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The Canadian Word Sleuth: babiche, bismarcks, ginch...
by Katherine Barber

Did Samuel Johnson ever have to ask his compatriots and colleagues what they call their underwear? Did James Murray ever have to head to the ladies' lingerie section of his local department store to determine how "brassiere" should be spelled in the Oxford English Dictionary? Did Henry Fowler ever pop into his local "perogy palace" (an unlikely find in the Channel Islands!) to do field research for Modern English Usage?

Having seen The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1,728 pages, $39.95 cloth) through to completion, I wouldn't be surprised if these illustrious lexicographers did precisely that-even if the fact has not been recorded in the annals of lexicography, any more than "the Canadian Tire guy" and "the grain elevator agent out at Rosser, Manitoba" get credit among the list of consultants appearing at the front of a dictionary.

Lexicographers resort to all sorts of research methods, from the most sophisticated to the simplest, in their attempt to describe the language and all its facets. Since Samuel Johnson's time, the tried and true method of serious lexicography is to establish a reading program that is as all-embracing as possible. In The Canadian Oxford Dictionary's case, this meant reading an eclectic selection of Canadian texts, a total of about 8,000 sources: everything from the novels of Robertson Davies to magazines about logging and Inuit art and fish farming, to books on figure skating and hockey. You can imagine the odd looks that must come your way from other ballet patrons when you're seen at the intermission of Swan Lake reading Eric Lindros's autobiography-not only reading it, but actually highlighting the juicy hockey vocabulary!

Of course most people assume that when lexicographers say we have to read a lot, what we read are other dictionaries. We do in fact consult them, but often the information they contain is unreliable or out of date. A case in point is the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, which was published in 1967. We systematically examined every entry in this dictionary, but it was often hard to determine whether a word was still current in the 1990s though we hadn't heard of it, or whether it had never survived the sixties. An example was "babiche", a kind of rawhide used in snowshoes, among other things. Books and magazines yielded no evidence for the word, and neither did the CD-ROMs of Canadian newspapers. We decided to bite the bullet and pay for an online database search of Southam newspapers dating back to the seventies and, sure enough, we found evidence of "babiche" and put it in the dictionary. Imagine my dismay when shortly after that, I was in the sporting goods section of my local Canadian Tire store and saw a snowshoe with the label, "Pure babiche"! We made sure to add the Canadian Tire catalogue to our reading program.

But even a vast reading program leaves some questions unanswered, sending the lexicographers scurrying for more information wherever they are most likely to find it. Hence the trip to the ladies' lingerie section (I offered to do this for the lexicographer responsible for that stretch of the alphabet when he started to show signs of acute embarrassment at my suggestion that he head to Eaton's and start reading brassiere packages to see whether the word was still spelled with an accent or not). As it happens, we found out that all of these packages now use only the word "bra".

By some cruel quirk of fate, this same lexicographer ended up with all our underwear words, so it fell to him to inquire of our e-mail survey group (a very convenient research tool not, alas, available to Samuel Johnson) which word or words they used to designate their undies: "gitch", "ginch", "gotch", "gotchies" or "gaunch". The results confirmed what the quotations gleaned from our reading of novels from every region of Canada had suggested: there is a mysterious line falling across the country somewhere about Lloydminster, west of which people say "gaunch" and "ginch", and east of which people say "gotch", "gotchies" or "gitch". Our survey group also proved invaluable when we were researching the exclamation, "Holy jumpin'!", for which we had no written evidence. Everyone agreed that they not only knew the expression, but also used it. Subsequently, we did find a reference for it in a Canadian short story.

Indeed, we often wondered how anyone ever wrote a dictionary before e-mail. In addition to our Canadian survey group, respondents in the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand answered a constant barrage of questions. If "beer parlour" is a Canadian word, we asked our American friends, why was Stephen King using it in novels? "Ah," they said, "well you know he lives in Maine, he's probably popping across the border for a quick brewski and has been corrupted by you Canadians." For a while, we thought we had found a uniquely Canadian usage of the F-word but our helpful informants disabused us of that notion (not, of course, that they would ever use it, you understand, but they know people who know people who have heard it used in movies). They were also entertained by our question as to whether the word "squared" is used there to mean "hit in the groin". It turns out it isn't, and that in fact-curiously-it seems to be limited to Toronto. "Road apples" were the topic of hot debate one October morning, as we determined that while Americans do use the term to mean horse droppings, only Canadians use it to mean frozen horse droppings used as hockey pucks!

