When you walk the streets of the GTA, you are guaranteed to hear a wide variety of Toronto slang. Our municipal dialect has driven Toronto’s reputation far in recent years, especially during the build-up to the 2019 NBA championship. Drake’s dissemination of Toronto slang underscored his role as global ambassador for the Raptors. However, the roots of our beloved slang run much deeper than Drizzy.
Toronto slang has origins in many of Toronto’s immigrant cultures. While it’s easy to simply give Drake credit for introducing Toronto slang to a global audience, we must remember the real cultural roots of where it started, right in the heart of Toronto’s vibrant, close-knit immigrant community.
An article in University of Toronto Magazine regarding U of T Professor Derek Denis’ research into Toronto slang attracted criticism on social media over the piece’s focus on Drake’s influence on the dialect rather than its roots in Toronto’s immigrant communities. This was yet another example of the erasure of the impact that Black and brown immigrant communities have on culture and language in Toronto.
Immigrant culture has played a huge role in shaping the mosaic that is Toronto. I’ve met people from all backgrounds over the years, with all of us speaking different languages, but every conversation starts the same way: “What are you saying fam?” Toronto slang has become the great equalizer for people from all walks of life, and allows us to communicate with each other in a heartfelt and meaningful way, while paying homage to those who built modern Toronto culture. The city’s embrace of Toronto slang has been incredible to see, with even the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Blue Jays squads being quizzed on their Toronto slang knowledge for their respective social media platforms. Toronto slang has even reached American podcast and TV show hosts Desus and Mero, who learned some Toronto slang in a video for Vice.
A majority of Toronto slang is derived from Somali, Arabic, and Jamaican Patois. For example, words such as “man dem,” meaning a group of men, and “ting,” a versatile and interchangeable word, come from Patois. While terms like “wallahi,” meaning I swear, have Arabic-Somali origins.
Afro-Caribbean culture is a huge part of Toronto, since a big West Indian population immigrated to the city in the late ’60s to early ’70s, planting the linguistic roots that blossomed into the slang we use today. While it’s easy to credit Drake for introducing Toronto slang to a global audience, we must remember the real cultural roots of where it started, right in the heart of Toronto’s immigrant community.
While it is great that celebrities such as Drake, and viral social media accounts like 6ixbuzz, are introducing Toronto slang to a new global audience, we must not forget where our beloved dialect was born, and give credit to the diverse cultures who birthed this vernacular as a way of creating a cultural mosaic. So, the next time you link with your man dem, be sure to pay your respect to those who walked our beautiful city before us.
Angad Deol is a first-year Life Sciences student at St. Michael’s College.