group of sentences no sane person, Canadian or otherwise, would ever speak. The following paragraph is pretty much un-Canadian (which means it hates hockey and loves Prime Minister Harper) and the one after that is a frankly absurd Canadian translation:

So this annoying person walks into my apartment with a case of beer and a bottle of rum from Newfoundland, removes his beanie hat and says “go away, please.” Sitting on the couch, I finish my Canadian bacon and suck on my ice pop, take a large swallow of soda, while thrusting one hand into the pocket of my hoodie and extracting a pair of dollar coins. “No need to be so hostile, my friend. Why not put on your athletic shoes and go grab us a couple of donuts? And while you’re at it, go check the rain gutters, the garbage disposal and make sure the electricity is working.” He retorts, “Only two dollars? You keep short-changing me I’ll end up on employment insurance. Besides, it’s quite a distance.” “Don’t get your panties in a bunch, it’s only about a mile. Get back and let’s party, okay?” “Cool, I guess.” “Awesome.”

Translated into “Canadian”:

So this hoser walks into my bachelor with a two-four of brewskis and a two-six of Newfie screech, loses the toque and says “take off, eh?” Sitting on the chesterfield, I finish my back bacon and suck on my freezie, chug on my pop bottle, while thrusting my hand into the pocket of my bunny hug and fishing out a couple loonies. “Take a pill, eh. Grab your runners and pick us up a couple jam busters from Timmy’s. And while you’re at it, go check the eavestroughs, the garburator and make sure the hydro’s on.” He says, “Two loons? You keep this up, I’ll be collecting pogey. Besides, it’s a ways away.” “Nah, don’t get your ginch in a knot, it’s only a couple klicks. Get back soon and let’s be giv-n-r.” “Skookum.” “Beauty.”

Of course, that is silly (some of these colloquialisms are regionalisms, and sadly, a few appear to be dying altogether). But then, Canada is a silly country. How else do you explain or describe a nation that takes hockey and beavers more seriously than, uh, wars and stuff? Other than “refreshingly peaceful”, that is? Plus, we can never fully decide which English we’re going to adopt. Along with the Brits, we will write “cheque” for “check”, “centre” for “center”, “colour” for “color”, etc., but will also use “truck” instead of “lorry”, “gas(oline)” instead of “petrol” and “tire” instead of “tyre”. Most of us will pronounce Z as “zed” not “zee”, which always backfires anti-climactically when we get to the very end of “The Alphabet Song” and find it no longer rhymes. So, in a very simplistic way, we’ve basically merged UK and US English and come up with our own hybrid, picking our allegiances apparently at random. A perfect example would be the suffixes -ice and -ise. For the noun, we sometimes adopt the British version (licence) while for the verb we follow the American (license). Except when we don’t: for some nouns, we sometimes adopt the American version (practice) while for the verb we lean toward(s) the British (practise). And yet, where the Brits use -ise, we tend more and more to follow the American -ize. Once you realize it’s a minefield, to be honest, you’re ready for any surprise. Or… Hize. Okay, I think I broke something inside my head just then.

But anyway, despite our apparent vacillation between and reliance upon the two great influencers, we still manage to retain over 2,000 words that are unique to Canada. Words like “butter tart” (a small pastry tart), “poutine” (fries, gravy and cheese curds… the most delicious cardiac arrest you’ll ever taste), “cheezies” (a curly cheese snack), “timbits” (small doughnut holes—note spelling—from Tim Horton’s), “deke” (a move involving faking out an opposition player, originally in hockey), “parkade” (multilevel parking lot) and “washroom” (bathroom, toilet, restroom), etc. Phrases like “drop the gloves”, which essentially means getting serious, preparing to fight, are once again derived from hockey, as is “puck bunny”, a hockey groupie (sensing a theme here?). And even the word “hoser” itself, popularized (popularised?) by Bob and Doug McKenzie on SCTV’s “The Great White North” segments, may itself refer to the tradition whereby the losing hockey team had to hose off the ice rink after a game. Although mainly a novelty/joke word in this form, we do actually use the verb “to hose”, as in “broken”, or even as in “to get wasted”: “I hit a moose and now my car’s hosed”, “that sucks, let’s go get hosed.”

So, the moral of this story? Be aware of other forms of English. It will save you much potential embarrassment. If you’re an American or Canadian in the UK, you really don’t want to say something like “I tripped over and landed on my fanny”, while an English person visiting North America would be ill-advised to express their surprise with the words, “well, blow me!” And if any Canadian ever tells you he’s been doing naughty things to canines (PG-13 prevents me from elaborating further, but remember, Google’s your friend), please know he’s actually saying he’s been slacking at work, no more no less.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

46 thoughts on “Take Off, Eh?”

