American and Canadian English 101

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Fook Hin Pawnshop - Language is Cultural I Guess!

I speak English. I mean, I’m pretty sure I do. Yet I had a hard time understanding Australians, and I wasn’t the only one. Feng was sometimes as clueless as I was. We quickly figured out some basic vocabulary, such as “brekkie” for “breakfast”, “barbie” for “barbecue”, “capsicum” for “bell pepper” etc. But how was I supposed to know that “goon” was the cheap box wine backpackers favoured, or that an “esky” was a “cooler”?

Language is highly cultural. Grammar and spelling can be taught at school but some vocabulary can only be learned in the street or even—gasp!—watching T.V.

In my first few years in Canada, immersed in the culture, I learned a lot of words and expressions I wouldn’t have found in grammar books. And I’m sure foreigners were as puzzled with our “toonies” as I was in Australia with the local lingo. So here are a few North American expressions that may confuse newcomers.

Money vocabulary — I feel sorry for newcomers to Canada: money matters can be confusing here! First, coins have a nickname: toonie ($2), loonie ($1), quarter (25¢), dime (10¢), nickel (5¢), penny (1¢). Then, after you open a bank account, you will notice that a mysterious thing called “INTERAC” is available pretty much everywhere. This is Canada’s national debit card service for purchasing of goods and services. You simply need to have a debit card and a PIN code to use it. Credit cards have their own lingo to, from “grace period” (the period during which the credit may be repaid without penalty) to “credit bureaus” (company that collects and sells information about how people manage their debts). And don’t forget to check your “credit score” regularly, that is the complete information about how you pay bills and loans, how much credit you have, what your debts are, and other info that help lenders decide whether you are a good or bad credit risk.

Legal acronyms and expressions — I love mystery novels and I had to figure out a lot of vocabulary at first. Thanks to a lot of popular legal television series, such as Law & Order, most people are familiar with terms such as “DUI” (Driving Under the Influence), “John/ Jane Doe” (a placeholder name when the identity of the victim is unknown), “Miranda warning” (a warning that is required to be given by police in the U.S to criminal suspects before they are interrogated to inform them about their constitutional rights) and D.A (District Attorney, who represents the government in the prosecution of criminal offenses).

The Numbers — First, you should know that numbers are often pronounced as pairs of two-digit numbers. For instance, the bus 176 is spelled “one seventy-six”, not “one hundred seventy-six”, or the house 1010 would be “one-oh-ten”. People say “oh” instead of “zero” when spelling numbers. But note that in sport scores, people say “the team won one to nothing” instead of “one to zero”. You will also often hear people referring to “something 101” (one-oh-one), which indicates basic knowledge, since a course 101 is often the introduction on a given subject. For instance, “blogging 101” would be the basics of blogging.

Food — North Americans love to use French loanwords when it comes to restaurant terminology. Problem is, these words are pseudo-French words which have been adapted in such a way that French wouldn’t understand them. For instance, in North America, a “maître d’” is the person in charge of assigning customers to tables. In proper French, it would be a “maître d’hôtel”.  For some reason, an “entrée” is the main course on this side of the Atlantic, while in France the word means “appetizer”. And a dessert “à la mode” is served with an accompanying scoop of ice cream. In French, “à la mode” simply means “fashionable”! North American also love to highlight the supposed origin of food, such as French fries, Canadian bacon and Belgium waffles. Really, these are just “normal” fries, bacon and waffles.

Names and Nicknames — North Americans enjoy nicknames and it took me a while to figure out that “William” was “Bill”, “Richard” was “Dick” and “Peggy” was “Margaret”. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me! North Americans have a great love for informality and people will often introduce themselves by their nicknames. Canadian cities also have their nicknames: “Edmonton” is also known as the “Oil Country”, “Winnipeg” is “Winterpeg”, “Ottawa” is “Bytown” and the province of Québec is “La Belle Province”.


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. Oh yes, it is really interesting to see the variations even within a single language. Your capsicum example reminded me of how I needed to check the Internet for meanings when I was using an English (?) cookbook, because there were stuff there that I haven’t heard about, and yet when I found out what they were, they were things I already knew about, but with different names. These were capsicum (bell peppers), aubergines (eggplants), courgettes (zucchini), among others.

  2. This is a fun post. I have always been fascinated by the idioms found in different flavors of English. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who first said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I have been to the UK several times and catch a lot of their idioms. I have never been to Australia or New Zealand and am clueless with their slanguage. You however, are a language sponge.

    Wouldn’t 110 be One Ten, rather than One Oh Ten? One Oh Ten might be
    1-0-10 or 1,010. I dunno.

  3. Hi Zhu,

    LOL LOL yeah, thank God an Aussie friend provided me with an online Aussie expressions so that I can understand him a bit lol.

