Release notes: Canada and the OED

Release notes: Canada and the OED

Good day and welcome to the Great White North! 2017 marks Canada’s 150th anniversary and, fittingly, the March update includes Canada and Canadian, along with associated people, animals, and plants native to or originating in Canada.  (Not forgetting the football, bacon, and canoes.)

The familiar and distinctive Canada goose (also known as the Canadian goose or simply the Canada) is the bird perhaps most commonly associated with its namesake, and this association has been around since the 17th century. The first instance of Canada goose in the OED dates to 1676, in Willughby and Ray’s Ornithologiæ which clarifies that although the name indicates the origins of the creature, the description is based on specimens seen among the exotic wild-fowl kept in aviaries in St. James’s Park. The Canada goose is still widely found outside its native land, both as a migratory bird (commonly seen in Canada flying south for the winter in huge Vs) and as an introduced, no-longer-exotic, and occasionally maligned species in the U.K., New Zealand, and parts of South America.

However, the Canada goose isn’t the national bird of Canada. Until recently, there was no national bird; the only official national animals were the Canadian beaver and the Canadian horse. Despite recent debate about swapping the beaver  for the polar bear, the industrious Canadian beaver (no need to specify its Canadian-ness if one is in Canada) remains Canada’s national animal, along with the Canadian horse. This little-known breed was developed in Canada out of stallions and mares sent over by King Louis XIV of France between 1665 and 1670. Nicknamed ‘the little iron horse’ and ‘the horse of steel’, the Canadian horse increased in numbers in the 18th century and into the 19th, when many were exported to the United States and Britain. Particularly large numbers were sent to be used as artillery and cavalry horses in the American Civil War, and the high death rate meant the breed was at risk of becoming extinct. Although the Canadian horse is still officially classified as an at-risk breed, numbers are again on the increase thanks to promotional efforts by breeders.

The Canada jay is widely considered to be the front-runner to become Canada’s national bird later in 2017, beating the Canada goose, loon, black-capped chickadee, and snowy owl for the honour. This tough little songbird, which remains in Canada throughout both summer and winter, is also known as the grey jay from its colouring, and the whisky jack. The latter is not due to a fondness for the spirit (whether Canadian whisky or any other), but is rather an anglicised form of Wisakedjak (a benevolent teacher and trickster spirit found in Cree and other Algonquian mythologies). Curious, bold, and intelligent, the Canada jay will readily approach people, and is quick to take advantage of any food left unattended by campers and hikers. So while it might not be especially well known in Europe, visitors to Canada who spend time exploring wilder regions may well encounter the new national symbol.

Moving on to plants, we find species edible (the Canada potato or Jerusalem artichoke, Canada rice or wild rice, Canada tea or wintergreen) and beautiful  (the Canada lily with its spotted orange, red, or yellow nodding flowers, and the Canada violet, white with occasional streaks of purple). Balsam firs and eastern hemlocks provide the resins used to produce Canada balsam, which has proved very useful to the scientific community.  Canada balsam is a viscous, colourless or pale yellow turpentine, hence its alternate name of Canada turpentine. It was commonly used to make permanent microscope slides, preserving the specimen between the slide and coverslip, and as the glue found in a Nicol prism, a device used to produce plane-polarized light.

Other Canadian plants are perhaps less beneficial.  The Canada thistle is widely classified as a noxious or injurious weed wherever it is found, being almost impossible to fully eradicate and causing significant losses in crop yields. Despite its name, however, the plant is not Canadian, or indeed North American, in origin. It is native to Europe and northern Asia, where it is more commonly known as creeping thistle, and is considered an invasive species in North America. The exact circumstances surrounding its introduction into North America are unknown, but it is generally assumed to have been through contaminated seeds or animal feed imported to New France by early French settlers in the 17th century. Whether the Canada thistle spread to the United States from Canada or from Europe is also unknown, but by the late 18th century the plant seems to have become a significant problem in the northern states. During the course of writing these release notes, a source was found that antedates the OED first quote citing Canada thistle: on the 8th of October, 1795, at the General Assembly of the state of Vermont, there was read and accepted a bill entitled ‘An act to prevent the growth of Canada Thistles’ (published in 1796 in the Journal of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of the State of Vermont).

Another troublesome plant is Canadian waterweed (also known as Canadian pondweed), which grows prolifically and can choke shallow or slow-moving bodies of water.  In this case the plant is known to have traveled from its native North America to Europe. It may have initially been introduced to Ireland, being noticed in a pod at Waringstown in Co. Down as early as 1836 (necessitating multiple clear-outs of said pond). In 1842 a specimen was collected from Hen Poo, a pond at Duns Castle in Berwickshire, and in 1847 it was noticed in the canal at Foxton Locks in Leicestershire. That same year a specimen from Foxton Locks was planted in a tub in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens and in 1848 the Curator of the Gardens purposefully planted it in a nearby conduit. From these waterways the plant spread, rapidly and uncontrollably, hindering barges, swimmers, fishermen, and rowers (including the Cambridge team practicing for the annual boat race against Oxford). However the plant was initially thought to be a native species and was thus given the scientific name Anacharis alsinastrum. It was only in the late 1850’s that it was recognised to be Elodea canadensis, which is the source of the Canadian element in the popular names.

Aside from plants and animals, there are multiple other things that are Canadian, although as with the beaver, the Canadian epithet isn’t always present or needed in Canada. Canadian football is merely football; and the same term also covers American football, as the context will make clear which of these two similar, yet not identical, sports is meant. Canadian bacon*, however, is ‘back bacon’ and not simply ‘bacon’ as in Canada as this is reserved for what the British call streaky bacon. The Canadian canoe, or Canader if one studied at Oxford, is simply a canoe, as the British ‘non-Canadian’ canoe is called a kayak.

The canoe brings us to the question of Canadian identity – an issue that continues to preoccupy (some) Canadians. Canadian historian Pierre Burton is often supposed to have defined a Canadian as someone who knows how to make love in a canoe without tipping it (clearly referring to a Canadian canoe and not a kayak). One concept that is typically used to sum up Canadian identity and outlook is the Canadian mosaic, which portrays Canadian society as a ‘mosaic’ of different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups which form a whole while still retaining their distinctive features. And while Canadian mosaic is not (yet) used to encompass the distinctive flora and fauna discussed above, OED‘s entries for Canada and Canadian reveal the country’s plants and animals are every bit as distinctive and diverse as its population

* ‘Canadian Bacon’ is also the title of a 1995 comedy film starring both Canadian and American actors.

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