Adventures in Canadianisms

Date: January - February, 2017 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Noor-E Ferdous

[Editor's note: Adventures in Canadianisms is a series by Strathy Literary Intern Noor-E Ferdous, a master's student in the Department of English at Queen's University. It was originally published on the Strathy blog in five parts from January to February 2017.]

Canada—the land of blistering cold winds and snow, of poutine and a Tim Hortons around every corner, with friendly people and their “thank you”s and “have a nice day”s. You’d think that these are things that would attract the childlike attention of a person who had travelled all the way from the warm and humid Bangladesh to Kingston (I mean okay, the weather was a bit of a shock for me, especially since the winters we have in Bangladesh would be considered fall weather here in Canada), but do you know what really stood out to me? The language!

The first time I came across a word that sounded strange to my ears was “loonie”, while grocery shopping at the Metro. After checking out a bag of Lays ketchup chips (God bless Canada for this amazing snack!) and paying in cash, the cashier handed me the receipt and a one dollar coin, “Here’s a loonie as your change! Have a nice day!” For a second, I thought she called me “loony” (and I could totally understand why she’d call me crazy—if she had actually known me, that is) but before I could even respond with an “Excuse me?”, I was pushed forward by the customer behind me. When my roomies later told me that “loonie” is used to refer to a dollar, I became curious about what other words are used by Canadians and how they came to be a part of Canadian English in particular rather than the global English vernacular.

While keeping an ear open in pretty much all situations and hearing snippets of words I’m assuming to be Canadian, I came to realize that my idea of Canadian English is not only quite limited, but also highly misconstrued. So, being the curious and slightly adventurous person that I am, I decided to embark on this quest to look for Canadianisms, their meanings and their origins.

Starting on Monday, I will bring you a new word each week for the next five weeks. I hope that you will join me on this adventure and have as much fun reading the entries as I do writing them! Stay tuned for our first word - "keener"!

Adventures in Canadianisms: Keener

Date: January 30, 2017 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Noor-E Ferdous

Word of the week: Keener

What does it mean?

This popular term refers to someone who is extremely eager to please or to do well, often a student who is very enthusiastic to succeed or to impress a teacher. It has the negative connotation of a student who sucks up to teachers.


Sam: Hey! How was your history class today?

Anne: It went all right… until Jeremy started talking (rolling her eyes).

Sam (laughing): He’s such a keener, eh?

Remember that Friends episode where Phoebe takes Monica to an English class and Monica keeps asking the teacher questions (and answering them too)? Yeah, in case you’re still wondering, Monica is a keener!

Where did it come from?

“Keener” is based on the word “keen”, an ancient word dating back to Old English meaning smart or clever. But the origins of “keener” are much newer and more mysterious. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “keener” was used in the United States in the 1800s to mean someone who “drives a hard bargain” or is “in some way superior”, but this meaning of the word seems to have fallen out of use.

The first citations of “keener” in Canadian English appear in the 1970s. I found many examples in Canadian newspapers beginning around that time and continuing to today, but nothing earlier. How did “keener” enter Canadian English, and how did it come to be associated with being nerdy and overenthusiastic in class? These questions remain a mystery to me, but if you know anything more, let me know!

Who uses it?

Judging by all the people I have conversed with—starting from my friends at the department to my professors and housemates, “keener” is quite a popular word here in Canada. Unlike some classic Canadianisms that are falling out of use (“chesterfield”, anyone?), it seems to be used by almost everyone. It is not only popular, but its use is growing, according to a 2009 study on lexical variation in Toronto.

Did you know? (Because I certainly didn’t!)

Although “keener” in Canada means a zealous student, it does not have the same meaning in the rest of the world. Elsewhere, especially England and Ireland, “keener” is used to refer to someone who wails or sings for a dead person as a form of grieving. Hmm…Probably best to be careful while using this term outside of Canada.

That’s all for this week, folks! Tune in next Monday for another word of the week!

