The Ontario Dialects Project and Canadian English in the OED

The Ontario Dialects Project and Canadian English in the OED

This month’s update sees the publication of a number of new words from Canada, the first results of an ongoing collaboration between the OED and the Ontario Dialects Project (ODP), which since 2002 has been documenting the dialects of Ontario, Canada, by collecting linguistic data from Toronto, the urban centre of Ontario and the largest city in Canada, as well as from many smaller communities across the province. The project’s Ontario Dialect Archive now contains over 11 million words of data coming from sociolinguistic interviews with locals, along with diachronic materials mostly collected in local genealogy projects.

Professor Sali Tagliamonte of the University of Toronto heads the project, which she describes as “a huge vernacular resource in Canada, a gold mine of linguistic, cultural and historical materials.” She also remarks, “The way people may talk in small Ontario communities would slip through the cracks unless documented in a project like the ODP. The project offers the OED unique insight into the language of one of the world’s largest English-speaking nations.”

The ODP’s research identified several words of characteristic Canadian usage, which have now made their way into the OED for the first time in this update. A number of these new additions are compounds—distinctive combinations of ordinary English words that are uniquely or chiefly used in Canada. For instance, the compound noun bush lot, first attested in a New York publication in 1832 but now used mostly by Canadians, means a plot of wooded or uncleared land, especially on a farm; while bush party, first attested in 1962 and also familiar in Australia and New Zealand, is used by Canadians to refer to an outdoor party in a wooded area or other remote location, typically held by young people and often involving heavy drinking.

The compound adjective sand-baked is used to describe food baked on a bed of heated sand, or in a pot or pan surrounded by or buried in hot sand. This cooking technique is employed in Canada to make traditional sand-baked beans, which Canadians can keep piping hot in a warming closet, a small heated chamber for keeping food warm that usually comes as part of a stove.

A joe job is a menial or monotonous task or an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects. The OED entry for the latter quotes a line from the screenplay of the 1992 film Wayne’s World, co-written by Ontarian comedian Mike Myers, in which the character Wayne Campbell wryly implies what kind of employment is considered a joe job: “I’ve had plenty of ‘joe jobs’, but nothing I’d call a career. Let me put it this way: I have an extensive collection of nametags and hair nets.”

A few other compounds refer to specific holidays celebrated in Canada. The Civic Holiday is a public holiday observed in most of Canada on the first Monday in August, while the long weekend preceding and including Victoria Day, a public holiday observed in Canada on the penultimate Monday in May, has been known colloquially since the 1990s as either the May long or the May two-four. The latter signifies the 24th of May, Queen Victoria’s birthday, but it is also a punning allusion to what is known in Canada as a two-four, a case of twenty-four bottles or cans of beer, and is thus also a humorous reference to the copious beer drinking that occurs during this long weekend.

Some of the new additions in this update originate from the farming, hunting, and mining communities of rural Canada. Coboss, which dates to 1869, is a call used in Canada and the northern United States to summon or attract the attention of cattle. It is frequently reduplicated and is a shortening of the phrase, come, boss! The conibear is a kind of animal trap named after the Canadian trapper and writer Frank Ralph Conibear, who invented the device in 1957. A scooptram, first introduced in Canada in the late 1960s, is a haulage vehicle with a large bucket in front, used for transporting and loading ore in a mine.

Many Canadians will have memories of playing the game schlockey at school. Also known as box hockey, schlockey is a schoolyard game played by two people using sticks to push a puck through an open-top box set on the ground which has been divided into compartments to resemble a hockey pitch. On wet days, Canadians may be heard complaining about getting a soaker, which is what they call the experience of getting their feet wet, especially as a result of stepping into a puddle. Canadians on Twitter also make frequent derogatory references to skids. Skid is North American slang for a dirty, unkempt person who is habitually drunk or high, a word that may have developed from the phrases to hit the skids or skid row. In Canada, skid came to be applied to a young person belonging to a subculture characterized by dark, unkempt clothing, long hair, rebellious behaviour and drug-taking, and was widely used in the early 1990s. It began to fall out of use in the 2000s, only to be revived in the late 2010s thanks to the popular Canadian sitcom Letterkenny. The show, which follows the residents of the fictional town of Letterkenny in rural Ontario, counts the town skids among its cast of colourful characters.

The new words added to the OED through the Ontario Dialects Project are joined in this batch by other additions that were identified through the OED’s own in-house research on Canadian English vocabulary. These additions include even more idiosyncratic uses and combinations of common English words, such as dart, which in Canada and Australia is a colloquial term for a cigarette, and buckle, which in North America is a name for a cake made with fruit, usually blueberries, with a crumbly streusel topping. There is also all-dressed, which is used by Canadians to describe pizza or similar food with all of the offered toppings, spices, or condiments, or crisps seasoned with a combination of several different flavours; and Muskoka chair, a type of garden chair which can be considered the Canadian equivalent of the United States’ Adirondack chair, named after Muskoka, a region in south central Ontario known for its summer cottages.

Two words in this batch reflect the varied international influences on contemporary Canadian English. The first is vinarterta, first seen in English in a 1936 issue of the Winnipeg Free Press; it refers to a cake of Icelandic origin typically eaten at Christmas, consisting of thin alternate layers of shortbread and a cardamom-flavoured filling made from prunes, plums, or other dried fruit. Vinarterta, whose Icelandic name literally means ‘Viennese layer cake’, is particularly common in expatriate Icelandic communities, especially in Canada.

The second is the word gotch, a Canadian slang term for underpants first attested in 1968, which traces its origins to the Ukrainian language. It was borrowed from the Ukrainian word for trousers, gači, and combined with the English –s plural ending to form the variants gotchies, gotchees, gitchies, gonchies, and ginchies. These were then transformed through back-formation to the variants gotch, gitch, gaunch, gonch, and ginch. The choice of variant depends on which part of Canada a speaker is from—there seems to be a preference for gotchies in Ontario, for gitch and gotch in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and for gonch and other variants with n in Alberta and British Columbia.

The OED’s collaboration with the Ontario Dialects Project shows how much such locally-based documentation projects can help the OED in its mission of recording the historical development of words that characterize different varieties of English. As the ODP continues its work of preserving the rich linguistic history and culture of Canada for future generations, so will the OED continue to work with Prof Tagliamonte and her team to ensure even wider coverage and better representation of the Canadian lexicon in the dictionary.

Canadian English words in the September 2020 update

  • all-dressed, adj.
  • booze can, n.
  • box hockey, n. in entry box, n./2
  • buckle, n.
  • bush lot, n. in entry bush, n./1
  • bush party, n. in entry bush, n./1
  • checkstop, n. in entry check-, comb. form
  • civic holiday, n. in entry civic, adj.
  • coboss, int.
  • conibear, n.
  • dart, n.
  • Dirty Thirties, n. in entry dirty, adj. and adv.
  • gong show, n. in entry gong, n./2
  • gotch, n./2
  • have province, n. in entry have, n.
  • have-not province, n. in entry have-not, n.
  • idiot string, n. in entry idiot, n. and adj.
  • joe job, n. in entry Joe, n./2
  • May long, n. in entry May, n./2
  • May two-four, n. in entry May, n./2
  • Muskoka chair, n.
  • parapublic, adj.
  • sand-baked, adj.
  • schlockey, n.
  • scooptram, n.
  • shit disturber, n. in entry shit, n. and adj.
  • skid, n.
  • slim jim, n.
  • soaker, n.
  • vinarterta, n.
  • warming closet, n. in entry warming, n.

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

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