AS CANADA HAS now reached the august age of 151, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect on a quintessential Canadianism.
In 1959, when Canada was but a mere whippersnapper of 92, Harold Allen in his article Canadian-American Speech Differences Along the Middle Border, which appeared in the Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association, wrote: “Eh? is so exclusively a Canadian feature that immigration officials use it as an identifying clue.” While not as pervasive nowadays, some Americans take pleasure in pointing to our proclivity for using the term.
Perhaps you’ve seen the Molson commercial entitled The Office Fight in the I Am Canadian series where an American gets his “bell rung” after mocking a Canadian’s supposed ubiquitous usage of eh?
Granted the supposed Canadian addiction to the word eh? is a stereotype, it is a word that Canadians are famous (or perhaps infamous) for. While its use is not unique to Canadian English, Canadians appear to use it more widely and more often than other speakers of English.
In the early 1980s, eh? was used in a satirical sense on the comedy program SCTV. In a segment entitled Great White North, the beer-chugging brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie who peppered virtually every sentence with at least two ehs?
More recently, in May 2017, I read an article entitled Origins of eh? How 2 little letters came to define Canadians by CBC’s Paul Karchut in which he quotes Derek Denis, a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Victoria’s linguistic department, who said that “the SCTV sketches changed how Canadians and people outside of Canada viewed the word (eh).”
It is my recollection, however, that Americans were mocking our use of the word for a long time before that. I attended a summer camp in New York State as a 13-year-old in 1961 in which I was often derided by my American bunkmates for my supposed repeated use of the word eh?
When I was teased by Americans for my oft-used ehs? I would point out to them that it was merely an equivalent to their use of the equally inelegant huh? And, whereas a Canadian might say “So you got a new car, eh?, an American would utter “So you got a new car, huh?” In both cases, one is using the add-on to confirm a fact. Truth be told, Canadians will use eh? to confirm whether the person you’re talking to has really absorbed what you’re telling them. So a Canadian might say “Well, I got a new car, eh?” whereas an American is unlikely to say “Well I got a new car, huh?” The use of eh? for the Canadian in this instance is an attempt for confirmation from the person you’re addressing that they have bothered to recognize what you’re asserting.
Actually, eh? predates the birth of our nation by almost half a century. Geoffrey Chaucer used the Middle English ey? in The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. In the UK there are two main constructions of the word, as a request for repetition and as a tag. Here are some literary examples from British and Irish writers:
— “Wasn’t it lucky? Eh! (Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer, 1773)
— “And who is to look after the horses, eh?” (Emily Bronté, Wuthering
— “So you think he might be hard on me, eh?” (Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1852)
— “Breakfast out here, eh?” (George Bernard Shaw, Arms and the Man, 1894)
And had I been an erudite 13-year-old in 1961, I could have pointed out how even American writers stooped to use eh?
— “Didn’t come, eh?” (Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926)
— “So this is Brooklyn, eh?” (Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, 1949)
— “Not like some people we know, eh?” (J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey, 1961)
This being said, we must admit that eh? is rather prolific in Canada. In fact, Kalin Wright in Eh is Canadian Eh? lists 10 functions of eh? in Canadian English:
1) Statement of opinion: Nice day, eh?
2) Statement of fact: It goes here, eh?
3) Command: Open the window, eh?
4) Exclamation: What a game, eh?
5) Question: What are you trying
to do, eh?
6) ‘Pardon me’ substitute: Eh?
What did you say?
7) In a fixed expression: Thanks, eh?
8) Insult: You’re a real snob, eh?
9) Accusation: You took the last
10) Telling a story: The guy’s on the 27th floor, then he gets on the ledge, eh?
By all accounts, however, in the last decade there has been a marked decline in the use of eh? by Canadian kids who are more likely to employ right?, or the inelegant American huh? as a tag-on to their speech. This tendency is most common in large Canadian cities, as young people regard the use of eh? as non-cool and rural. After all, what self-respecting young person wants to sound like their nerdy parents or country cousins?
But that’s a crying shame, eh?
Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.