Americans' Guide to Canadian English

by Anne Merritt Sep 29, 2011
Yes, yes, it’s true. I spell “British” but speak “American.” But I would argue that Canadian English has some traits and terms that are uniquely ours.

THE FIRST TIME I visited Nick’s family in Philadelphia, I braced myself for the usual jokes: “oot and aboot,” a drawn out “ehhh?”

But his family were nothing but warm. They asked questions about Canada, the cities and the people and the food. “It’s not that different from here in the States,” was my usual answer.

But sometimes, a word caught us off guard.

    1. I told his sister that I liked her new runners. Blank stare.


    1. I also asked her how she enjoyed Girl Guides. Blank stare.


    I said, “We need serviettes,” at a rooftop barbecue. Blank stare.

In those moments, we joked about our “cross-cultural relationship.” Even now, three-and-a-half years down the line, Nick loves to tell the story of my students in South Korea, who would snicker to one another whenever I wrote centre or favourite on the board. “Teacher, bad spell!” they would crow.

In the States, this always gets a laugh.

Doubling down on donut holes

Class started at 9:00am in the basement of a tiny Sri Lankan community centre, but nobody came on time. My students had to drop children at school, navigate Toronto’s subway and buses, punch out from their overnight shifts. Another teacher told me to bring an armful of newspapers each day so the class could chat about news while students trickled in.

At break time, I went across the street to the Tim Horton’s for a quick coffee. Sometimes on Fridays, we bought Timbits for the class. My favourites, chocolate and cherry, always went untouched by the ESL students. “Too sweet,” they would tell me, puckering their faces and picking out the plainest donut holes.

Ling, a new student, was ahead of me in line. Mei told me last week that Ling had been a doctor in China, that she argued and crumpled forms in frustration when she was put in the beginner ESL class. Mei was in my intermediate class. In China, she had worked as a seamstress.

Ling smoothed her hair and stepped up to the counter. “Medium double double,” she said, in clipped, clear syllables – coffee prepared with two portions each of cream and sugar. It sounded like she had been practicing.

Going crazy for Canadian currency

Taegun handed me his notebook and an uncapped pen.

    “Tell me anything that is important. “Like, maybe some expressions that I need?”

We had 20 minutes before I had to get back to work. The next day, Taegun would be on a plane to Canada with a dozen other nervous Korean university students. He would stay for one year.

I wrote loonie and twoonie in the book, and explained they are the Canadian $1 and $2 coins. He read the words softly to himself, writing them again, phonetically, in Korean.

    1. He frowned. “So it is a nickname, ‘loonie?’ Like slang?”

“I guess it is like slang, but everybody uses it. Even in a bank. Nobody says ‘one dollar coin.’”

“But what is the proper word for this? I mean, not the nickname?”

I shook my head. “Honestly, there isn’t one. Everyone says ‘loonie.’ Even the Prime Minister.” I took the notebook and circled the word. “Another good word to know is – “

“But…” Taegun took the pen and held it over the notebook, ready to write more. “Maybe to be polite, I can call it a ‘loon?’”

Technically NOT an Eskimo

Harry stared at me, brow wrinkled.

    1. “I really don’t think that’s correct.”

“It is.”

“I’ve never heard that term before. In England we say ‘Eskimo.’”

He swiveled his chair to face the computer, and went to Google. I had been reading a guidebook – mapping the route to Prague Castle – when he came into the hostel common room. He had sat down, can of beer in hand, and asked me where I was from.

    1. “You know, I traveled with an American bloke a few months back. I remember


    1. said ‘Eskimo.’”

I shrugged. Wondered when the castle closed. “Well, it’s not really a polite word in Canada. Inuit is the proper term.”

Harry looked up smugly from the computer screen. “Says here that’s the technical term. That doesn’t mean people use it every day, now does it?”

I didn’t want to tell Harry what came to mind then. A dusty memory of a summer afternoon, a backyard, my father’s friend Josee at the barbecue, smiling down. “Have you ever tried bison meat, Anne?” I went indoors to wash my hands, passing two women talking in the kitchen.

    1. “It was after he’d come home drunk again.”

“I’m glad she finally told him to leave.”

“Crazy Eskimo, good riddance.”

