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”.