Common Canadian words that differ south of the border

Published: January 26, 2018

Canadian-US-flag-split Photo by Niyazz/Shutterstock

As much as we try to deny it, there are a lot of similarities between Canada and the U.S. That’s not surprising. We are neighbours, after all, with a long history together. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that happens across our long border — the longest border in the world between two countries, by the way.

Every now and then, though, we come up with things that are a little different. Our language, for example. Yes, both our countries speak English, and yes, we share a lot of vocabulary, but there are a few words and phrases that do, in fact, appear in Canada and not south of the border.

After all, history affects language, and our history, involving the interplay between France, England and First Nations peoples, as well as centuries of immigration from other countries is quite different from that of our neighbours. Of course, language does travel, but we’re willing to bet these words and phrases are far more common in the Great White North.

Homo milk

a-jug-of-milk
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This is one of those things that cause our American neighbours to cock an eyebrow at us. (And if we were actually saying what they think we’re saying, their confusion would be entirely appropriate.) In Canada, homo milk is milk with 3.25 per cent butterfat. What do Americans say instead? They tend to use “whole milk” to refer to milk with a higher fat content than either two percent or one percent. Here, whole milk usually refers to higher-fat unhomogenized stuff. Oh, and the fact that milk comes in bags in much of the country is also a source of puzzlement to our southern neighbours.

Washroom

washroom_sign
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The word is pretty self-evident, but if you ask where the washroom is in a White Castle, you may get a moment’s hesitation before someone points you towards the loo (maybe don’t use the word “loo,” either). Generally, the word south of the border is “restroom” or “bathroom.” Some folks will try to argue that a “washroom” is actually a more-equipped version of a “bathroom,” but as far as we can tell, the meaning of both terms are pretty much interchangeable here. That being said, even though “washroom” is often cited as a well-recognized Canadianism, it’s actually only used by Canadians to describe a “public toilet” 50 per cent of the time.  

Parkade

parkade
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This word is more common in western Canada. It’s thought to have its origins in the Hudson’s Bay department stores, which boasted spacious parkades, but it’s used in spots further east as well, especially P.E.I. A parkade is just a streamlined term for a multi-level parking garage. Isn’t it nice to think that we just need to use one word, rather than four? And what do you find in a parkade? Parking stalls — another western Canadianism.

Hydro

electricity-hydro-box-house
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In most of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and B.C., “hydro” doesn’t mean water, it means electricity. It makes a lot more sense when you realize that “hydro” is short for “hydroelectricity,” referring to how those provinces power their lightbulbs and microwaves. To our southern neighbours, though, even those from places that use hydroelectricity, your hydro bill tends to refer to your water bill.

Eavestrough

eavestrough
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Yup, this is a Canadian word, albeit of American origin. But where Americans now use the term “gutter” or “rain gutter,” we’ve hung onto eavestrough to describe the troughs under a roof for draining rain. (Here, we tend to use “gutter” to mean the spot next to a kerb where water flows.) The word has interesting origins. In Medieval England, the eavesdrip (later eavesdrop) was the overhang of a house’s roof where rain would drip from the roof. So, eavestroughs are troughs that run below the eaves and an eavesdropper was someone who originally stood below the eaves to listen in to conversations in a neighbouring house.   

Chesterfield

chesterfield
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Chesterfield is one of those words that’s come into use in Canada via our connections to England. There, the word “chesterfield” means a leather, low-seated, buttoned settee, based on a design commissioned by the fourth Earl of Chesterfield in the eighteenth century. Here, though, “chesterfield” is a less specific term, and is generally synonymous with “couch” or “sofa.” Although the term was actually used in the US, it widely fell out of favour in the early 20th century.

Garburator

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Not everyone has one, so not everyone uses the term, but for those Canucks with an in-sink garbage disposal, “garburator” is, indeed, a proud Canadianism. Based on an American invention known as the “InSinkErator,” the “Garberator” (note the spelling) was advertised in the Toronto Star in 1948, and became the generic name for the device by the 1960s.

Table (verb)

table
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Another word preserved from British English, “to table” something means to bring it forward for discussion, as in “table a motion.” In the U.S., “to table” means to put something aside or postpone. One term, two contradictory meanings. According to the Dictionary of Canadianism on Historical Principles 2, while Canadians actually use the term both ways, they overwhelmingly favour the former meaning.

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