Adventures in Canadianisms: Had the Biscuit

Date: February 6, 2017 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Noor-E Ferdous

Hello readers! It’s Noor again with another word of the week. Actually, this week I bring you a phrase. As someone who loves playing with different words and phrases, my interest was piqued when I came across uniquely Canadian idioms.

Word (or rather, idiom) of the week: Had the biscuit

What does it mean?

In case you’re wondering, no, it has nothing to do with eating biscuits. It actually refers to an object that is no longer of any use or cannot function anymore. It can also mean being worn out or on the verge of death.


Stephen: Hey Jim, why do you look so down?

Jim: My truck has had the biscuit, man, I don’t know how I’ll go without it.

Stephen: The one that belonged to your old man, you mean?

Jim: (sighs) Uh huh.

Stephen: What can you do, things grow old too (pats Jim on the shoulder).

Where did it come from?

Using the rigorous methodology of the online search, I came across a few theories for the origin of the phrase. Although the details vary, all were in agreement that “had the biscuit” comes from the Catholic practice of last rites where someone who is facing death is given final sacraments, which includes receiving the communion wafer. Some suggest that the reference to the wafer as a “biscuit” was a derogatory term coined by Protestants. Others suggest that the wafers were referred to as “biscuits” by soldiers during the First World War, who were all too familiar with last rites. In either case, the reference to the death of a person has extended to the “death” of objects that are old and worn out or broken. I have yet to find any theories, however, on how and why this phrase came to be uniquely Canadian!

Who uses it?

Unlike the word “keener”, which I discussed in my previous post, “had the biscuit” does not appear to be too popular these days. Most (okay, nearly all) of the friends I threw this phrase at responded with “Huh?”, which just goes to show how familiar they are with it. However, while having one of those deep talks at 3:00 in the morning with my housemate Catherine, I randomly blurted out the phrase “had the biscuit” to refer to our apartment heater (which had just decided to stop working) and surprisingly she replied with “Hey! My grandma uses that to talk about our old couch and literally, EVERYTHING else!” From what I gathered from our discussion that night (which, if you must know, lasted till 8:00 in the morning), this phrase is more popular amongst the older generations than the younger ones. The current lack of popularity of this idiom amongst adolescents and twenty-somethings could mean that the usage of this phrase is declining.

Did you know? (Because I certainly didn’t!)

Even though “had the biscuit” has nothing to do with actual biscuits, I became curious about the origin and meaning of “biscuit”. In much of the English-speaking world, including my home country of Bangladesh, a biscuit is what North Americans call a cookie. A biscuit in Canada, I’ve discovered, refers to a type of soft, unsweetened roll rather than something crispy and sweet. The word itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from the Latin “biscotum” which literally means baked twice. It’s unclear, however, how the two different definitions arose.

Well, that’s all for today. I’ll see you back here next Monday for another Canadianism!

Adventures in Canadianisms: Hoser

Date: February 13, 2017 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Noor-E Ferdous

Yet another week calls for yet another interesting Canadianism. I like how Canadians have some of their own descriptive words for people. The first week, I wrote about “keener”. This week, I look at “hoser.”

Word of the Week: Hoser

What does it mean?

This is a derogatory term used to refer to someone who is uncivilized, or in simple terms, it is the Canadian version of “idiot.”


Sally: Did you see the new guy in school today? Geez, he’s such a hoser!

Catherine: I thought he was pretty cool.

Sally: Ugh, honestly Cathy, you have no taste!

Catherine: (*rolls her eyes*)

Where did it come from?

As with the other Canadianisms I have examined so far, the origin of “hoser” is a bit unclear. The word is widely associated with the 1980s Canadian comedy show, The Great White North, in which the fictional brothers Bob and Doug Mackenzie parodied various Canadian English expressions (such as ending each sentence with an “eh”). It was their catchphrase “Take off, hoser!” that really popularized “hoser” and secured its place in the Canadian vernacular. But where did it originate? Some online theories attribute the word to ice hockey – a reference to the losing team hosing down the ice after a game; others claim the word refers to the hosing, or siphoning, of gas during the Great Depression. Interestingly, however, I did not find any occurrence of the word with either of these definitions in the few corpora I checked, and I didn’t find any occurrence of the word at all before 1981 – a reference in the Globe and Mail which, incidentally, refers to the Mackenzie Brothers. This leads me to suspect that the comedy show didn’t just popularize the word, it originated it! (If you think I’m wrong, send me your evidence to the contrary!)

