Words from the West

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 2, Number 4, 2005, page 32)

To honour the centennial of the entry of Alberta and Saskatchewan into Confederation, let us look at the origins of some words that are used particularly in Western Canada.


This word (pronounced COOLEE and designating a deep ravine) comes from the French word coulée, meaning a flow of water, ultimately coming from the Latin colare, meaning "filter" (the word that has also given us "percolator"). Coulée is used in French Canada to mean a stream or a gully through which a stream flows. It appears that this use migrated to the West with French-speaking trappers around 1800. It crops up in many areas of French settlement, for instance Louisiana.


Western Canadians are often quite surprised to discover that a ubiquitous feature of the prairie landscape, the slough, which for them rhymes with WHO, is pronounced by most other English speakers to rhyme with HOW. The word can be traced back to Old English times; our first evidence of it is from the Venerable Bede’s History of the Anglo-Saxon Peoples, which dates from before 900 A.D. It seems that throughout the Middle Ages there were various pronunciations of the word. SLEW may have been a more northern or Scottish pronunciation; for instance, the analogous word plough was pronounced PLOO in Scottish English. We also have evidence of D. H. Lawrence, who was from Nottinghamshire, a northern county of England, using the word slue to mean a puddle of water. It would make sense if a Scottish pronunciation became prevalent in the Prairies, since the Scottish Selkirk settlers were the first English-speaking permanent residents of the West.


This comes from a Cree word misaskwatomin, used to designate the plant called a Juneberry or shadbush elsewhere, the Cree word being interpreted as "fruit of the tree of many branches." When the word was originally borrowed, around 1800, it was closer to the Cree word misaskitomina; then for a while in the mid-19th century it was sasketome or saskatum before settling down as saskatoon about 1880.


A major arterial road in Calgary is called the Shaganappi Trail. Perhaps Calgarians would rename it if they knew the connotations of the word. This comes from one of the Algonquian languages. In Swampy Cree, pishagan means "leather" and a-piy means "string" or "cord." So the original sense of shaganappi is a thong of rawhide, and this was borrowed into English as early as 1743. Obviously this was a staple of life in the Prairies, since it was adaptable to a number of uses, sort of like binder twine; in fact, we have one 1873 quotation saying, "Shaganappi, in this part of the world, does all that leather, cloth, rope, nails, glue, straps, cord, tape . . . are used for elsewhere." Obviously the duct tape of the 1870s! Because many repairs made with shaganappi (like repairs made with binder twine or duct tape) were of an improvised, jury-rigged nature, the word also came to mean "hastily done, of inferior quality." It came to be applied to horses, especially run-down nags, either because of the use of shaganappi in harnesses or as an extension of the "inferior" sense.


Skiff, meaning a light flurry or dusting of snow, is quite common on the Prairies but also found in other areas of Scottish settlement such as the Maritimes. It is a Scottish word, unrelated to the type of boat called a "skiff." The noun was derived from the verb skiff, meaning "to move lightly and quickly" (presumably because a light dusting of snow can be picked up and moved around by the wind). This in turn came from a word, skift, which was a variant of shift. In the Middle Ages, there was a divide between the English spoken by the people in Scotland and the north of England, which was heavily influenced by the Vikings, and the people in the south, whose Anglo-Saxon had much less Scandinavian influence. The Vikings could say "sk" at the beginning of a word, but the Anglo-Saxons could only say "sh," and this led to pairs of words meaning the same thing in modern English, like scream (from Norse) and shriek (from Anglo-Saxon). This is why there was a Scottish variant skif for the southern English shift.

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