Daily Archives: April 28, 2010


A fellow member of the Editors’ Association of Canada recently posted a link to the New York Times “After Deadline” blog on usages that should have been corrected. The January 12 post referred to a news headline from December 31: “Good Players, Eh? / New Met spurs discussion on best Canadians.” The blogging editor’s comment: “This use of ‘eh’ as an all-purpose Canadian reference is both clichéd and condescending. Let’s stop.”

Condescending? What’s up with that, eh? Next they’re going to say that Canadians don’t like being called Canucks or that Canadians are Americans too or something. I mean, yeah, when I was in the US, it got a bit annoying whenever I would say eh and my friends would exclaim, “He said ‘eh’!” But, still, I wear that eh like a badge of pride! It’s Canadian, eh? (Or, as that famous book by Mark M. Orkin puts it, Canajan, Eh?)

I mean, think about the quintessential Canadian humour: SCTV‘s Bob and Doug Mackenzie, with their archetypal “Take off, eh!” For that matter, think about how often Canadian newspapers use eh to emphasize Canadianness. (How often? Go to a Canadian newspaper’s website and do a search on eh. Here are some recent examples from The Globe and Mail: “How Canadian was that, eh?”; “Canada 150, eh”; “A Canadian eh-book reader”; “Welcome to the Walk of Fame, eh?”; “What’s the score, eh?”; “More than bacon, eh?”; and many, many more…)

Why is eh so quintessentially Canadian? Probably for the same reason that sorry is the other quintessentially Canadian word (you know, what you say when someone bumps into you or gets in your way): we just don’t think it proper to be so cocksure of ourselves and disregarding of others (translation: we’re passive-aggressive). After all, eh started its life (by the 18th century in England) as specifically an interrogative, which is still its only current definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: asking for repetition, or inviting assent. It is as the invitation of assent that it has taken root in Canada. We’re not a nation hard of hearing; we’re just always wanting to show we’re listening. We seek the assurance of the other.

It’s like a verbal reach-out-and-touch. It’s actually functionally similar to uptalk (that way some people – especially young adult females – talk as though nearly every sentence is a question, which is really just to keep drawing on the interlocutor’s assent), but of course it’s much less annoying, partly because we don’t use it that much. As the American Heritage Dictionary says, it’s “Chiefly Canadian Used to ascertain or reinforce a listener’s interest or agreement.” Or, as Marion Johnson (“Canadian Eh,” Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 21 (1976): 153-60) puts it,

The general conversational function, of eh, therefore, is to question the situational assumptions associated with different speech acts, thereby showing that these assumptions are held in a weak rather than a strong form. In this way, a speaker can avoid an attitude of officiousness and at the same time avoid unfriendly formality. This interpretation of eh fits well with Canadians’ general conception of themselves as a rather cautious, rather retiring, but basically good-hearted nation. We are not afraid to form and express our own point of view, we just don’t like to force it too much on other people.

And there are so many ways we use it, eh! How do we use it? Let me count the ehs. Actually, I don’t need to; Elaine Gold has done so already (see her paper “Canadian eh?: A survey of contemporary use“). Here are her ten usages, with her examples:

1. Statements of opinion Nice day, eh?
2. Statements of fact It goes over here, eh?
3. Commands Open the window, eh?
Think about it, eh?
4. Exclamations What a game, eh?
5. Questions What are they trying to do, eh?
6. To mean ‘pardon’ Eh? What did you say?
7. In fixed expressions Thanks, eh?
I know, eh?
8. Insults You’re a real snob, eh?
9. Accusations You took the last piece, eh?
10. Telling a story This guy is up on the 27th floor, eh? then he gets
out on the ledge, eh . . .

The most commonly used types, according to a survey she did, were I know, eh; Thanks, eh; What a game, eh; and Nice day, eh. The narrative style, in the last kind, was generally seen as a mark of a less educated user.

But the general use of eh is certainly not the mark of an uneducated user. I think we can all accept that members of the Editors’ Association of Canada are not insufficiently educated, and I’ve had no difficulty finding instances of eh in emails to the EAC’s listserv. For example, “Jelly bean houses, eh? Very cool.”; “Okay, I stand corrected. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, eh?”; “Well, it’s all relative, eh?”; “Let’s hope there are no more, eh?”; “Pretty rough treatment for dissenting senators, eh?”; “Kind of dense, eh?”; “I guess that’s not the correct way to go about it, eh?”; “Yes, I know that’s no excuse, but … everyone needs editors, eh?”; and “how ’bout them verbs, eh!”

As the last example shows (in case there was any doubt), eh is colloquial. In fact, it’s the acme of colloquial: it clearly implies, even demands, colloquy (which is from Latin for “speaking together”). But it is, at least, our word – it may have come from elsewhere, it may be used elsewhere, but no one else uses it as a badge of identity, eh? Consider this quote: “Canadians will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Canuck,’ but many will then go on to either disclaim usage or to make disparaging comments about others’ usage of it.”

Wait, does that sound not quite right? Well, that’s because it isn’t quite right. The quote, from an article by Miriam Meyerhoff in Language in Society volume 23 (page 367), actually begins “New Zealanders will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Kiwi,’ but…”

Uh-oh. Not only are they claiming it as theirs, they’re even being more self-effacing about it than we are (some Kiwis even think it vulgar, apparently). What’s up with that, eh?


Imagine the scene in a black-and-white B movie: James Cagney is playing a gangster, again. He’s hiding out in a step pyramid. He thinks he’ll never be found. But his trusted lieutenant Ziggy, a round little bulb-nosed schlimazel, has led his arch-nemesis right to him. Cagney looks up at the door of his secret chamber deep inside the Babylonian building and sees Ziggy leading in a group of men with Tommy guns and a mysterious trench-coated feminine figure, and he exclaims, “Oh, Zig, you rat!” But how was Ziggy seduced to betrayal?

Well, OK, no. Ziggurat doesn’t really have anything to do with gangster movies. Nor, for that matter, with Ziggy, whether we be talking about Ziggy the cartoon character created by Tom Wilson, or Ziggy Stardust as played by David Bowie, or some other person whose birth certificate probably reads something like Sigmund. (There was a recent contretemps involving Ziggy and a rat, however; the rat was from Pearls Before Swine and it was protesting Ziggy’s lack of pants. See comics.com/pearls_before_swine/2009-12-13/. See also www.gocomics.com/ziggy/2009/12/17/.)

It also doesn’t have anything etymologically to do with zig-zag, at least as far as anyone knows – zig-zag may have referred early on to battlements, but it comes from a Germanic word, whereas ziggurat comes from Mesopotamian ziqquratu, from the verb zaqaru, “be high” (and we don’t mean be high on the stuff you roll with Zig-Zag papers).

But the shape of z plays nicely into the zigs and zags of the stepped sides of ziggurats as well as of any crooked jaggers one might call zig-zaggers. The gg, on the other hand, can give a more earthy feeling, as from digger, or a bluntness, as with mugger, or even silliness, as with giggle. The gur could be from figure but just might also call in gurgle or gurn – or augury, perhaps as performed at the peak of a ziggurat. At the end, though, it smacks sharply with rat, like the zap of a lightning bolt, or like the hapless rodent the bolt has just frazzled.

And just think how much more wicked – and foreign-looking – it would be if we spelled it ziqqurat. It would also sound like a crack of lightning, or a lock breaking… or like Marlene Dietrich requesting a cigarette as she holds her gun steadily pointed at Cagney… and the little bulbous guy, hand shaking, flicks his Zippo and lights her one.