Gilberts: How some words originated in Canada

Like many of you, I love word origins and the history of various phrases common in the English language.

Jim and Lisa Gilbert Ellwood Shreve/The Daily News

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Like many of you, I love word origins and the history of various phrases common in the English language. I have not explored this area for a few years and am anxious to get back to it this week. No one should think that the history of language (ANY language) is boring.

The publication that I will be looking at for the next two weeks is one by Bill Casselman (CBC listeners will recognize the name) and he has written a fascinating book entitled Canadian Words – A Comic Browse Through Words And Folk Sayings Invented By Canadians (Copp Clark, 1995). I think that you will find some of these Canadian word origins quite interesting, entertaining and humorous. I certainly did!

To start at the very beginning, let’s examine the name for our country, “Canada.” This word first appeared in 1534 in the writings of Jacques Cartier. In a rather confusing conversation with the native population, Cartier kept pointing to the surrounding land and village (“Stadacona”) and attempted to find out what it was called. They told him that it was a village, or in their language, “kanata”.

Cartier thought they meant the entire country was called Kanata and so, in a blinding flash of confusion that seems sometimes to still haunt us, the country came to be known as Canada!

The slangy word that often is used to describe all of us living in Canada is “Canuck.” It is not as some think a shortening of the English word for Canada but rather, according to Canadian entomologists, the Iroquoian name (“kanuchsa”) for those who live in a village.

In the late 1880s, Emily Ferguson accompanied her distinguished husband Rev. Arthur Murphy to Chatham ,where they lived in the former rectory on Selkirk Street beside Holy Trinity Church. There is a plaque on this site today commemorating her residence there. Later in her life, this famous Canadian feminist wrote a number of books under the pen name Janey Canuck.

Drinking has, for better or for worse, been part and parcel of Canadian life since its inception. As one might surmise, there have been a few Canadian-made phrases to describe excessive drinking. For example: “He’s got his snowsuit on and he’s heading north” or “he’s three sheets to the wind and the other one’s flapping” or how about “he’s out in left field with a catcher’s mitt on.”

I don’t ever remember anyone describing me in those terms but, on the other hand, I suppose if I was ever in that condition, I may not remember. I’ll have to think on that one a bit!

It may come as a surprise to you that Dr. Abraham Gesner, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, invented kerosene and the kerosene lamp in the 1840s. The word originated from the Greek word for wax (“keros”) and the common scientific ending for alcohols (“ene”).

It may also interest you to know that you will find the name “Gesner” on various tombstones at Trinity Church, Morpeth, and that they are related to the famous writer and scientist. In fact, the famous Canadian poet, Archibald Lampman, who was born in the rectory of Trinity Church, Morpeth, was the son of Susanna Charlotte Gesner whose family could trace their roots to pioneer times in Kent County. Her father, David Henry Gesner, was the brother of Dr. Abraham Gesner.

As you might expect, there have been many hockey terms that have originated in Canada. For example, the Patrick Family who formed the Pacific Coast Hockey League in Victoria and Vancouver not only were the first ones to put numbers on the players’ backs but also introduced the concept of dividing the ice surface into three parts by painting two blue lines.

In the centre zone, between the blue lines, forward passing was permitted. Before this time if a player was ahead of the man who had control of the puck, he was offside. These fundamental rules of hockey were not implemented until 1911. Until that time, there was no “blue line”, “blue liner” nor “blue-line corps”.

The word “deke” came from Canadian hockey rinks and it was simply slang for “decoy.” If one pretends to take a shot at goal, if you feint a move and draw an enemy defenceman out of position or if you do anything to decoy the opposition, then you have pulled a deke! Like many other similar words created by Canadians, it can be used as a verb, noun or adjective!

How about the word “puck”? Once again, it is, as one might expect, a Canadian invention. The first record of a puck used in a hockey game occurred on Kingston Harbour in the winter of 1860. Before that time, a standard India rubber ball was used. The actual word may have its origins as a variation on the verb “poke.”

In addition, the original term for a faceoff in hockey was called a “puck off”; however, the name had to be changed because of a frequent alteration of the first letter. Although Casselman says that this term (“puck off”) is now obsolete, I could swear that I have seen (and heard) modern day hockey players in the NHL and even at my Friday morning pick–up games of hockey use that “obsolete “term.

I suppose that they are simply paying a verbal homage to the original expression. What a nice historical tribute!

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.