Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

What we call ourselves

Barbara McClintock, C.Tr.
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


Political correctness

Changes are inevitable in a living, vibrant language. Over time, words may develop different connotations that should be noted. Although acceptable in French, Oriental is now considered offensive in English when used in reference to a person. It is better to say Asian unless you are talking about a rug or a vase.

Hispanic is a term invented by the U.S. census to describe Spanish‑speaking people living in the United States. Here again, exercise caution because some Spanish‑speaking people do not like to be referred to as "Hispanic," especially if they are Spaniards! For someone living in North America, it may be safer to say Latin American (Latino‑Américain in French) or, in case of doubt, Spanish‑speaking person. The term Latino is growing in popularity in both Spanish and English and is now widely used in the cultural field to describe actors, music, books and films.

What should English speakers living in Quebec be called? Up to now, the French term Québécois has mostly referred to French‑speaking Quebecers, while Anglo‑Quebecers have been called Anglophones in French. However, I recently encountered Anglo‑Québécois. One can easily recognize the advantage of this term!

America, Who Art Thou?

The demonym American for someone living in the United States likely comes from Americus, the Latin version of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name. In Spanish, either americano or estadounidense, derived from Estados Unidos de América, is used to translate American (the noun and adjective). In English, both U.S. English and American English refer to the language spoken by the majority of the people of the United States of America. However, for Francophones, the preferred term in publications these days is étatsunien (or états‑unien) rather than américain because, theoretically, américain can refer to all people living in the Americas. This is a widely held view among Francophones.

For the majority of Anglophones, America refers exclusively to the United States, despite the fact that North America includes Canada and Mexico, and that it is only one of the Americas. However, there is a movement afoot in Canada, perhaps under the influence of Quebec, to refer to our neighbour's citizens as U.S. citizens rather than Americans because America and American are generic terms in some contexts. It remains to be seen whether this trend will grow or not.

Canadian, Not British or American

In different English‑speaking countries and even in regions within them, particular expressions may be preferred. George Bernard Shaw wrote "England and America are two countries separated by a common language," which nicely sums up the divide between English in the U.K and English in the U.S. However, it is not often mentioned that Canadian English lies somewhere in between the two, since it retains elements of both and is not simply a variant of American English with British spellings, like centre and honour.

The closest equivalent in British English to the U.S. term lawmakers is members of Parliament. We are familiar with both expressions in Canada. As you know, the Canadian parliamentary system is based on the British system, a fact reflected in the names for our officials. We have a prime minister like the British, not a president. We have Crown attorneys (in some parts of Canada also called Crown prosecutors) rather than deputy district attorneys. The distinction is more than superficial—the chief Crown attorney in Canada is a public servant, whereas the district attorney, or DA, in the United States is an elected official. Likewise, the prime minister and the president are elected in different ways. To govern Canada, the prime minister must be the leader of the party which has the most elected members, whereas the president of the United States is elected separately from his or her party.

One can only imagine the wistful gaze northward of a certain Democrat president who is confronted by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The Canadian parliamentary system definitely offers some benefits!