Five Canadian words and where they came from
Canada is a unique land with a lot of unique words – which we mostly borrowed from other people.
Here’s a look at some Canadian terms and their interesting origins.
The classic Canadian winter accessory, the name for this woolly cap is taken, of course, from the French “tuque” – with that spelling still sometimes being used in English too.
The word appeared in publications in the mid-1800s, usually associated with French-Canadians and voyageurs. Before that, it referred to a type of cap worn in 16th century France, according to the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English language. The word’s origins go back further, to the Spanish word “toca” – again an old style of hat or headdress – and before that, possibly an Arabic or Persian word.
Another French-loan word – poutine has become a truly Canadian snack. But according to the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), the word is actually derived from the English word “pudding.”
Poutine as we know it today is a relatively new invention, dating from the late 1950s or early 1960s in Quebec. According to the DCHP, a 1982 article in the Toronto Star still described it as a “new fast-food snack” gaining popularity in Quebec snack bars.
There is another, older dish called “poutine râpée” that was part of traditional Acadian cuisine. It’s a sort of boiled dumpling, with a potato exterior wrapped around a meat filling. Linguists aren’t too sure whether the two dishes are related though or whether the word “poutine” that’s commonly used today was borrowed from the Acadian food.
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“Canuck” is a term that predates Confederation and there are some interesting theories as to its origin.
One theory, endorsed in the latest edition of the DCHP, is that the word is originally Hawaiian. Polynesian sailors working on whaling ships called themselves “kanaka,” meaning “men” and the term was adopted by North American sailors to refer to Polynesians.
From there, the term was used more generally by American sailors to apply to many foreigners, including Germans, Dutch and French-Canadians – possibly as an insult.
But it slowly lost its derogatory connotations and came into common use in the last third of the 19th century, used to refer to Canadians and Canadian things, including hockey teams.
“I think it was used just as a descriptive term in the West,” said Margery Fee, a UBC English professor and associate editor of the DCHP. “It just became adapted to a new setting.”
The “bunny hug” is a particularly Saskatchewan term for what people elsewhere in Canada might call a “hoodie” – a hooded sweatshirt with a big pocket on the front.
One of the first mentions of a “bunny hug” sweater is from 1978. The DCHP theorizes that teenagers in the 1980s, as the hooded sweatshirt became popular, invented and popularized the term. It later became a marker of Saskatchewan identity.
Fee suggests that it’s unlikely the term existed before the hooded sweatshirt. “I can’t imagine people in Saskatchewan were wearing something that looked like that in the 1930s.”
She understands why the term has stuck around though: “It explains the garment so nicely.”
The stereotypical Canadian “eh” is a holdover from British English, according to the DCHP. And it doesn’t just persist in Canada – it’s also common in New Zealand.
It’s even used in the same way in both countries: generally as a way of getting confirmation or acknowledgement of what you’ve just said. “It’s cold out, eh?” for example.
“Really, it’s not as Canadian as people would like to think,” said Fee. However, they elected to include it in the dictionary because Canadians believe it’s a Canadian word and a national symbol, and so, it became one.
It’s hard to say exactly when “eh” became associated with Canada though. The DCHP suggests it happened sometime after the Second World War, perhaps in the late 1950s. Canadian linguists were considering the word’s Canadian identity by the 1970s.
“Now you can get t-shirts that use it as a joke,” said Fee.
But two people probably did more than anyone else to popularize “eh” as a stereotypically Canadian phrase: Bob and Doug McKenzie. The SCTV characters, played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, frequently used the word “eh” along with such other memorable phrases as “Take off!” and “hoser” – a term Fee says they might have invented.
The skit’s popularity in the early 1980s and beyond ensured that “eh” would forever be associated with the Great White North.
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