Cheese, chips, and gravy – the glue that holds us together

We described it to friends who didn’t ask.

We talked about it on Saturday nights at the expat pub.

We had cravings for it on cold nights, when the wind was sharp and the air smelled like dried leaves – when the air smelled of Canada.

We joked, all year, about opening a chipwagon here in Korea, driving it around to foreigner bars.

We debated the best time to visit – at 3am after the pub, or at noon the next morning. We would hold our bellies as we spoke.

We laughed together when a British friend said yes, she had eaten poutine many times. Cheese, chips, and gravy, at the pub. “No!” we said, “It’s not the same!” We explained it vividly and happily, our gestures wide. How the best trucks had the smallest menus. The best trucks were on country roads in Quebec. The best trucks had wobbly wooden benches out front where you huddled, gloves still on, face close to your steaming food in a Styrofoam cup.

Our voices faltered once or twice, that sudden stab of homesickness.

We would scan the menus at “British pubs” and scoff at pictures of “Canadian poutine.” Grumbled to each other, “I bet they don’t use the right cheese.”

A few months ago, in Canada, we met for a drink. For an hour we talked and gossiped about that year in Korea. Then, the reminiscing done, we looked at our glasses, at our menus, around the bar. We asked, half-jokingly, if there was a chipwagon nearby, and the waitress said the house poutine was famous. “Sure,” we said – “One plate, two forks.”

Outside, we hugged. We’ll be in touch. We’ll do this again. Of course we will.

Going above and beyond to settle the bill

Steffan’s ponytail was gone. So was the shy, darting way he used to meet your eyes. He stood up when I walked into the restaurant and clapped friendly arms around me. “It’s been what, seven years?”

Auntie Mary was beside him, tiny and bubbly, a wide grin in ruby lipstick. “It was, it was. Seven years ago that you saw us in Dublin. You were still a student then, Steffan.”

That summer in Dublin, he’d spent a morning showing me the campus at Trinity College. I’d snapped photos constantly, gawking at the statues and spires, stepping around groups of eye-rolling students on the college green. Steffan hadn’t spoken much, but he’d been patient. “I suppose Canada looks different from this?”

A year ago, he was transferred to Vancouver. “My mum’s coming to visit, we can all meet for dinner. Do you like Indonesian food? I know a place.”

When the bill came, Steffan grabbed it out of my aunt Mary’s hand. She grabbed it back.

    “You know, Mum, at the office, we settle things with an arm-wrestle. The lads from Saskatoon do it all the time. Who pays for coffee and the like.”

I laughed, but Steffan and Mary locked eyes. He dropped a heavy elbow on the table, his palm crooked towards her. His mum followed suit, ready to give it 110%.

    “Alright, Mum. Give’r.”
Drinking with Mickey

They would come up on weekends from Fort Drum, an hour’s drive away over the border.

They would enter bars in packs, thank the bartender three times for each drink. “You know, I can buy a gun in America, I can fight a war in America, but I can’t buy a beer in America.”

Once, they approached our table, backwards baseball caps and button-down shirts, so polite it caught us off-guard. “Can we sit down and talk to you for a bit?”

Once, they approached us on a patio, drunk before the sun was even set. “I like Canadian girls. American girls are fucking fat bitches,” one slurred, leaning close to me. It was his third time in Kingston that year. The guy beside him giggled.

    1. “You know the first time we came to Canadia, er, to Canada, right?


    1. guy was passed out like before we left the hotel room.” The friend nodded. “He drank, you know those bottles? The smaller ones of rum or something?”

That would be the 375ml bottles of hard liquor, then. “Yeah. They’re called a mickey.”

He slapped his friend on the back. “Mickey! Yes! New nickname! New nickname!”

I was a student then, working at a hotel for the summer. “If the Fort Drum kids call up, say we’re full,” the manager told us. “We don’t want them here.” We asked the cleaning staff what had happened last time. They scowled. “Puke everywhere. We found these dirty photos too, like Polaroids. I think we still have them somewhere.”

They would call anyway. They would crowd the lobby, ask where the bars were, where the college girls hung out. I didn’t really like them, but I felt shitty saying no.

    “Come onnnn,” they would lean over the front desk. “It’s my buddy’s birthday. You gotta go to Canada on your 19th birthday.”

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