  1. Oh, seducing or smooching the pooch, is it. LOL. Is that strictly from Canada, David? Because since having lived in Alaska for the past ten years, it is the only place I have heard it and perhaps it is because Alaska borders Canada, eh? When a teenager over ….well we won't say how long ago that was, I heard cigarettes referred to as a fag. Your two samples though totally through me as I have not heard those before, but everything else, looks familiar. Great post, David.

  2. Love, love, love this! Excellent post, and I love the translation. I've heard "a ways away" in these parts (upstate New York), and think-ulp-I've used it from time to time. Usually as a span of time, instead of distance.

    1. Yeah, now that you mention it, I've heard it used both ways. But I also think Maritime Canadians say "s/he's from away" when they mean someone's a stranger. Although that's something different again and I imagine is shared by people in equivalent US places such as Maine.

    1. Thanks, bro. This topic was made for me, really. Can't understand why it took so long for me to think of it!

  3. This is fantastic. I learned so much watching SCTV – mostly from the McKenzie Brothers.

      1. One of the attorneys I work for grew up in Montreal. A few years back, he and his mother were scheduled to do a presentation about Canada for his son's class. I offered to lend him my recording of Bob and Doug MacKenzie's classic rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas." For some reason, he thought that was a bad idea. 😀

  4. As always, David, very funny. And you have motivated me – actually I thought about it when you first mentioned the idea on The Evil Mastermind's post about punctuation differences – and with the spoken word as well as the written word it makes it even more interesting. I might do an 'English' English versus 'Australian' English, even make it a three-way, with 'Scottish' English thrown in.

  5. Great post. 🙂

    "A ways away" is also pretty common in my part of the world (mostly-rural Texas). I crack people up all the time because I basically have my own language, made up of words/usage (often slang) from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

    1. Hey, you just made me think of something, Laura (a rare enough occurrence worthy of a comment in itself): maybe we're part of an emerging new version of English, a kind of internet English. I hereby name it Weblish!

  6. Enjoyed this post. Made me giggle. My grandchildren (when created), will be Canadian with Brit parents, it will be interesting to hear their differences. Fanny pack and bum bag are the two that stick in my mind for US differences. 🙂

    I have just purchased a American English dictionary for my next wip, it is becoming useful.

  7. I lived in the UK 6 years and I ended up with quite an education. You don't hold your index and middle finger toward someone while indicating the number two- that's just as good as giving them the middle finger in America. Fortunately the bloke that got the signal was polite enough to explain my error. Lesson learned. A fanny pack is a "bum bag."

    With my writing, I have characters from all over the world. I love the internet- where else can you find videos of people speaking the language, or even dictionaries of their languages (most importantly, slang!). In my military thriller series, I have a Maori character. His entrance to the team creates tension and oftentimes humor because of the language barrier. He adds flavor to the story and gives insight into cultures other than our own.

    My goal when I write is to make the experience rich and believable to the reader. And doing all the research along the way is rather fun and interesting.

    1. Great comment, Kathy. And yes, thanks for reminding non-Brits of the two-fingered salute. To clarify, palm outwards is still okay: peace or victory. But yeah, not palm inwards, lol.

  8. Love it. Love everything about it. Canadians are wonderful people, ridiculously nice even at two o' clock in the morning at an airport.

    1. We can be very polite indeed (except when driving, strangely enough). When Nancy Reagan had her ridiculous "Just Say No To Drugs" campaign, we used to joke that the Canadian version would go: "Just Say No Thank You."

    1. Boot (trunk), bonnet (hood), windscreen (windshield), petrol (gasoline), accelerator (gas pedal), what else? 😉

  9. Tee hee…excellent! And then there is the Aussie version which I don't even pretend to understand. We could all drive each other nuts trying to avoid doing anything unsavory to poor Fido, if we really put some effort into it. Me, I'm for saying it in my own version of English (US) and letting the context provide the meaning. If you had perhaps wanted to smoke a fag instead of needing one, your meaning would have been clear. Of course, we don't THINK that way, but if we're aware of a "conflict" between versions of ye olde English–we could at least make some sense.

  10. Heh. I love Timmy’s. My favorite goofy Brit move ever was when I was on assignment in Indianapolis photographing the Grand Prix with two blokes from Gloucestershire. Every time we passed a Jiffy Lube, they started snickering and literally giggling. They FINALLY told me what a Jiffy was. heh. Great post, DA!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: