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?
||Open the window, eh?
Think about it, eh?
||What a game, eh?
||What are they trying to do, eh?
|6. To mean ‘pardon’
||Eh? What did you say?
|7. In fixed expressions
I know, eh?
||You’re a real snob, eh?
||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?