When Canadians say…

Kensington Market, Toronto, September 2013

Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket, Toronto, Sep­tem­ber 2013

Do you speak Cana­dian? Know­ing basic slang words and cana­di­anisms is a good start, but learn­ing to read between the lines is also important.

Every cul­ture has expres­sions that shouldn’t be taken lit­er­ally. For instance, if a Latino tells you the bus will be there in “más o menos cinco min­u­tos”, expect to wait at least an hour. If a French per­son reports that what­ever movie is “ter­ri­ble”, it likely means that it’s awe­some, not awful. If a Chi­nese per­son says “你吃饭了吗?” (“Have you eaten yet?”), you are sup­posed to reply “yes” even if you haven’t—this is just a polite greet­ing anyway.

So, what do Cana­di­ans really mean when they say the following?

In cus­tomer ser­vice lingo, “It won’t be long!” often means “it will take a while”. Note the French-Canadian equiv­a­lent, “ça sera pas bien long”—the mean­ing is the same. Cana­di­ans are polite folks, they have been taught that the cus­tomer is king and they really want to answer your ques­tion and get back to you as soon as pos­si­ble, even though they know it won’t hap­pen. So they soften the blow with this statement.

When a Cana­dian says “pretty cold, eh?” usu­ally means “it’s –45C, I’m freez­ing my ass off but I really want to show how tough I am”. Don’t be fooled. Cana­di­ans are human beings, they feel the cold. They lose feel­ing in their fin­gers, have tears freez­ing their eye­lids shut and drip­ping noses just like you. They just won’t admit it.

This win­ter isn’t that bad, actu­ally!” If you hear that sen­tence and if you aren’t par­tic­u­larly fond of long con­ver­sa­tions about the weather, plan your escape imme­di­ately. Why? Because such obser­va­tion usu­ally calls for a lengthy story about that win­ter, years ago, the cold­est ever. Oh, you weren’t here that par­tic­u­lar win­ter? Well, you will hear all about it, and even more. Con­sider your­self warned.

At work, “I need a cof­fee” trans­lates into “I will come back with a small cof­fee and a box of ten Tim­bits. And donuts”. Because let’s face it, when you are wait­ing in line at Tim Hor­tons and when you are stuck behind the guy who has twenty dif­fer­ent cus­tom orders and can’t find his change, all you can do is stare at the pas­tries on dis­play and smell the freshly baked sug­ary goods. And by the time it’s your turn to order, you need sugar.

“I like the out­doors” doesn’t mean “I enjoy sit­ting on the patio sip­ping a glass of wine, watch­ing the sun­set”. When Cana­di­ans are into the out­doors, they are really into the out­doors. As in spend­ing their hol­i­days camp­ing in the mid­dle of nowhere, fight­ing bears and other wildlife ani­mals, car­ry­ing canoes across rivers (there is even a word for that: “portage”) and dri­ving from one huge provin­cial park to the other. Don’t laugh: some folks even head to the Artic. For their hol­i­days. In the mid­dle of the sum­mer. No kidding.

At the cash reg­is­ter, “It’s $8.75” means “don’t get your change ready, you fool! The price is plus tax! And you may want to tip on top of that too.”

“How are you today?” is a polite greet­ing that just means “Hello!”. Who­ever asked the ques­tion cer­tainly doesn’t expect a thought­ful answer and chances are, doesn’t really care about your mood, the fact that you missed the bus or that your team lost the game last night. Do not go into details—the only accept­able answer is “good, yourself?”

Any other com­mon expres­sions and sen­tences to add?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Great list Zhu! I learned quite early on that the ‘pretty cold, eh?’ phrase actu­ally meant it was so frigid a soft euro­pean should stay safely indoors! The ‘I love the out­doors’ one made me gig­gle too because we always say that and we have done a few things on your list this sum­mer :-0

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