MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

WINNERS OF ONE KIND OR ANOTHER

PETER GZOWSKI January 1 1966
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

WINNERS OF ONE KIND OR ANOTHER

PETER GZOWSKI January 1 1966

WHERE IS THE CACHE IN THE SNYE?

No, not Salinger. It’s a question posed by an all-Canadian vocabulary

ANY RAMPANT nationalist who tried to restrict his vocabulary to Englishlanguage words of purely Canadian origin would soon find himself banished to the backwoods or, at least, the locker room. Not because his vocabulary was limited. Canada can take credit for initiating or developing a respectable 15,000 or so words out of over 500,000 English words in use today. It’s just that Canadian-produced words mainly come from five essentially muscular activities — lumbering, railways, fishing, mining and sports.

Fifteen years of research for a Dictionary of Canadianisms, to be published early in 1967 by Toronto textbook publishers W. J. Gage Ltd., shows that many words now regarded as wholly Canadian were borrowed from French. Dutch and CanadianIndian dialects. And the words themselves, although they sometimes sound exotic, usually have connotations that can only be called commonplace.

Take snye, for example. What’s a snye? (To snye?) It means a side channel in a river and comes from the Canadian-French chenail meaning channel. Slightly more imaginative is the uniquely Canadian use of riding to mean a constituency. It comes from the middle-English thridding, dividing a county into thirds for administrative purposes. Only three ridings remain in England — East, West and North Yorkshire.

The dictionary, originally the brainchild of American lexicographer C. J. Lovell who died in 1960, is now the responsibility of the Lexicographical Centre for Canadian English in Victoria. The dictionary is under the general editorship of Dr. W. S. Avis of Royal Military College in Kingston. Patrick Drysdale, a senior editor of Gage and one of 10 people working on the book, says finding a word of Canadian origin involves painstaking effort to pin down its first usage.

Cache, for instance, was first written in English in 1578 and comes from the French cacher — to hide; in Canada it has come to mean specifically a hiding-place for food or supplies. In the field of sports Canada has bequeathed flying wings, forecheck and backcheck to the English-speaking world but the origin of puck is a mystery. “Nobody knows where it comes from,” says Drysdale.

Canada is the only country in the world to use the word hydro, derived from the Greek for water, to mean electricity — apparently a lasting verbal monument to the power of Niagara Falls. Caboose derives from the Dutch kabuis — a small hut for the cook on a ship’s deck. A peculiarly Canadian sense of the word is its use to describe the heated mobile cookhouses tagged onto tractor trains pulling supplies across the tundra.

Tundra? It should be Canadian but it isn’t. It’s a straight steal from the Russian word for trackless arctic wastes. But we can claim pemmican, the dried lean meat pounded into a paste with fat. It is a combination of two Cree - Indian words — pimme. meaning fat, and kan, meaning prepared. And although our tundra is Russian at least our muskeg is aboriginal. It’s another Cree contribution from their word meaning, aptly, swamp. JOHN BELANGER