Has this ever happened to you? You’re raring to go for a night out, only to step in an awfully scuzzy soaker? Jeepers, it’s enough to give you a case of miner’s mouth.
Those words might sound unfamiliar to some, but for many Ontario residents, expressions like “scuzzy” (slang for dirty) and “soaker” (meaning stepping in a large puddle) are part of their everyday speech.
Ontario’s unique vernacular could achieve international distinction as officially recognized words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), thanks to the efforts of a dialect research project by the University of Toronto.
“Canada is well known to be a country with a very conservative variety of English … but the fact of the matter is, if you look at our lexicon choices or the way we pronounce things, you’ll find a lot of difference,” lead researcher Sali Tagliamonte says.
A word’s Canadian origin is often ignored
Like many language experts, Tagliamonte holds the OED in high regard. Each entry in the dictionary features a definition along with the word’s origin and how it’s been used over time; a handy feature for any language scientist or word nerd to have.
For example, how Canadians use “keener” is defined by the dictionary as, “A person, especially a student, who is extremely or excessively eager, zealous, or enthusiastic.”
Before the word’s Canadian meaning was added in 2015, the dictionary only had two definitions for the noun: an Irish professional mourner at wakes and funerals or someone who “drives a hard bargain.”
The OED was prompted to improve their coverage by Tagliamonte, a University of Toronto linguistics professor. Born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., she’s spent more than a decade documenting dialects across Ontario. It came as a surprise to Tagliamonte when she discovered less than 200 words in the dictionary were listed as Canadian.
“There’s this whole vernacular resource in Canada. They’re not in your dictionary,” she recalls telling an OED editor. She made a strong case; its Canadian edition hasn’t seen an update in 15 years. Many entries rely on a word being used in official publications, like a local paper.
Words that are mostly used in casual speech, especially in rural areas, could fly under the radar. The way people may talk in a place like North Bay, Ont. would slip through the cracks unless documented in a project like Tagliamonte’s.
According to Tagliamonte’s analysis, three major problems encumber Canadian word inclusion.
The first problem is when a word’s meaning is different in Canada, but that meaning isn’t included. “Keener” would have fallen into this category before its addition. “Soaker” does too; the OED doesn’t define the word as a puddle, instead listing it as someone who drinks a lot, heavy rainfall, someone who soaks something, or an anti-storm sheet on roofs.
The second problem is when a word isn’t included at all. “Bush party” is an expression that many Ontarians use to describe an outdoor get-together in the woods. They have a bit of a wild reputation.
Tagliamonte’s team have heard it used in sentences like, “we were walking back from a bush party and cops stopped us.” But in the OED, a bush party isn’t defined.
The third and most vexing issue: When a word’s origin is misidentified as American.
An example that particularly grinded Tagliamonte’s gears was “bud,” a term of endearment between friends (usually male).
Before it was amended to include North American, the OED listed it as a solely American invention.
“We use it in northern Ontario all the time! [“Bud” was] labelled colloquial, U.S. I’m thinking, ‘What! That’s exactly what we would say.’ It’s not colloquial U.S, it’s colloquial North American,” she laments.
With those three issues in mind, Tagliamonte’s team have scoured 20 communities across the province for dictionary candidates. They’re still compiling their initial list of words, which include “soaker” and “bush party,” with plans to submit later this year.
From there, she says the verification process with OED can take months. The team has their work cut out for them; they’re pulling from Tagliamonte’s database of 7,598 words and phrases, which continues to grow as they hear new jargon.
An Oxford representative told University of Toronto Magazine that their team has several requirements in order to consider an addition, such as being “overwhelmingly associated with Canada” and frequency of use in the last several years.
There’s this whole vernacular resource in Canada. They’re not in your dictionary.Sali Tagliamonte
When asked about plans to expand the project beyond Ontario, Tagliamonte says her work is already cut-out for her in the province. That scope limits their ability to confirm a word’s use in other places. A popular word like “Timmies,” which they’ve heard as short-hand for national coffee chain Tim Hortons, is probably used outside of Ontario too.
She’s hopeful that her students, who are conducting research in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and British Columbia, can bridge the gaps in Canadian dialects.
A project like Tagliamonte’s holds historical significance. The unique regional slang of generations past runs the risk of disappearing, as Canadians start to sound more homogenous.
Guides to Canadianisms
We already have a standalone Oxford dictionary on Canadian English, but it hasn’t seen an update since 2004. The team in charge of the Canadian edition was disbanded in 2008, making any revisions a distant dream. Although an Oxford representative told Taddle Creek there were hopes to publish one someday, declining revenue for print dictionaries overall may prohibit this from ever happening.
WATCH: How well do figure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir know Canadian slang? Story continues below.
But before you bemoan the lack of Canadian lexicons, there are books that explore the nation’s lingo. They may lack the international prestige of Oxford, but they authentically capture how Canadians talk.
A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles is a historical dictionary that received an update in 2017. It features rigorous word classification and extensive entries that sometimes include photos and graphs. Take its entry for “parkade,” defined as an above-ground building for parking. The entry makes strides to show the word’s full history, noting its original use with Hudson Bay stores.
There are plenty of handbooks on Canadian phrases. Notably, former Oxford Canadian English dictionary editor Katherine Barber published Only In Canada You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language in 2008.
Looking for maritime words like “mauzy”? The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, published in 1982, can help. A search of its online database reveals that “mauzy” means foggy weather and its alternate spelling is “mausey.”
Francophones can get in on the wordy fun too. Quebec’s official language office provides a dictionary and there are a few sites that include terms unique to Quebec too. The Acadian Ancestral Home hosts a list of Acadian French terms.
In efforts to preserve Indigenous languages across the country, some have taken it upon themselves to preserve words and sayings through dictionaries. An online dictionary for SENĆOŦEN, a language spoken by W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations in British Columbia, was created in 2018.
For many words, the dialect project is still evaluating how Ontario-exclusive they are. If you’re an Ontarian who think Tagliamonte’s database is missing the words your town uses or live outside of Ontario and know your area uses a word in her database frequently, she invites Canadians to contact the team with suggestions.
Popular Terms From The Ontario Dialects Project
“Grade Thirteen” or “OAC”
A now defunct fifth year of high school.
A catch-all term for the organizations serving veterans.
The weekend leading up to Victoria Day, which takes place on the last Monday before May 24 (Queen Victoria’s birthday).
To insult someone.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Victoria Day takes place on the last Monday in May. In fact, Victoria Day falls on the last Monday before May 24 (Queen Victoria’s birthday). As well, the story previously stated attendance of “Grade Thirteen” or “OAC” was mandatory for high schoolers. The additional year was only necessary to attend post-secondary education.