Canada is home to an incredibly diverse group of indigenous languages. According to the 2011 census, there are over 60 Aboriginal languages grouped into 12 language families, with more than 200,000 people throughout the country speaking a Native language as their mother tongue.
So it’s no surprise that, over the centuries, words of Canada’s first peoples have become part of everyday speech. We’re used to seeing place names that have Aboriginal origin, from Kamloops, BC (Shushwap for “the meeting of waters”) to Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (Mi’kmaq for “the place where groundnuts grow”).
What you might not know, though, is that many common words have their roots in Native languages as well.
Everyone’s favourite cottage visitor (and sometimes pest), the familiar stripey, bushy-tailed rodent likely got its name from the Ojibwa word adjidamoo, which means “one who descends trees head-first.” Ojibwa is a subset of Algonquian, which is the most widespread of all of Canada’s 12 Aboriginal language families.
Is there anything more fun that hauling the toboggan up and down a steep hill on a snowy, sunny day? This word took a slightly more circuitous route into English, from the Mi’kmaq tobakun (“sled”) to French Canadian tabagane (“long, flat-bottomed sled”) to the Canadian Tire catalogue.
The familiar double-bladed paddle and narrow body of the kayak is a familiar one to many Indigenous peoples of the North, including Greenland, Canada, Alaska and northern Asia—and many different indigenous languages have words that are similar to the Inuktitut qayaq. One definition for qayaq was “man’s boat,” in contrast to the open umiaq, which was traditionally a women’s or family boat.
Another word that comes to us from Mi’kmaq (caleboo) via Canadian French (caribou), “caribou” meant “snow pawer” (or shoveller) from its habit of scraping at the snow to get at grass underneath.
If you’ve ever caught a muskie in a northern lake, you’ll appreciate this: the word “muskie” comes from the Ojibwa maashk moozh, which means “ugly pike.” Ugly indeed.
OK, this one’s kind of a no-brainer. The word “igloo” was taken from the Inuktitut iglu, which means, simply, “house.”