Take off ‘eh,’ the story behind Canada’s pet word

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

Travis Paterson

Black Press

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. 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 1 to 5 per cent compared to right and you know,” Denis said.

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 appended it to the end of their sentences in the 1980s, including their trademark defense, ‘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.

“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.

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 1773.

“This is consistent with the fact that ‘eh’ is not uniquely Canadian, but rather is found in Englishes around the world.”

Denis originally came across the usage of eh during his research while focusing on Canada’s homogenuity, or lack of difference in speech, in the regions from Ontario-Quebec border all the way to Victoria.

“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.”

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).

Canadians over 60 years of age are far more likely to end a sentence with ‘you know, and those below 60 are more likely to end a sentence with ‘right.’ Less than five per cent, are likely to use the word eh.

It’s surprising news, but eh fits better.

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

 

Just Posted

Fog in Victoria affects at least four airlines

Oct. 23 is the fourth day in last week fog has cancelled flights

Athlete who survived head-on collision offers GameChanger award for women

Victoria woman competed in an Ironman two years after doctors told her she wouldn’t walk

Local cold case helps ‘60 Minutes’ explain genetic genealogy

An arrest in the 1987 double-murder of two people from Victoria was one of three examples highlighted in a segment you can watch here

PHOTOS: Bear fishes for salmon in Goldstream Park

Each fall thousands of vistors head to the park to watch the annual salmon spawn

Canada Post strikes leaves small shops in the lurch as holidays approach: CFIB

Rotating strikes began in Victoria, Edmonton, Halifax and Windsor

UPDATE: Simultaneous shooting at ferry terminal “a first” for police watchdog

Suspect shot by police in Nanaimo as he was in the act of taking his own life

Around the BCHL: Chilliwack Chiefs snag spot in CJHL national rankings

Around the BCHL is a look at what’s happening in the BCHL and the junior A world.

Rural regions get priority for B.C. referendum mail-out

Ballot security measures aim to protect against voter fraud

B.C.’s natural gas supply could see 50% dip through winter due to pipeline blast

It’s been two weeks since the Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Prince George on Oct. 9, sparking a large fireball

Mega Millions, Powerball prizes come down to math, long odds

Biggest myth: The advertised $1.6 billion Mega Millions prize and $620 million Powerball prize aren’t quite real

2 Canadians advance to finals at world wrestling championships

Olympic champion Erica Wiebe just missed joining them with a loss 3-1 to three-time world champion Adeline Gray of the United States in the 76-kg event

VIDEO: Fire destroys historic small-town B.C. restaurant

Two people were injured as fire ripped through the Hedley restaurant around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday

B.C. town’s mayoral race a tie, come down to luck of the draw

Harry Gough led incumbent Cindy Fortin by one vote on election night Saturday

Most Read