After six years of living and working in the United States, I’ve become accustomed to “the look.” It’s that blankness in the eyes, that frozen smile and the awkward pause that follows after I’ve said something Canadian.
I don’t mean the way we pronounce certain words. Americans can figure out what we’re trying to say when we put the emphasis on the first syllable in words such as “aaa-dult” and “pro-ceed,” or on the last syllable in words such as “missile.” I don’t even mean the ubiquitous “out and about,” which Americans insist we pronounce as “oot and aboot.” We don’t, but it took an American speech coach to explain the difference. We say “owt and abowt,” they say “ah-wt and ahbahwt.” And “White Hahwse,” a particularly important word for a Canadianborn newscaster to nail down if he wants any credibility in America. But what I didn’t expect to discover was that there are uniquely Canadian phrases that baffle our American cousins. A colleague and I were discussing the luck of an employee one day when I suggested the person in question “had horseshoes up his butt.”
“Is that a good thing?” the colleague asked.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
Stop and think about it. He’s right. Then there’s the time I was on-air explaining that it’s a relatively easy thing to change a car tire: “Take the bolts off, remove the tire, put on a new one, tighten the bolts, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“Who’s my uncle?” my co-host asked. “I don’t know.”
“You said Bob was my uncle.”
“I meant, ‘Then you’re done.’ ” “What’s that got to do with my uncle?” /paused and stared blankly.
I’ve used that expression less as my tenure in “the States” (another term they
don’t use) has progressed. At first, I was baffled when people asked to get together at “quarter of.” It means “15 before the hour.” On my first Christmas here, a colleague asked how I spent my weekend.
“It was awful. I must have stood in more lineups than anything else.”
She looked at me, this time with eyes a little larger than normal.
“How many lineups were you in?” she asked, alarmed.
“Oh, six or seven.”
After a few perplexed seconds, she seemed relieved: “Oh, you mean ‘lines.’ ” “I do?”
“Yes: a ‘lineup’ is what you’re in if the police are parading you before a witness at the station.”
I made note of that one.
There have been other subde discoveries. “BBQ” is a noun here, not a verb. My children carry “backpacks,” not “knapsacks.” We go “sledding,” not “tobogganing.” My wife carries a “pocketbook” instead of a “purse.” Forget about asking for a “serviette”: a “napkin” will have to do.
Or: “That race horse moves like stink.” Not one to be proud of. Say you “forgot to clear the eaves troughs” and they wonder what needed clearing: the proper word is “gutters.” The computer spellcheck keeps telling me “eaves trough” doesn’t exist. It does, of course, in a country of 30 million people whose unique words and phrases aren’t recognized by word processors. You can’t choose “Canadian English,” just British or American.
Then again, isn’t that where we’ve always found ourselves? Between two empires—with just enough horseshoes in places to call our own.
Kevin Newman is a reporter/anchor with ABC News. Guest submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to (416) 5967730. We cannot respond to all queries.
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