Chasing the Chinook:
On the Trail of Canadian Words and Culture

275 pages,
ISBN: 0670882437

Post Your Opinion
If we had become Borealians
by Alex Bisset

Wayne Grady's Chasing the Chinook is a highly entertaining, informative collection of forty-one essays, each written around a word or words having some connection with Canada.

The essays deal with topics that range from places (Acadia and Canada), through plants and animals (Jerusalem artichokes and grizzly bears), to games (crokinole and shinny), and inventions (kerosene and Pablum). In some cases, the connection between the specific entry and Canada may not be immediately obvious and while the essays do occasionally meander, it is often in the meanderings that Grady reveals his best insights. Grady's analysis of the Grand Dérangement of the Acadians in 1755 and Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" is fascinating, and his discussion of the role played by American colonial soldiers, as opposed to British regulars, enlightening. He surveys the names suggested in 1865-7 for the new political entity created by the British North America Act, and wistfully reflects on how life in this country would have been had we become Efisgans, Borealians or Ursalians. Once in a while Grady does let his Canadian patriotism get the better of him, as, for example, when he complains that James Cameron's Titanic has the survivors taken to New York instead of Halifax. In this case, Titanic is accurate, for the survivors were taken to New York, although many of the recovered bodies went to Halifax.

In his introduction, Grady notes that he once thought of compiling a dictionary of Canadianisms, and then discovered that this had already been done. He quotes Samuel Johnson's description of a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge", and comments that while he doesn't mind being harmless, he really does not want to be a drudge. Some of Grady's essays, however, could have benefited from a little more drudgery. His "very plausible suggestions" for the etymology of the Canadian cocktail, the Bloody Caesar, linking it to the British Beyond the Fringe comedy routines of the early 1960s, seem a bit far-fetched to me, as do a few other suggested etymologies.

For example, Grady notes that the word "bluenose" was first applied to Nova Scotians by New England immigrants in the 1780s. After mentioning several possible etymologies for the word, Grady comes to his own theory, which is that the New Englanders used "blue nose" to describe someone who was conservative, and applied the term in this sense to the Nova Scotians who, not being familiar with it, took it to be complimentary. It is true that one sense of "blue nose" in New England is "conservative", but this sense is first attested only in the twentieth century, long after Nova Scotians became bluenoses. Unless Grady has discovered evidence to the contrary, it seems unlikely that the epithet came to be applied in quite this way.

Grady is right in pointing out that the words, "muskrat" and "musk", are related only through folk etymology, but falls into a similar trap with his own derivation of "tourtière" from the French word, "tourte", meaning passenger pigeon. This is not new, but is as much a folk etymology as Grady's muskrat example. The French word tourtière means the round pan used to make tourtes (round pies). While the inhabitants of New France may well have made tourtières containing passenger pigeons, they seem to have called them that because of the dish they were made in, not because of the meat that they contained (see, for example, the entry in the Dictionnaire Historique du Français Québécois). And I don't think one can argue that the only way to spell the word for the woollen hat we wear in the winter is "tuque" simply because that is how it is spelled in French. The majority of us spell the word as "toque". Both are correct Canadian English spelling variants, in the same way that both "colour" and "color" are.

The entries cover many aspects of life in Canada. Grady's discussion of the origins and role of Pablum is detailed and well-researched. The essay on crokinole-with its description of children playing the game in one room of a two-room school on a wintry Friday night, while their parents played euchre in the other-brought to mind the many games my brother and I played over the years. Grady is right: crokinole is a difficult game to describe to someone who has never seen a crokinole board, but he does an admirable job. The article on the Jerusalem artichoke, which Grady says is sometimes called the Canada potato, is fascinating, taking us from the Kingston Farmers' Market and Samuel du Champlain to eighteenth-century Europe and back to Grady's kitchen. There is something here for everyone.

Wayne Grady is a wide-ranging, eclectic reader, and the fruits of this reading are obvious in the book. The historian in me, however, would have liked some form of documentation, such as footnotes or even a bibliography. An index might also have been helpful. But Grady provides a great deal of food for thought in Chasing the Chinook. His personal encounters with Canadian English make for interesting reading, and help to remind us that we have a language and culture that are worth writing about. 

Alex Bisset is the Senior Lexicographer for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.


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