UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Autumn 2004,
Volume 25, Number 2

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Photography by JEREMY TANKARD

Speaking Canadian
Word detectives:
Tom Howell, BA '01, Heather Fitzgerald, BA '95, and the new Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

Photography by JEREMY TANKARD

Tracking the country's distinct twists on the English language.

Nanaimoites can sip their double-doubles while planning next year’s May Two-Four, assured that those and 2,200 other made-in-Canada words and terms have the official endorsement of the new Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

The Oxford is the standard reference for a decidedly Canuck take on the English language. While the majority of the 300,000 entries are not exclusive to Canada, each has been given a spFri, 10/22/04 explains why there are 648 references to skate, skating or hockey.

“It’s really important for Canada to have its own English dictionary because we are not properly represented in American or British dictionaries,” says Heather Fitzgerald, one of two former UVickers (a term not yet in the dictionary) in the four-person lexicography department of Oxford University Press in Toronto. “I read a lot of Canadian literature when I was an undergrad and it was sometimes a challenge to find the meaning of specific words.”

While the first edition was welcomed in 1998, it soon became apparent that gaps and revisions would require an updated second edition. Fitzgerald, who graduated from UVic in 1995 with an English BA, and Tom Howell, who finished a double major in English and Writing in 2001, tapped the words on the tips of many Canadian tongues.

“Detective work is a big part of what we do. Each word must have appeared in at least 15 different publications to be considered,” says Fitzgerald, who heads OUP’s research reading program. “The Internet is a great research tool but we also read everything from restaurant menus to store flyers and local newspapers—we even read the Torch.”

Cross-referencing their discoveries with a main database of existing words and a second database of emerging words, the lexicographers found dozens of “new” Canadian terms. Among the most commonly used were double-double (a sweet and creamy coffee favoured by Tim Hortons customers), cougar (an older woman who chases much younger men) and May Two-Four (an informal term for the Victoria Day long weekend). Many additional discoveries not unique to Canada were also added, including SARS, cybercafe, studmuffin and energy drink.

According to Howell, a primary editor, the team uncovered fascinating regional differences in Canadian word usage. While Newfoundland produced the largest number of region-specific entries—including distinctive food terms such as bangbelly (a cake made from cooked rice)—some regions have different words for the same things. “A hoody is a commonly known item of clothing in most of Canada but it’s called a bunny hug in Saskatchewan,” says Howell.

The team also uncovered the unique terms locals use to indicate where they’re from. While Vancouverite and Torontonian are well-known, they had to dig deeper—usually by phoning local journalists—to find correct nouns for smaller locales. In BC these include the somewhat tongue-twisting Fernieite, Abbotsfordian, Kitimatian and Nanaimoite, as well as the surprisingly hip-sounding Smithereen and White Rocker.

Fitzgerald was also responsible for revising the 850 mini-biographies that appear in the second edition, but it was the discovery of emerging words that she found most rewarding.

“One new term came to me on a visit to Victoria last year when I saw a (realtor’s) sign for strata lots. I discovered that strata is an Australian term that’s almost synonymous with condo. I guess the leaky condo situation in BC led developers to find an alternative word, so we’ve included it in the new edition,” says Fitzgerald. Other new BC-specific words include astronaut (an immigrant who commutes for work, usually to Asia, while leaving dependents at home in Canada) and Indian ice cream (a whipped soapberry dessert).

Tofurkey and metrosexual didn’t make the cut this time, but are on the list for possible inclusion in the dictionary’s third edition, expected in 2010. Fitzgerald says research for the next book is ongoing. “You never switch it off; you find yourself always cutting bits from the newspaper. It hasn’t happened to me yet but some lexicographers don’t enjoy reading anymore because it involves an element of research—even if you’re just reading a Canadian Tire flyer.”

For Howell, the research challenges and sense of discovery continue to appeal but new pitfalls have emerged. “What sticks out more for me is how much I forget. I’d love it if more of it stuck. I’m not any better at Scrabble but people are always very pleased to beat me.”

John Lee is a Vancouver-based feature writer who holds a Harvey Southam Diploma in Writing and Editing.

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