Saving Canadian English, one word at a time.

Is Canadian English dying? Or should I say, Canadian English is dying, eh?

First, is there such a thing as Canadian English? The answer is — and this is classically Canadian — yes, kind of.

Canadian English is a typically Canadian compromise between our British heritage and the inexorable pull of the Excited States of America. We mix and match our lexicon, sometimes using traditional British-isms (the superfluous ‘u’ in colour and neighbourhood, say, or the ‘re’ ending in ‘theatre’) with Americanisms (sometimes we use a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, as in ‘recognized’). Being Canadian, we naturally have not come up with universally used spellings, not unlike our mix-and-match use of the metric system (we use Celsius temperatures and metric measurements for distances, but height and weight are always in pounds, feet and inches).

Most Canadian English can be identified with our typically schizophrenic spellings, but there are a few uniquely Canadian words that have stood the test of time, and will always be with us. ‘Toque’ is perhaps the best Canadian word ever, French-sounding but common in English, uniquely Canadian and infinitely superior to the American ‘wool hat’. ‘Loonie’ and ‘toonie’ are 100 per cent Canuck, nice examples of how words can evolve naturally. And in my experience (at least in Western Canada) carbonated beverages are always called ‘pop’ and never the American ‘soda’.

One of the few “chiefly Canadian” terms that has not only survived, but thrived, is “double-double”, an extremely popular way for Canadians who go to Tim Hortons (basically any Canadian) to order their coffee, i.e. two creams, two sugars. Double-double, which is a coffee order for people who don’t particularly like coffee, is disgusting in my estimation, but at least it’s Canadian. (An aside: according to an article in Canadian Business, eight of every 10 cups of coffee bought in Canada are bought at Tim Hortons. Our national infatuation with this chain borders on the pathological.)

The other new edition to the Canadian lexicon is poutine, which has gone from a purely Quebec culinary oddity to being so ubiquitous, you can find it in fast-food restaurants.

But elsewhere, some Canadian words and pronunciations are vanishing.

When was the last time you heard anyone in Canada use the word chesterfield? In England, a chesterfield is defined by Oxford as  “a sofa with padded arms and back of the same height and curved outwards at the top”. But Oxford also lists a Canadian definition, which is “any sofa”. In the U.S., the word was virtually unheard of, unless you were referring to a brand of cigarettes of the same name. By default, chesterfield became a Canadian word, but today it is almost never used, except in the lyrics of the Barenaked Ladies song If I Had A Million Dollars, in which the Ladies sing that they would buy “a nice chesterfield or an ottoman” if they won the titular million dollars.

One of the great semi-Canadian words (OK, technically not a word) is the pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet. We are taught, correctly, that the pronunciation is ‘zed’. Americans are alone in the world in using ‘zee’. (Another aside: Americans use ‘zee’ thanks in large part to Noah Webster of dictionary fame, who in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) wrote: “Z … It is pronounced zee.”)

We are taught in school that ‘zed’ is correct, but thanks to the influence of American media — and Sesame Street — more and more Canadian young people are using zee. If you really want to get me angry, and I know you do, all you have to do is use ‘zee’. I have no problem with correcting any traitor who uses the American term.

There are two other instances of fading Canadianisms. First is the spelling of ‘cheque’, when referring to the nearly antiquated piece of paper used instead of cash. Americans, again, use ‘check’. We, again correctly, use ‘cheque’, but I’ve noticed ‘check’ creeping in. This must be stopped, or it will overtake our language like an invasive species.

Finally, my hypersensitive hearing has detected a change in the pronunciation of ‘mom’. I, and most Canadians of a certain age, have always used the British ‘mum’, even though we spell it ‘mom’. Americans universally pronounce it the way it is spelled, like ‘mawm’. But in my meetings with young Canadians (roughly 18-30, which is young to me), I have detected the American pronunciation has gained ground. In fact, I would say most young Canadians use the American pronunciation.

I’m sorry, but this disturbs me. I’m not Anglophile, but I’m a big believer in Canadians doing everything we can to differentiate ourselves from Americans.  And we can achieve that goal by pushing back against creeping Americanisms. The next time you hear a Canadian use ‘zee’, feel free to berate him mercilessly. You might get a punch in the face, but it’s the least you can do for your country.

6 thoughts on “Saving Canadian English, one word at a time.

  1. Except when the Canadian using “zee” is our almost 4-year old daughter – she started out right, but has switched her pronounciation to “zee” and insists we’re wrong when we try to correct her😦

  2. While I was going to school overseas, the common phrase to make fun of Canadian lingo was: “Putain! I dropped my poutine in the chesterfield.”

  3. Can anyone tell me how the pronunciation of “z” is TAUGHT in Alberta elementary schools? Have had a couple of young Albertans swear that’s how they were taught in school and I can’t find confirmation online.

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