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Wordsleuth (2004, vol. 37, 1): LET’S PARTY!

Katherine Barber
(Terminology Update, Volume 37, Number 1, 2004, page 32)

Are Canadians party animals? We certainly have our fair share of party-related words, as we discovered when compiling The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Indeed there is quite a lot of regional variation within Canada in the names of various festive celebrations.

Weddings, of course, top the list when it comes to big bashes, and there are many Canadian social events associated with them. Anyone who has lived in Manitoba is familiar with the "social," a public dance held in honour of a couple about to be married, with proceeds from sales of tickets and liquor given to the couple to help them start out on their new life. This phenomenon is known in rural Ontario as a "buck and doe" or a "stag and doe." A fixture of most of the socials and wedding receptions I attended in my youth in Manitoba was a Ukrainian dance called the "butterfly," in which trios of dancers alternate between promenading slowly around the dance floor and whirling each other around in circles. And no Ukrainian wedding (or indeed most weddings in Manitoba) would be complete without "holubtsi" on the menu. What other Canadians call "cabbage rolls" are such a fixture at big social events in Manitoba that even someone with as Anglo a name as "Barber" is likely to call them by their Ukrainian name. Another Prairie wedding tradition is the "presentation," meaning the custom of giving money as a wedding gift. If your wedding invitation says "presentation only," don’t come bearing a Corning Ware casserole!

Wedding showers, of course, are found throughout North America, but only in the Prairies would you likely be offered "dainties" at one. In Western Canada, the word "dainties" is used collectively to designate an assortment of small cakes, squares and tarts served at social gatherings. "Dainties" may include what westerners call (rather mysteriously) "matrimonial cake," better known in the rest of the country as "date squares." Do dates lead to matrimony? Who knows?

Now, when one moves away from Western Canada, as I did, this regional variation can cause some confusion. Newly arrived in Ontario, I announced one day to a friend that I was planning to take some dainties to a shower. Only his look of total bewilderment alerted me to the fact that he thought I was planning to take some frilly ladies’ underwear into the bathroom!

Graduations are another big milestone marked by parties, and the use of the word "grad" to mean a dinner dance celebrating graduation is unique to Canada. It was a surprise to me, when I moved to southern Ontario, to hear people use the word "prom," which I had always thought was uniquely American.

Some of the rowdier socials might qualify for the name "whoop-up," which seems to be more common in Alberta than elsewhere in Canada. This is not surprising, considering that the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, a fort of the "whisky traders" (Americans who illegally sold rotgut to the Aboriginal peoples north of the 49th parallel in the 1870s), was located in what is now southern Alberta. At a Canadian whoop-up you just might find yourself drinking "caribou," a Quebec concoction of red wine and whisky blanc (pure alcohol), or even "moose milk," a mixture of milk, rum and other ingredients.

Another kind of wingding that tends to get rowdy is the "bush party" or "field party," at which a group of (usually young) people stand around in a woodlot or field and consume large amounts of beer.

Even though they may not use the word, Maritimers have their own kind of whoop-ups. A "kitchen party" or "kitchen racket" is an informal entertainment held in a person’s home, at which participants play music, sing, dance or tell stories. A "soiree" in Newfoundland is a large party with singing, dancing and eating. Another Newfoundland social event is the "screech-in," a jocular ceremony where "come-from-aways" (non-Newfoundlanders) are initiated to honorary Newfoundland citizenship by being made to drink screech (the potent Newfoundland rum), dip their toe in the cold ocean and kiss a cod.

So what kind of a party will your next bash be? A whoop-up? I certainly hope it won’t be a bush party! Whatever kind it is, I hope you have plenty of champagne and a heaping plate of dainties all to yourself!