We could almost hear the collective gagging from our British colleagues when we asked if they were familiar with the "Bloody Caesar": "A mixture of clam-and-tomato juice and vodka," we breezily informed them. But then any nation that includes amongst its culinary accomplishments lamb's fry (Brit. lamb's testicles or other offal as food) should not try to judge another country's food and drink. Our field research, what with "Nanaimo bars" and "butter tarts" and such, was much tastier. Mind you, one of the Canadian cookbooks in our library does have a recipe for "Scrambled Caribou Brains on Toast". We decided to forgo the field research on that one, but one item of food we could not ignore was garlic sausage. Because of the huge influx of Eastern European immigrants to Canada in the nineteenth century, we are left with not one but three possible names: the Polish kielbasa, the Russian kolbasa, and the Ukrainian-well, what did the Ukrainians call it? We had evidence of the Polish and Russian forms, but none for the Ukrainian. Having grown up in Winnipeg, I knew that Ukrainians did not use either the Polish or (God forbid) the Russian word, so I sent my father off on a trek in search of the elusive sausage word. Alycia's Perogy Palace in North End Winnipeg was a bit of a disappointment since she used the Polish "kielbasa", and we were on the point of despairing when, driving in to Edmonton from visiting my brother in Cold Lake, my parents stopped for lunch at Baba's Bistro and found "kubasa" on the menu!

Many people ask if we had suggestions from the general public for our dictionary. When we first started, we inserted cards in every book shipped from Oxford University Press Canada's warehouse-100,000 in all inviting readers to send in suggestions with supporting quotations. Not a great success. We had an experience common to most dictionary projects: a phone call from a gentleman who described himself as an "inventor" and who invented words and had some to submit to us (for a fee, I suspect). When we explained that we had to have evidence of words being used before they went in our dictionary, he got most annoyed, told us we didn't know anything about writing dictionaries and what words should go in, and that he wouldn't send us his words after all because we would obviously just "steal" them without giving him credit.

We used another method for soliciting public input when we had to confront the thorny problem of what Canadians across the country called that staple of their diets-the round, sugar-coated, jam-filled doughnut. We wrote a letter to the editors of ninety-two newspapers encouraging readers to write and tell us what they called this delicacy. After the flood of replies died down, we could state with some assurance that a jelly doughnut became a "bismarck" in Alberta and Saskatchewan, then morphed into a "jambuster" in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, before it settled down to life as a "jelly doughnut" again in the east. This was actually a very helpful exercise in determining approximately where the change between one word and the other happened, but it was the sort of technique that could only be applied to unambiguous questions about common objects.

For certain categories of words, specialist consultants did the research for us. Canada's Aboriginal peoples provided us with a wealth of vocabulary never before recorded in dictionaries. The names for Aboriginal peoples with which most English-speaking Canadians are familiar, such as Ojibwa, are fading away as the names used or preferred by the peoples themselves take over. But since these had not yet appeared in dictionaries, spelling was totally unstandardized. For instance, we found thirty-two different versions of "Anishnabe". An improved awareness amongst English-speaking Canadians of Aboriginal issues and cultural realities also required that we research words such as "dream catcher", "sentencing circle", "button blanket", and "vision quest".

And finally we must not forget the innumerable people at universities, associations, and businesses who patiently and competently answered our telephone inquiries. While trying to determine exactly what "maple butter" was, we contacted the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, which we envisaged as being in some office building somewhere. The receptionist (we presumed) took note of our query then politely informed us that the president was unavailable just then since he was out in the barn with the cows, but we should call back when he came in for lunch. And indeed, he gave us enough information on the exact temperature to which the syrup needed to be heated and cooled that we felt we could take up maple syrup production as a sideline from lexicography.

Dictionary users probably conceive of lexicographers (if they think of them at all) as white-bearded, stuffy, somewhat eccentric types shut away in an ivory tower contemplating the finest works of English literature. The truth is much different: because the language describes all aspects of life, lexicographers are involved in the mundane, amusing, solemn, and quirky realities of our day-to-day existence. It is one of the things that makes dictionary-making so rewarding a task. 

Katherine Barber is the Editor-in-Chief of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which was published in June of 1998. She also has a regular spot on CBC Radio 1 in Toronto as Metro Morning's "Word Lady", where she explains fascinating word histories.


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