“Don’t be such a suck ‘cause she gave you a tin ear at the bush party, bud.”

If that doesn’t make any sense, you should check in with Dr. Sali Tagliamonte.

Tagliamonte, a professor and chair of the Linguistics Department at U of T, is on a mission to document words with with unique meanings and origins from small Ontario towns for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

You might hear a whiner being called a ‘suck’ in northern Ontario. Folks in Beaverton might refer to ignoring someone as ‘giving them a tin ear,’ and a bush party is simply a party that is held outdoors.

So, in English: “Don’t whine because she ignored you when we were partying in the woods.”

The online OED lists 744 words as Canadian, but many of them are sourced from urban areas. More rural words tend to go undocumented, words like ‘warming-closet’ — a water heater — and ‘corn-roast’  — a gathering where roasted corn is served.

The sociolinguist and Canada Research Chair in Language Variation and Change has been documenting these unique words, phrases, and definitions for a decade. Tagliamonte’s Ontario Dialects Project is sketching how Ontarians mark their identities with colourful, individualised language.

Words tell the story of a place: words like ‘slime,’ a name for lakes that were filled with mining detritus that has turned to gelatinous muck. You won’t hear of children playing in slimes outside mining communities where the word originated as a geographic label.

From teaching tool to research project

The research started in a classroom.

One day in her undergraduate class in language variation, Tagliamonte was telling a story about her childhood in northern Ontario when she realised that her students didn’t get it. Specifically, they didn’t understand her use of the word ‘soaker’ to refer to a deep puddle or snowdrift.

This led to the realisation that Ontario has dialects. A dialect is a regional variation in spoken language, often tied to a location or social group.

More than a decade later, Tagliamonte and her crew of undergraduate students have criss-crossed Ontario in search of oral histories that might contain new words or meanings not currently found in the OED.

People talk about their lives and offer up “stories about things that happened in their youth,” giving insight into the rich lexicon of Canadiana. As Tagliamonte puts it, in those stories, “culture and history, and the social circumstances of their community come out.”

No place is too far off-the-map; towns near and far, museums, and high schools — all are visited with a recorder in hand. “We go down dusty old dirt roads,” says Tagliamonte, “we go everywhere, and we just talk to people about their lives.”

Such is the field work of sociolinguistics.

How new words get into the OED

While at a Japanese conference, Tagliamonte attended a presentation by Dr. Phillip Durkin, one of the OED’s chief editors, about Japanese words in the dictionary, like ‘sushi’ and ‘manga.’

Inspired by this, Tagliamonte approached Durkin with an offer to introduce new Canadian words into the OED, and the rest, as word historians say, is etymology.

Of the more than 600,000 words in the OED, only 744 are designated as Canadian in origin or use. Contrast this with the almost 30,000 words sourced from the continental United States, with a further 64 from Hawaii.

The OED criteria for inclusion is by use and longevity. A word’s usage must be established by independent sources, and it also must be around for at least five years — although 10 is more common for new entries. Words used by only one social group don’t qualify for inclusion.

Tagliamonte gives the example of the gaming community’s invented sense of ‘epic,’ meaning awesome or amazing, which wasn’t a valid candidate for the OED until it began to appear among non-gamers in everyday conversation.

Tagliamonte uses a three-tier classification system for the candidate words she gathers. Gold words are the best — words that have no prior occurrence in the OED. These words are Canadian through-and-through. A silver word comes next, when “you find it in the [OED], but it does not mean what it means to [Canadians].”

Last are the “indignant words,” says Tagliamonte. “These are the bronze ones. You look up a word, because you’ve found it all over Ontario… and you go the [OED] and it says that it comes from the southern United States.”

“If you’re going to label [a bronze word] as anything, you should label it a North American word.”

In this way, Tagliamonte’s project isn’t just expanding the Canadian vernacular, but including important Canadian usages of words shared with the United States.

Beyond Ontario

A similar search for new words could be conducted in other Canadian provinces. There is already evidence for the uniqueness of words in the Maritimes: words like ‘knob,’ a “hard sweet made with boiled sugar,” according to the OED.

There may also be words unique to Canadian university students. The 2007 edition of The Dictionary of American Slang notes that Canadian students in the ’90s kept an uncommon definition of the word ‘wank,’ where it meant “to have fun; party.”

What is vulgar for one social group may be innocent for another. Just be careful not to announce to any friends from the United Kingdom that you’re having a ‘wank’ on the weekend, or they might think that you’re a ‘knob.’