The Secret World of…Canadianisms

I’ll sometimes start drafting blog posts…that then start me down a different path…which then open up a new idea. So this post kind of arose out of a couple of pieces I’m working on, but I decided to post this first as it kind of acts as a vague pre-amble.

See, I was thinking about the whole notion of…Canadianisms. That is: things, ideas, and phrases that are distinctly Canadian. This relates to a recurring theme of mine, about Canadian movies, TV, books, etc. and how and whether they reflect the day-to-day Canadian experience and culture. Often Canadian-made entertainment deliberately pretends it isn’t Canadian, usually being set in the United States with American characters, or it will be a “soft” Canadian, nominally being set in Canada…but studiously avoiding any references or ideas that might seem too idiosyncratically Canadian, all done supposedly in the name of securing acceptance in the international market place. Or — more bizarrely — because the filmmakers find being too archly Canadian “embarrassing”.

Yet the flip side of that is what is clearly, unarguably, Canadian? What colloquial phrasings, or scenes, would immediately announce to anyone in the audience that this was a story set nowhere but in The Land God Gave to Cain? (A phrase which, itself, is specifically Canadian…supposedly being how explorer Jacques Cartier described the rugged Canadian landscape when he first espied it…and, I’m guessing, found it intimidating).

There are things that are “Canadian” that are actually shared with European cultures, or the British Commonwealth…but which aren’t shared with the United States. So it’s uniquely Canadian in that it might be a European custom, holiday, or colloquialism in the context of a North American culture and people with North American accents.

Yet sometimes people can strain too hard to identify such “Canadianisms” — not necessarily making them up out of whole cloth, but certainly inflating their ubiquitousness. In a country as geographically vast and culturally diverse as Canada, certain regions might well have unique expressions and customs…but they wouldn’t be recognized by the majority of Canadians. And sometimes people assume their experiences are intrinsically Canadian…not realizing they themselves are actually the odd man out.

A while back I was making change for a guy and he asked for a “deuce”. I hesitated and then in my erudite and articulate way queried: “huh?” To which he responded: “Two dollars.” And then, with a slightly pejorative tone to his voice, asked: “You an American or somethin’?” It was a funny exchange because though there was nothing inherently wrong with his asking for a “deuce”, which after all means “two”…I don’t think anyone would see it as a uniquely Canadian expression that only an American could possibly fail to recognize. Indeed, the more common Canadian expression for two dollars (at least in the last few decades) is “toonie” (or “twoonie” or however you choose to spell it).

I hear the word toonie multiple times in a day — I can guarantee that if you say “toonie” in Canada, pretty much everyone will know what you mean — but never before had I heard the expression “deuce”, not in real life. No doubt this guy used the expression deuce a lot, and maybe his friends did, and that’s fine…but then he made the assumption that just because he did, everyone who claimed Canadian citizenship must do so likewise. Which is why talking about “Canadianisms” can be tricky — because people aren’t always able to step outside themselves enough to really ask if this is truly part of the majority culture or not.

It can be funny to come upon message board discussions where people, in all apparent sincerity, will try to set the record straight on aspects of Canada…and you can kind of find yourself wondering what alternate reality universe do they live in? Yet they can be quite adamant that what they are saying is the unarguable truth, and any who disagrees clearly doesn’t know the country as well as they. Like one poster who insisted the R.C.M.P. was pretty much a marginalized, law enforcement joke and of no relevance to modern Canada — when (uniformed) R.C.M.P. officers still act as the provincial police in most provinces (ie: analogous to state police in the U.S.) and are in fact the sole policing body in some small towns — and (plain clothes) mounties are the federal police force (analogous to the F.B.I.). I suspect most modern “mounties”…have never even ridden a horse!

Partly it can be because these sort of posters only know two worlds — the one immediately out side their door, in their neighbourhood, among their friends…and the world described to them by American media (news, movies, books) because they don’t actually read Canadian newspapers or listen to CBC radio. And so they assume no other reality exists. So for the above poster — he had presumably never met a mountie, and never saw them referenced much in Hollywood movies (except as a joke) so failed to realize that maybe he just didn’t have a particularly wide grasp of the realities of his own country.

