Derek Denis leafs through the The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language that inspired him to study linguistics. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Canadian, eh? The word that defines a nation

Canadians may take ownership of the word ‘eh,’ but another Canadianism is used far more often

It’s the most defining word of the Canadian lexicon, a notable utterance that needs no explanation. Eh.

It’s easy to say. It comes mostly at the end of a sentence, or utterance. And it’s mostly a qualifier to find confirmation in a conversation. It’s used often on American television to define the Canadian stereotype. It also appears on billboards, television and internet ads on both sides of the border.

Case in point, check out KFC’s KehFC move for Canada’s 150th.

Surprisingly, however, eh doesn’t get the play we might think.

A new study by post-doctoral researcher Derek Denis at the University of Victoria (with associate professor of linguistics Alexandra D’Arcy) shows the word is used far less frequently in Canada than what he expected.

“We find all the ehs, rights and you knows, add them up and eh tends to represent about one to five per cent [compared to right and you know],” Denis said. “In terms of how frequently it’s used, the usage doesn’t match it’s reputation.”

So how did eh take off as a defining Canadianism? Bob and Doug, eh.

It’s generally accepted the word eh only became a defining piece of Canadiana when Second City TV’s Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) appended it to the end of their sentences in the 1980s, including their trademark defence, ‘Take off eh.’

It’s at that point the word’s reputation took hold as uniquely Canadian, Denis said, adding it lended to the exaggerated caricatures of Canadians, particularly the working class.

What’s interesting about eh is how Canada, despite using it very little, moved to seize it as their own.

“Canadians enjoyed [seeing eh in the media] so much, that as a nation which likes to identify as not-American, we re-appropriated the word,” Denis said.

He’s even heard stories of Canadians traveling abroad who use the word eh more than they would have normally – the verbal equivalent of wearing a flag on your backpack.

The eh word, as far as we know it, has been used in English since at least the 1770s, though it was probably used much earlier than that in spoken English, Denis said. The first attestation of ‘eh’ in Canadian literature shows up in T. C. Haliburton’s novel The Clockmaker from 1836. It first appears in the play She Stoops To Conquer by Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith in about 1773.

“This is consistent with the fact that ‘eh’ is not uniquely Canadian, but rather is found in Englishes around the world,” Denis said. “It just so happens to be a stereotype of Canadian English.”

Denis originally came across the usage of eh during his research while focusing on Canada’s homogeneity, or lack of difference in speech, in the regions from Ontario-Quebec border all the way to Victoria. The research involves listening to hundreds of ‘informal’ interviews with people from Southern Ontario and Greater Victoria. The subjects range in age, dating back to archived interviews from people born in the 19th century.

“In the Maritimes you have a great variety, and in the U.S. too, but there is little change in the way people speak from here to Ontario,” Denis said.

It’s during that research Denis discovered the other pragmatic markers (the term used for those small words that can bring confirmation to a conversation), right and you know, had a much higher usage than eh.

“Over time the term ‘right’ has surpassed ‘you know’ as a highly used pragmatic marker in Canadian speech,” Denis said.

Canadians over 60 years of age are far more likely to end a sentence with ‘you know.’ Canadians below 60 are more likely to end a sentence with ‘right.’

It’s surprising news. But there’s no denying that in many instances, eh just fits better.

Take off, right? Happy Canada Day, you know?

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The ‘eh’ word, in Derek Dennis’ copy of the The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language, fourth edition, just above Einstein, Albert.

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