Pop or soda? Dinner or supper? Why are so many of our regionalisms centred around food?
Across this great nation of ours, there are approximately 30 million speakers of Canadian English. Typically, when we think of Canadian English, we identify it by what it is not: American English (and sometimes British English). However, right here at home, within our 9,984,670 km2 of space, there is a massive assortment of words we use to describe the same thing, and even when we agree on a single term, the pronunciations we employ are sometimes completely different.
So much so, that it begs the question: What do the words you use say about where you’re from? This week, we’ll try to answer that question by talking to linguistic experts, sharing stories of our own discovery of differences in the language Canadians use and exploring the regional dialects that define us all.
We’re also looking for your feedback on specific terms in your community: Tell us a word that only seems to be used by people in your region here.
Compared to American and British English, whose populations include over 335-million and 225-million native English-speakers, respectively, Canadian English-speakers number below 30 million. Our relatively minuscule population has encouraged us to become the grifters of the English language. Instead of choosing one of the two more popular English varieties, in Canada we swindle words and vowels from our American and British cousins and call them our own.
To further complicate matters, distinct regionalisms within Canadian provinces and cities also exist. One of the areas in which these differences are most noticeable is in food-related terms. Since much of our vocabulary is developed early in life by those closest to us, it’s hard to imagine a more fertile setting for terminology to be instilled than around the dinner table – or, for most of Canada, the supper table. Furthermore, there are few things more easily relatable to identity than food and language. It makes sense, therefore, that words relating to food would be among the most regionally distinct.
Here are some of our most familiar differences when it comes to eating and drinking:
Supper vs. dinner
In Vancouver and Toronto, the American term “dinner” is used to describe the evening meal. But outside of the two city centres, residents in B.C. and Southern Ontario sway back and forth between the two options, while the rest of Canada prefers the British “supper” unanimously.
Cutlery vs. utensils vs. silverware
While the majority of Western Canada uses “cutlery” to describe a set of forks, knives and spoons, residents of Northern Ontario and Quebec prefer “utensils,” the English version of the French “ustensiles.” This is likely due to the region’s heavy French influence. In Nova Scotia, however, the British “silverware” still reigns supreme.
Pop vs. soda vs. soft drink
“Pop” may be among the most quintessentially Canadian words, but we don’t all prefer the fizzy soda label equally. According to research from The 10 and 3, which surveyed over 9500 Canadians on language, 63 per cent of the Quebecers they talked to preferred the term “soft drink,” while 20 per cent of Manitobans use “soda” and “soft drink” interchangeably.
Chocolate bar vs. candy bar
Saying “candy bar” in Canada is a great way to let people know that you’re from out of town. Nearly everyone says chocolate bar when referencing a bar-shaped confection with some iteration of cocoa. In the U.S., however, “candy bar” is used to describe the chocolatey treats.
PEA-can vs. pih-kahn
Speaking of our American neighbours, they’re more likely to pronounce pecans as “pih-kahns.” Most Canadians, however, pronounce it to sound like a can of peas, preferring pea-cans over pih-kahns. And yet, in Vancouver, Toronto and other metropolitan areas with a heavy American influence, the “pih-kahn” is used interchangeably.
Care-a-mel vs. carmel
Nearly all Canadians agree that caramel is a three-syllable word, except residents of Cape Breton and Newfoundland, who pronounce the sweet confection like the name “Karmel.”
Originally marketed with the slogan “a meal for four in nine minutes for an everyday price of 19 cents,” Kraft Dinner was eventually re-branded to Kraft Macaroni Cheese in the U.S. and to Cheesey Pasta in England. And yet, in Canada the macaroni’s marketing has remained constant for decades, allowing the infamous “Kraft Dinner” to become a stand-in for all dishes involving macaroni and cheese, from the Atlantic to the Pacific; from our border with the U.S. to the top of Cape Columbia.
Staying on the Canadian slang train, a “mickey” is used unanimously to refer to a 375-ml bottle of hard liquor throughout Canada. The alcohol measurement doesn’t translate well south of the border, where the term “mickey” or “Mickey Finn” is used most frequently as slang to refer to a drug slipped into a drink.
Napkin vs. serviette
Both napkin and serviette may technically mean the same thing, but most Canadians use “serviette” to refer to a disposable paper napkin, while napkin is the catchall term for both cloth and paper towels.
Frosting vs. icing
Used to glaze cakes and pastries, the Williams-Sonoma cookbook Cake defines icing as being “thinner and glossier,” while frosting is “a thick, fluffy mixture, used to coat the outside of a cake.” And yet, in Canada, the two terms take on a different meaning entirely. We use frosting to ice cakes, but the sugary topping transforms into icing once it’s on a cake.