    You are right: one can only learn a language for real when either visiting the country or by watching TV.
    That was my experience in France: we study French since the 7th grade until the 12th; but when I got to France I couldn’t understand a damn thing the French said on the first day; but after a week I was totally French LOL (but again, I had the basics, right?). The same happens when students of Portuguese get here, I guess…

    Interaction is important, no doubt.

    Welcome back!! 😀


  4. Slang can be a confusing and funny thing in any country. I don’t even try and keep up with American slang since it changes all the time according to pop culture, but I have learned some interesting Canadian French and Parisien French slang.

    Canadian French is particularly crazy, because I learned all these grammar rules and then slang which contradicted all the rules I just learned. English North Americans like to borrow French terms but Québécois people also love to mix English and French together, particularly those that live close to the border, like Gatineau. Or throw in a few accented English slang words throughout their speech. So it’s not all that different. We borrow from them, they borrow from us.:)

    P.S. I learned a really neat French French expression recently-“Poser un lapin”, which I think sounds better (and cuter) than to “stand someone up/fail to show up for an appointment”)

  5. Not sure if you have reaslized Singaporean speaks Singlish with our local slang….Yes Lah, No Lah, Ya Lor.., You eat already? etc. Hmmm…what an interesting post Zhu 😀

  6. @Linguist-in-Waiting – It’s funny, because English uses the French names, courgette, aubergine… that’s French. Or is it Latin? I’m lost now!

    @Max Coutinho – Oh yeah, French has so much slang! I felt the same when I first came to Canada, local French is quite different.

    @Cynthia – Oz accent is hard, especially in small towns. Reading new words was easy, I mean we quickly understood the “brekkie” = “breakfast” thing but it was hard to understand some spoken expressions.

    @Tulsa Gentleman – Looks like I got my numbers wrong! 😆 I’m NOT a number person.

    @khengsiong – à la carte actually exists in French though, this is correct. Literally it means from the menu.

    @Sidney – Filipino English? I didn’t know that one! 😆

    @Pauline – “Poser un lapin” is widely used in France (well, just the expression, French men obviously wouldn’t do that :lol:). Not sure in Québec… and have you noticed that Franco-ontariens’ vocabulary is quite different from Québec’s vocabulary?

    @shionge – I found English in Singapore was very good actually, unlike HK for instance. Yes, sure, a lot of “lah”… but most people spoke excellent English!

  7. Ahah! Nicknames often leave me perplexed as well, and here there’s is the Gaelic factor entering the equation on top of it!

    Don’t you say One-nil in sports?

  8. Canadian spelling is really interesting.
    It’s often a mixture of both British and American.
    It’s confusing enough to learn each separately, but if you mix them together it will get even worse.

    Do you know the difference between ~ed VS ~t, irregular words? Eg dreamed v dreamt; spelled v spelt; learned v learnt. ~t is the British.

    But there are some words that look completely different. Compare “kerb” and “curb”.
    As a noun (border stone between pavement and main road), the British use “kerb”.
    But as a verb (to check, control), both British and American use “curb”.
    Therefore, it’s important that you stick with one spelling version (be it British or American) first and then learn another through reading.

    “Bell pepper” is “pepper” in England. It’s confusing because it’s also the “pepper” in “salt and pepper”. Ha!

    Bus 176 would have been Bus One Seven Six.

    Did you know Teddy comes from Edward?

  9. @Nui – Should write it sometimes!

    @Em – Not really, I think this is more british English. Gaelic names in novels are always hard for me to remember as well!

    @London Caller – I think Canadians borrow a lot from US English, even though grammatically the Canadian spelling (often mirroring the BE spelling) exists.

  10. Remember Zhu,
    Canada is the nation that hoped for French cuisine, British culture and
    American Technology and ended up with British cuisine, American culture and French technology-or something like that!
    Welcome back to winterland. Just in time for the canal to thaw and then refreeze! Hope to talk to you soon.
    You should have seen us skating on the canal! Putting the natives to shame!

  11. Hmm, house number 110 would be “one-ten”, because there is no 0 before the ten. Sorry! 104 for example would be one-oh-four. And “Canadian” bacon is also called “back bacon”, and it’s not quite the same thing as regular, more like ham, without the fat marbled through it. Wow, this is eye-opening. I can’t believe how many silly little things like that I must know, which would immediately become useless if I moved to another country! Scary.

    Hey, welcome back to Canada, and thanks for the comments on Cultursation. It’s nice to have you back!

  12. In fact, in french, “à la mode” when you speak about cuisine doesn’t mean fashionable but “in the way of… somewhere, somebody” : “à la mode de Caen”, for example. It can also simply mean “embered” (not sure this word exists), for the “Boeuf à la mode” !


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