Aug. 21 1996 3:30 AM

Eh?

The Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English.

A reasonable person might question the need for a Canadian English dictionary. Having spent a good portion of my life in "Anglo" Canada, I've never felt compelled to consult a dictionary. The natives are quite friendly, and well-versed in our common mother tongue. They prattle on about their superior system of health care, how their TV shows don't glorify violence, and how they invented the telephone. Every word is completely comprehensible.

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But Oxford is gung-ho about its forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English. With an investment of 2 million Canadian dollars (now there's a word with a different meaning above the 48th parallel) and five years of lexicographical scrivening, the OUP plans to finish the dictionary project by 1998. When asked for sales projections, editor in chief Katherine Barber cheerily notes that there are 30 million Canadian citizens. "I want every one to have one," she says.

Blithely unconcerned about the fact that 6 million of those citizens are French-speaking, Barber's team plows ahead. To cull the 140,000 entries, her staff of four researchers is plowing through the language the same way Sir James Murray did to compile The Oxford English Dictionary 100 years ago, although this time with the help of computers. Barber and company are surveying 2 million words' worth of citations, garnered from 800 different sources (magazines, newspapers, etc.). In addition, they are reviewing 12 million words scanned from full texts (books, CD-ROMs), backstopped by the OED's formidable, 20-million-word data bank. We're talking one heck of lot of Canadian English here!

While working on this article, I undertook my own modest research project in Canadian English. I read the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's, and some short stories by Alice Munro. I read The Telling of Lies, one of many superb novels by Toronto's Timothy Findley. I even suffered through 90 minutes of sound blast at a concert by Alanis Morrisette, Canada's pied piper to troubled teens.

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Maclean's was a fount of information. I learned that the Canadian consul general in my hometown of Boston has been implicated in a terrible mine disaster; that a Canadian rock group called "The Farmer's Daughters" are hot, hot, hot; and that the notorious "V-chip" is made in Canada. But the magazine yielded up only two Canadianisms, broadly defined: "Canadarm," the gangly mechanical elbow that grabs satellites out of the space shuttle's cargo bay and tosses them into the cosmos. And "bannock," an unleavened bread baked by Canadian Indians, known to their countrymen as "First Peoples." I thought I caught Munro in a Canadianism--"dormitory suburb"--but Barber says it's a British expression.

In Findley's book, told by an American, the narrator makes sport of the word "Tory": "I believe in Canada, they call these deserters 'Loyalists'--Tories who rule by right of natural selection." In the course of conversation, Barber had mentioned "Tory" as an example of a word that has three different possibilities. For the English, it means a Conservative politician. For us Americans, it designates a turncoat. And for the Canadians, it doesn't exist. "We don't use that word ourselves," she says.

So what words do they use? Barber expects that only about 2,000 or 3,000 words in her dictionary will be exclusively Canadian. Like "hydro." Even though Canadians cheerfully use nuclear power and don't whine about it, they talk of paying the "hydro" (electricity) bill. What professional dishwashers call "the pig," and many of us call the kitchen "Disposall," Canadians call the "Garburator," a colorful trade name.

Most "purely" Canadian words are borrowings from the Indians, or from the French ("Second Peoples"?). The word reverberating in every sled-dog's ear--"Mush!"--garbles the French imperative "Marche!" or "Get going!" "Tuque," from the French "toqué" for woolen cap, is common parlance. "Hooch," which my son assured me was a transcription of the alcohol molecule (C2H5OH), actually derives from "a Tlingit word, roughly 'Hutsnuwu,' meaning 'grizzly-bear fort,' " Barber told me. "It got borrowed into English as 'Hoochinoo,' to designate an Indian people living on Admiralty Island, Alaska, who are reputed to produce strong drink." When I said that my son's version came from a policeman addressing a sixth-grade drug- and alcohol-awareness seminar, Barber shot back: "It sounds as though your son has had an encounter with the dreaded FOLK ETYMOLOGY, which lurks everywhere and must be rooted out!" Other examples: "wop," which is not an acronym for "without papers," and "fuck," which does not mean "for unlawful carnal knowledge."

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A >lthough we share a continent, Canadians have found different names for our flora and fauna: "hackmatack" for "tamarack" (a larch tree); "whisky-jack" for the bird we call the Canada jay, and "venison bird"--well, not even Barber knows what that is.

Different institutions beget different vocabularies. "Mounties" are as Canadian as winter vacations in Cuba. "Separate" schools are what we call parochial schools, except they're publicly funded in Canada. A "warden" is ... well, Barber assures me it's a Canadianism, although she doesn't know what it means: "We haven't got to 'W' yet."

Slang is a touchy issue in Canada. When The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang appeared in 1992, none of the derivations was attributed to Canada. A newspaper columnist suggested the word "scuzz" might be Canadian, because Oxford had quoted a usage from Margaret Atwood. But that was pretty much it. The Oxford Dictionary will redress this grievance. Words like "bargoon" for bargain, and "bird course" for what we call "gut" courses in college, have been duly noted. "Have had the biscuit" means "to be done for," and is not to be confused with the British expression "to take the biscuit," which means "to take the cake." A "forty pounder" is a 40-ounce bottle of liquor, much in evidence on sultry Saturday nights in Saskatoon. Barber has become an expert on underwear argot: "gaunch," "gotch," "gitch," "ginch," etc.

I give in. Any language with four words for underwear certainly deserves its own dictionary.

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe. You can e-mail him at alexbeam@aol.com.

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