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Say 'sofa' all you like -- I'll always be a 'chesterfield' man


Saturday, January 5, 2002 – Page F3

One of the burdens of being the world's greatest living authority on anything, I suppose, is that people are continually interrupting you to ask if you will rule on a dispute. Can they say "gotten" instead of "got?" they ask, my particular field of erudition being Canadian English, as opposed to American.

Or how do you spell "Mum?" The answers, not to keep you in suspense, are yes, "gotten" is permissible, though it grates my old colonial ear to say so, and "Mum" is correct for what a Canadian calls his or -- of course, her -- mother; it's even all right to spell it the American way and pronounce it ours. What's wrong is to do: Mom.

All this broke out over the holidays for me after I'd attended the lovely party in Stratford I've written about here before -- the launch of Stratford's first annual book festival. During the draw for prizes, a slim, bespectacled woman with a librarian's sensitive gaze (I'm a pushover for librarians) "snuck into line" behind me, as she wrote later, and when I'd turned to greet her, I had, apparently, slipped into the most pompous mode of my self-appointed role as linguistic czar. "Tut-tut," I had tut-tutted. "You can't say 'snuck.' It's not a word."

"Not a word?" she wrote. "It has to be. I used it not only in what I was telling you, but in the book I wanted you to see." The name of my winsome assailant was Kathy Stinson, and the book she had brought along was King of the Castle,the latest in her widely praised series of works for children. After we'd exchanged greetings, I was also able to tell her that I'd met the man on whom she based the protagonist of King of the Castle. His name was Elijah Allen, a school janitor in Inuvik, NWT, whose dignity and love of language had made as much of an impact on me as they had on Kathy.

He was also a brother of the storied Abe Ookpik, whom I had come to know quite well. In 1967, Abe was given the job of replacing the "Eskimo numbers" our government had imposed on people. Their traditional nomenclature had no need for surnames, but modern administration did.

I still have a copy of the Eastern Arctic telephone directory from just after Abe Ookpik began his work. Most of the listings in even the smallest communities consist of first names, a couple of letters or digits like a postal code to place the families and four digits, like bank IDs of the 2000s, to sort out individuals. PETER E5-3170. Very handy for the bureaucracy, I'm sure, but dehumanizing for the people for whom they stood -- many of whom, by the way, can still recite their old E-numbers with the same alacrity as world war vets reeling off their regimental listings.

I began to ponder Kathy Stinson's defence of "snuck" and my own largely intuitive response to it, which is, I blush to say, that it's an ugly little word, uglier even than its better-bred cousin "sneaked," and I don't like it.

"Snuck" is not in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. The Globe and Mail style book ignores it. But Kathy found it in the Canadian Oxford. And the Nelson Canadian says it's "an Americanism first introduced in the 19th century as a non-standard regional variety of "sneaked," and it says that "many writers and editors have a lingering unease about the form, even though it is widely used."

Ordinarily, I'd be as prominent as I could be among the lingering doubters, raising my czar's banner to help to hold up the fortress. But I'm going to grant an amnesty here to Kathy Stinson, partly for being so courteous in her letter to me, partly for caring enough about the language to take up her own case and partly because her book is already in print anyway, snuck and all, and what's a czar to do?

And that's my problem with many of these disputes. I don't want to ban any words, contentious or otherwise. If I did, I'd probably like to strike from the list of words and phrases with Canadian credentials that Catherine Barber and her colleagues at Oxford of Canada have put together: "shit-disturber" (also ugly, though at least boasting an exception to our usual passivity); and perhaps "beer parlour" just because, even in memory, the smell is so rancid and one, in Timmins, Ont., was the scene of my first brush with the law.

But bring on "humidex," "crokinole" and "bloody Caesar." Bring on "moccasin" and "first nations -- it's "reserve" in Canada, by the way, as opposed to "reservation" in the United States. We rest in our "Muskoka chairs" when we sit outdoors (at least in summer) and on our steadfast "chesterfields," as opposed to "couches" or "sofas," when we move indoors.

You'll be hearing from me from there soon, if I can manage to have sneaked away, or have become, in that loveliest of Canadianisms I know, (and if it hasn't been a Canadianism before, I hereby declare it one) "storm-stayed."

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