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Wordsleuth (2007, vol. 4, 3): Games Canadians Play

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 3, 2007, page 35)

Anyone for a game of burbee? We at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary have been keeping an eye out for this word since June 1993 (only a year after we started work on the dictionary), when I first saw it in my local newspaper, the Beach Metro Community News (serving southeast Toronto). It’s another name for a game called wall ball, a variety of baseball played in a schoolyard with a tennis ball. Try as we may, we cannot find evidence of this outside east-end Toronto and Scarborough. People have phoned me at the dictionary department, asked me about it at talks, and e-mailed me. But, when queried about where they are from, they always mention somewhere east of the Don River. I even eavesdropped on two guys who were talking about burbee on the subway near my house. Not in the least influenced by the fact that one of them was quite the hunk, I was tempted to ask them where they were from (dictionary field research is such a chore sometimes!), but was deterred by the thought that they would consider "Hello, I’m a lexicographer . . ." the world’s lamest opening line! If any of the readers of Language Update are familiar with this word from further afield (heck, we’d be happy if we could even get it over the Don into downtown, or east of the Rouge River into Pickering!), please let us know (dictionary.ca@oup.com), because we cannot enter it in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary if it is such a localism.

Names for games do seem to vary quite a bit geographically. For instance, the beloved childhood game of knocking on someone’s door or ringing their doorbell and running away before it is answered is known as nicky nicky nine doors in Ontario and BC but knock down ginger or knock a door ginger or knock on ginger in the Prairies. (It is also variously known as ring and run or ding dong ditch and by many other terms used also in the US.)

Speaking of children going door to door, though this time more politely, brings us to the prairie custom of shouting "Halloween apples! " (with a distinctive lilt) instead of "Trick or treat!" when approaching candy-dispensing residences.

Another prairie pastime for children is the dangerous one of clinging on to a car’s rear bumper on a snowy or icy road so as to be pulled along by the car. This is called bumper shining. In southwestern Ontario, the practice is called shagging, for reasons that are obscure but not in any way related to the British "fornication" sense of shagging. At least we hope not. But speaking of shagging does bring us to the more adult pastime of sex, and the uniquely Canadian words associated with them. Did you know that the word avails (as in "living off the avails of prostitution") to mean "proceeds or profits" is obsolete in other varieties of English?

But not only do we Canadians use it in the legal catchphrase I just mentioned, we also use it more generally, as in "Business continues to live off the avails of government largesse in the form of grants and subsidies" (National Post, 23 May 2001, p. 38). We are sure no prostitution is involved! Another legal sex-related term that has died out in other varieties of English is the common bawdy house. It has such a Shakespearean ring to it.

Gambling and card playing are other adult distractions for which we have our own words. The exactor (a bet on the first- and second-place finishers in a horse race, specifying their order of finish) and triactor (a bet on the first three finishers specifying their order) are wagers you can make only at a Canadian horse track. Quebec has its own gambling game, barbotte, similar to craps but played with three dice (and illegal, as an official of the Casino de Montréal insisted repeatedly to me, as if that meant it didn’t exist).

Saskatchewan and Cape Breton have their own card games, kaiser (based on whist) and tarabish (based on bridge) respectively. And no discussion of Canadian games would be complete without mentioning that classic Canadian summer cottage diversion, crokinole. The word comes from the French croquignole, meaning a flick or flip, describing the flick of the fingers that propels the wooden discs across the board.

In Canada, it’s all just fun and games.