Sometimes the very anonymity Canada has in foreign countries can lead to people claiming things about Canadian culture abroad that would leave most Canadians scratching their heads. Like Canadian celebrities who will move to Hollywood, and claim in interviews with the U.S. press that they are “super stars” in Canada…when most Canadians couldn’t pick them out of a line up. Or I came upon a message board posting by someone (an American, I believe) praising Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and declaring that Egoyan is a star in Canada, and a mention of his name will strike any Canadian dumb with awe. Now, truth in labelling laws require I point out: I’m not a big Egoyan fan. But the truth is, most Canadians have never heard of Egoyan (and I say this having talked both to those who fancy themselves fans of the kind of arty cinema of which he’s a practitioner…and those who like mainstream movies, but have an interest and affection for Canadiana). Now sure, maybe at a film festival, with people lined up to see his movie, that crowd will react with adulation…but that’d be a bit like going to a tractor pulling contest and declaring all Canadians love tractor pulling because everyone there said they liked tractor pulling. Say “Atom Egoyan” to most man-in-the-street Canadians and odds are they’ll respond: “Fine…and yourself?” (you’ll chuckle when you think about it). Now despite my not being a fan of Egoyan…this isn’t a particular dig at him. Other than David Cronenberg, and ex-pats like Norman Jewison and James Cameron, it’s not like there are too many widely famous Canadian directors anyway. I’m not saying Egoyan is less famous than others…I’m just saying he’s well known largely among a niche demographic.


Doing a quick google on the topic of Canadianisms, I came upon some sites devoted to Canadianisms here and here (and I’m sure there are more, feel free to google it). And what was funny about them was some terms I heartily recognized, some were enlightening because I was unfamiliar with them, but only because that particular topic doesn’t necessarily come up for me a lot — but others struck me as parochially regional (as opposed to “Canadian”), and still more seemed a little odd, unlikely, or highly debateable.

Heck, two of the most familiar Canadianisms out there are the put down “hoser” and its sister phrase “take off” — both popularized by the comedy characters Bob & Doug McKenzie that became an international phenomenon back in the 1980s. Except — I’m pretty sure those expressions were just made up for the characters (partly to provide “swear” expressions that could be uttered on primetime TV). Or, at best, they took pretty regional expressions and made them seem more widespread. The only time I’ve ever heard Canadians actually use either of those terms is either when they are specifically referring to Bob & Doug…or are trying to be deliberately, self-consciously, Canadian. I’ve never heard either expression used in a truly organic, un-selfconscious context. Now — that doesn’t mean they aren’t common in, say, North Ontario mining towns or something. But I can only go by my experiences — and my experience is that if, say, a foreign spy were to try to go undercover as a Canadian and say, “Take off, you hoser!” he’d be unmasked in seconds.

With that said, other Canadianisms popularized by Bob & Doug are, in fact, not uncommon to the culture — from the toques on their heads to the use of the term, “eh?” (though even these apply to specific groups: not too many Canadian university professors finish their sentences with, “eh?”).

And because Canada is a culture constantly in flux, growing evolving, and receiving new immigrants, Canadianisms can change over time. As well, I think Canadians can latch onto things (say, from Europe) precisely to distinguish themselves from the United States.

When the Austin Powers movies were big, the term “shag” started to crop up in Canadian circles a few times, though I had never previously come across it (but maybe it enjoyed a similar popularity in the United States). The term “fag” currently is seen as an offensive slur in North America (though a hundred years ago it had far more innocuous definitions, being both an abbreviation of “fatigue”, as in “I ran up the hill and now I’m fagged” or a short form for a stick of wood, also know as faggot, a word also with a negative meaning today) yet most people know that in the UK, a fag is a slang term for a cigarette (perhaps relating to that earlier stick of wood origin). I don’t associate it with Canada much, but in the Canadian series Slings & Arrows, about the behind the scenes of a theatre troupe, they used the term fag to mean cigarettes. And I wasn’t sure if they just did that as an affectation to distinguish the setting from the United States, or whether among Canadian theatre types it is a common use of the term (given Canada’s theatrical traditional was heavily influenced by the influx of British performers over the years, it wouldn’t be unusual for theatre slang in Canada to have deeper British roots than the mainstream culture).

Funnily, glancing at some of those other web pages about Canadianisms, I was surprised — not by things they said were common in Canada — but by the fact they apparently aren’t known in the U.S. I mean, I was recently amazed to discover that in the States they don’t have…Boxing Day! I mean, how could I have watched all those Hollywood Christmas themed movies over the years and not noticed there was no Boxing Day? (I suppose Christmas movies usually end on Christmas Day!) Other occasions I knew — like what we call Remembrance Day Americans call something else, and that Canadian Thanksgiving occurs earlier than the American one (though was influenced by it, one assumes). Or apparently homogenized milk isn’t called homogenized milk in the U.S. (and certainly isn’t abbreviated to “homo”).

But just as I say I sometimes question whether certain expressions are as Canadian as others claim…I also wonder if other expressions are as uniquely Canadian as is suggested. I’ve heard in a few places (including from an American) that the slang term “bum” (referring to the human posterior) is not used in the United States (though it is a U.K. expression, I believe)…but I’ve never know if that was really true or not, or whether it’s just not as widespread, but would still be recognized by many Americans. (Bum also refers to a hobo in both countries, as well as to mooch something — or is it not used that way in the States either?) Is it true that Americans say “soda” when referring to “soda pop”? (Canadians generally say “pop”). In Canada, french fries are generally known as “fries”…yet those little trucks in parking lots that sell hot dogs, french fries, etc., are generally referred to as “chip trucks” (from the U.K. use of the term “chip” meaning french fries) — yet I’ve heard from some places that an American would not understand the phrase “chip truck” (or would assume it meant something that collected tree mulch).

