Often, we don’t think before we speak. When you’re in a heated argument, or a soliloquy of sorts, the words tend to flow without fully processing. As a good friend likes to say, “The world learns what I’m about to say at the same time I do.”
But those words tend to define us and few places is this as true as it in Canada. Without reservation, you can always determine if you’re speaking to a Canadian through one simple phrase: “Eh?” (You really know you’re speaking to a Canadian when the “aboots” come out.)
Canadians are not particularly amused when you eagerly point out their “eh” habit, but the word has become emblematic of the country in a way that is now mostly out of their control. In response, some have embraced it, adopting it as an element of Canadian patriotism.
Atlas Obscura dove deep on the phenomenon. As they pointed out, the word finds various usages and meaning despite it being a small two-letter word. Adding it to the end of a sentence can turn a sentence into opinion, a form of criticism, a question, or a sense of surprise. It can also be added as a narrative tic, adding “eh” to the end of phrases to maintain a listener’s interest. Sort of how Americans will add “right?” or “you know,” or, “like” in sentences that don’t really warrant them. Like, you know, right?
But “eh” is considered a more rural tag and isn’t as common within Canadian cities. “It’s considered rural, lower-class, male, less educated,” said Elaine Gold, the founder of the Canadian Language Museum and a recently retired lecturer at the University of Toronto who’s studied “eh.” Though that hasn’t stopped the country from claiming the word as part of its fabric.
“It’s really come to mean Canadian identity, especially in print,” Gold later added. “Even though urban people might not be using it so much anymore, in print it’s huge.”
“Eh” may be associated with another stereotype of Canadians: the idea that they’re polite to a fault. After all, as [University of Toronto linguist Jack] Chambers noted, “eh” is a signal of politeness and seeking accord. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that an unfailingly polite population would make good use of “eh”?
Gold disagreed, which perhaps indicates Canadians aren’t as inclusive as the stereotype might indicate. So why do Canadians say “eh”? Definitively the truth is out. But like hockey and snow and politeness, saying “eh” just might be part of being Canadian.
The most essential daily news, entertainment, pop culture, and culture coverage. Want more? Check out “How @Wendys Twitter Accidentally Became A Troll And Played Itself,” “Kim Kardashian Returns To Social Media And ‘Reality’ ” and “10 Surprising Fitness Hacks For Your New Year Routine”