The Writer’s Toolbox – Where Have All the Canadianisms Gone?

Happy birthday, CanOx!

If you follow this column, you probably know that CanOx is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, beloved by writers, journalists, editors, and all who work with and care about Canadian English.

What you may not know, however, is that the last edition of CanOx, published almost exactly 10 years ago, truly was its final one.

In fact, as this Globe and Mail commentary explains, Oxford has since closed down the Canadian-focussed research unit that was pivotal to Canox?and “the task of watching over the country’s linguistic quirks was reassigned to Oxford’s lexicographers in the United States and Britain.” Now academics and lexicographers are asking whether Canadian English will eventually disappear entirely, subsumed in American or British standards.

As a Canadian expat who’s written and edited for clients on both sides of the border, this makes me incredibly sad.

Is Canadian English disappearing, and why? It’s interesting to contrast this phenomenon with the state of Australian English, which has only become “recognized” (or codified) within the past four decades.

As a book editor, primarily for fiction authors, I find a striking difference in attitudes toward Canadian and Australian English. Both Canada and Australia have vibrant literary communities, cultures, and traditions. But while many Aussie writers specifically want their work edited to Australian English standards?presumably for Australian audiences?Canadians, I’ve found, often take a different route.

It’s rare that I’m approached by a Canadian writer wishing to specifically use Canadian spelling and style. In fact, I usually get the opposite: “Make this sound less Canadian so that it appeals to US audiences.”

This is somewhat understandable. As far as book sales go, the border here is much more open than internationally, where different trade agreements may make certain books unavailable overseas, and vice versa. But since when do Canadian spellings and usage rules make books inaccessible to the rest of the world’s English speakers?

Is our love-hate affair with our language wrapped in our cousinly relationship with our neighbours to the south? Or are we lingering in the shadow of the larger country, afraid to hold onto our own linguistic heritage? Perhaps we need to stop apologizing and start being proud of our “weird” spellings and our “quirky” style. It’s not quaint. It’s not cute. It’s Canadian, and that should be enough.

It should even be enough to not just preserve our unique style but to bring it greater global consciousness. That’s not impossible; this past spring the American Merriam-Webster added “poutine” to its highly influential dictionary. If Canadian English is going to slowly wear away, it would be nice to see more recognition from American lexicographers, perhaps even culminating in a dictionary that recognizes both American and Canadian usage.

Language changes, particularly as borders become more fluid. But it doesn’t have to only flow one way, eh?

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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