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Chasing the Chinook: On the Trail of Canadian Words and Culture

by Wayne Grady

North American English is made up of a great diversity of words, expressions, and usages, some of which can be found north of the 49th parallel. In recent years it has become fashionable to bundle these together, impose British spellings upon them and label the result “Canadian English.” This has given rise to a continual output of dictionaries, etymologies, stylebooks and guides, most of them dreary.

Wayne Grady has approached this lexical hodgepodge with a fresh sense of curiosity, and the end product is a really great collection of essays. A veteran journalist, editor, and translator, Grady has brought his stunning breadth of knowledge to bear on an odd selection of 41 words and expressions, from “Acadia” to “zipper,” giving us a chapter-length guided tour of each. Readers will often find themselves trudging through wildly unexpected terrain, as Grady seems determined to show us that familiar utterances carry deep and secret prehistories of meaning.

Take “Newfoundland dog,” for example. Grady opens with Leif Eriksson in 1000 AD, then unearths travelogues from 1732 and 1775, then finds a 1932 reference to the Basque fishermen of the 1500s, after which we are offered an enlightening comparison of two E.J. Pratt poems, heroic tales of the dogs saving Napoleon and Lewis and Clark, the story of Bob, a Newf who roamed the shores of the Thames in the 1820s and became a pop-culture hero of the day, a Herman Melville exegesis, and a personal anecdote involving a bronze gewgaw in Grady’s dining room.

The dog’s precise origins remain unclear, but Grady takes a decent shot at finding them and leaves us with a gem of an essay.

Grady’s research is truly expansive, and in some cases utterly original. He offers fresh primary-source insights into such Canadianisms as Bloody Caesar, blue nose, pogey, and even the word Canada, and compelling arguments on such topics as Colcannon Day, tourtière (which is actually a pigeon pie), and the phrase Dominion of Canada, which, he argues very successfully, ought to be banished from the language.

Paradoxically, the weakest aspect in this book is its very raison d’être, set out in the introduction. “Canada is a country,” he writes, “and every country has a culture, and a country’s culture is expressed in the language or languages spoken by the citizens of that country…the problem is that it is Canadians who most need to be Canadianized.” In other words, Grady sees himself on a patriotic mission to show us that there is a distinctly Canadian language and culture. And while his examples are engaging, the majority of them contradict his thesis: About a third of his words can be found in many parts of North America, not just Canada, and another third can be found in specific regions, but not across Canada. And sometimes he takes us out on a limb to drive home his patriotic point, claiming that kerosene, the polygraph, Superman, and the movie Titanic are Canadian simply because their inventors resided here at some point in their lives. If that’s the case, then Saul Bellow and Hemingway must also be Canadians.

However, his heavy-handed introduction has little to do with his wonderful collection of personal essays, which are free from polemic with the exception of the odd annoyingly patriotic aside (“Canadians have always had a healthy respect for reality,” he writes at one point, against all evidence to the contrary). So what if he would like to squeeze the dazzling, baffling tapestry of North American English into a dull old box labelled ‘national culture’? That’s not what he ends up doing, and with easy wit and graceful prose he saves us from his own ambitions.