I was surprised a few years ago when I wrote a Twilight Zone-ish short story (Pvt. Parker, Missing in Action) and in it referred to a mickey of booze and the American editor to whom I submitted it said the term gave him pause…because he only associated the word with an illicitly drugged drink (as in a mickey finn). He willingly accepted my use of the term for the story (since the narrator was Canadian) but I was surprised…because it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t an American term (a mickey being analogous to, I guess, a flask…you know, the kind of thing that has saved many a cowboy’s life from a bullet in old westerns). Given I’m not much of a drinker, I would’ve assumed I had picked up the term reading American novels…but I guess not.

Of course, because a lot of Canadian terms owe their origin to Europe and the U.K. specifically…the irony is, a lot of these terms were also used in America, but for some reason fell out of usage, so they are not so much foreign to them…but old fashioned. In much the same way that you can sometimes read American novels published a hundred years ago…and they’ll use the British spelling of words rather than the modern, American spelling.

Even pronunciation can be debated. There’s often the cliche that Canadians say “shedule” rather than “schedule” — and I assume this is the “proper” way given it seems to be the house style on the CBC (all announcers pronouncing the word “SHedule”)…yet the brutal truth is, in common, man in the street usage, most people I’ve heard seem to say “Skedule”). Indeed, I’ve alternated back and forth myself (since I have no preference) and will sometimes have people assume I’m British when I say “SHedule”. Presumably a reflection of the omnipresent American culture next door altering the language. Yet, as such, it’s almost remarkable the way Canadian expressions and pronunciations do hold on. Most Canadians do pronounce the letter Z as “zed” and say “leftenant” as opposed to “lootenant”. (Though curiously, in the TV series Republic of Doyle, where the actors have quite pronounced Newfoundland accents…some of these pronunciations can lean toward the American…go figure!)

There can be a Canadian accent that I, as a Canadian, am not even aware of, yet I’ll sometimes come upon message boards where American posters will write about how distracting they found a movie supposedly set in the United States, supposedly about American-born characters…yet the actors have Canadian accents!

Some distinctions — or the reasons for a distinction — in such “Canadianisms” listings I can quibble about. I came upon one place where it was said Canadians object to calling Americans “Americans” because, technically, we’re all Americans in the western hemisphere. And that the common Canadian term for The United States is “The States”.

Weeelll. Some of that I’d say is true. Certainly Canadians commonly refer to the U.S. as “The States” as in: “My friend down in the States” or “How much is postage to the States?” But Canadians do also say “America”. And I think it is generally common and accepted to refer to people from The United States of America as “Americans”…certainly, I’ve never heard a replacement term (“USAers?”, “Statesians?”, “Dem fellahs down south a-ways, b’y?”). Indeed, the only times I’ve usually seen people object to the term “America”, and magnanimously arguing that we are “all Americans”, are in fact…Americans. And I’ve been a little suspicious of the agenda behind that (since, as I say, no substitute phrase or term is proffered) — it more seems like it’s an attempt, not to point out we all belong to the American hemisphere, but to erode Canadians’ sense of a distinct culture. After all, they aren’t so much saying not to call people from the U.S. “Americans”…but that they feel it’s appropriate to call Canadians…”Americans” (strangely, in these cases they’re a bit vaguer as to whether Mexicans, or Argentineans, should be considered “Americans”, too).

It might seem odd to well meaning Americans, but Canadians don’t always find it comforting when Americans feel the best compliment they can give to Canada is to say: “why…we don’t even think of you as a separate country.” Given the USA’s history of Manifest Destiny and even the War of 1812…Canadians actually get nervous when Americans talk that way!

This piece feels like it should be building up to my own list of “Canadianisms”…but, honestly, it’s kind of gotten a bit long as it is. A while back I wrote an essay (here) along these lines, even cheekily suggesting there were things that were almost forbidden by filmmakers desperate to try and present a generic, anonymous (ie: Americanized) Canada. So that’s one list — though funnily, a few of those taboos actually seem to have been broken in the last year or two, as if maybe a new wind is blowing through Canada’s creative halls (heck, maybe someone read my essay and was galvanized to act upon it). Current series like King, Republic of Doyle, Arctic Air, The Listener are more matter-of-factly Canadian than a lot of Canadian series have been in the recent past.

So maybe we’ll continue this topic…next time.

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One Response to The Secret World of…Canadianisms

  1. Mark says:

    Atom Egoyan is an award winning director who has been celebrated internationally at film festivals around the world.