Who uses it?

This is where things get interesting. Although every member of my informal subject pool (an admittedly not terribly diverse range of students and professors on the Queen’s campus) claimed to be highly familiar with the word, all said they do not use it. This does not mean that no one uses it, of course, but perhaps that the use is fairly restricted to certain contexts or groups of people. Everyone did, however, make reference to the Mackenzie Brothers, lending additional support to the idea that the word originated with the comedy sketch.

Did you know? (Because I certainly didn’t!)

“Hoser” is apparently used outside of Canada to refer to (um, make fun of) Canadians. (Perhaps this is thanks to the popularity of Strange Brew – the Mackenzie Brothers movie –in the United States?) This is in contrast to a word like “keener”, which Canadians know and use but seems to be rather unheard of elsewhere in the English-speaking world. This makes “hoser” more than just a Canadianism – it makes it another great Canadian export!

Thanks for reading, and see you back here next Monday!

Adventures in Canadianisms: Hangashore

Date: February 20, 2017 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Noor-E Ferdous

Greetings readers! I’m back again with another word of the week—perhaps the strangest one that I have encountered on this journey. Not only does it sound strange (at least to me—I can barely pronounce it), it has quite an interesting history too!

Word of the Week: Hangashore

What does it mean?

This is a term used to refer to someone who is really lazy, especially someone who is too lazy to go fishing (*awkwardly raising hand*). It can also be used to refer to a weak, sickly person worthy of pity.


Nathan: Morning James! Where’s your brother? Won’t he join us on today’s fishing trip?
James: I’m afraid not; he doesn’t like doing much on Sundays!
Nathan (shaking his head): John’s such a hangashore!

Where did it come from?

According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, “hangashore” originated from the Irish Gaelic word “angishore”, meaning a “poverty-stricken creature” or an “unfortunate person or thing”. In Irish, when a word begins with a vowel, an “h” can optionally be added to the beginning, which is how the pronunciation “hangashore” arose. There are many words of Irish origin in Newfoundland, given that a large portion of the island’s settlers were from Ireland, in particular those from the Waterford area arriving in the 1800s. The other large group of settlers were English, mostly from the Southwest of England. It was likely the English settlers who adopted and spread the “hangashore” pronunciation. These two large groups of British and Irish settlers had a profound affect on the way English is spoken in Newfoundland, which explains why it is different from the English in the rest of Canada.

Who uses it?

This word is associated with Newfoundland as well as the other eastern islands of Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. I am not sure how common the word is in those areas today, but it does seem to be part of folk culture, given its use in names and titles, for example the Hangashore Folk Festival, the Hangashore Bed and Breakfast or the book The Hangashore Newfoundland Dog. Although I have only been in Canada for a few months, it appears that “hangashore” is not too popular here in Kingston. All the people I’ve asked about the word (even the random strangers waiting at the Downtown Bus Transfer Point) either responded with a really confused look and a disgruntled “No?” or asked me to explain it to them after a moment of thinking. They all looked surprised to learn its actual meaning and judging by this, it appears that “hangashore” is a part of a regional dialect rather than a word that is used all over Canada.

Did you know? (Because I certainly didn’t!)

“Hangashore” is only one of many interesting and unique words in Newfoundland. In fact, there is a whole dictionary full! (This is how I learned, for example, that a synonym for one definition of “hangashore” is “sleeveen”. Isn't that amazing?) You can explore words in the online version of the dictionary here. You can learn more about Newfoundland dialects here and even listen to sound samples. Maybe my next series should be Adventures in Newfoundlandisms!

Well, that’s all for this week folks, tune in next Monday for my final word!