Wordsleuth (2004, volume 1, 1): Of Bangbellies and Banquet Burgers: Updating the Canadian Oxford Dictionary

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 1, Number 1, 2004, page 36)

"You have such an interesting job!" people keep exclaiming to me. Well, with the second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary hot off the presses, this is an opportune moment to let you have a sneak peek at three years in the life of a lexicographer engaged in the task of updating a dictionary.

There was, for instance, the entire day spent researching and writing definitions for various Newfoundland delicacies, such as: bangbelly, a cake made with cooked rice, molasses, raisins, and salt pork; pork bun, a tea biscuit made with salt pork and served with molasses; lassy bread, a sweet yeast bread with molasses, raisins, and spices (probably served with salt pork). These are in addition to the classic Newfoundland dish we already had in the first edition, fish and brewis, which is salt cod soaked with hardtack and served with (you probably have guessed it by now) molasses and salt pork.

At about the same time, we discovered that the humble banquet burger (a hamburger garnished with bacon and cheese)—for which some of our "evidence" came from our local coffee shop—seems to be a Canadianism. One is left wondering, however, if banquet burgers in Newfoundland are perhaps garnished instead with salt pork . . . and molasses!

Then there was the exciting investigation (conducted with the help of our faithful and ever-growing coast-to-coast survey group) into Canadian names for the activity of knocking or ringing at someone’s door and running away before it is opened: nicky nicky nine doors was what most of our respondents remembered, but mysteriously, we discovered, this seems to be called knock on ginger in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It is truly amazing the things one finds out when doing lexicographical research. For instance, on my quest to discover if Ontario Scholars would still exist once OAC-level courses had been abolished, and if so what an Ontario Scholar would be, I phoned the Ontario Ministry of Education information line, where the information officer told me in no uncertain terms, "Grade 13 never existed." So I’m sorry to break it to those of you who did Grade 13 (being a Manitoban, I didn’t have to) that, according to an official spokesperson at the Ministry of Education, this was a lost year in your life that was just a figment of your imagination.

There were, of course, many new words that are not unique to Canada. A favourite is puttanesca, a pasta sauce (there seems to be no end to pasta sauces) whose name is derived from the Italian word for "prostitute," purportedly because it could be whipped up quickly between clients’ visits! Pool noodles also got the nod, as did novel foods.

Other trendy new words and expressions included eeew (an interjection of disgust, usually followed by gross!), employment equity (which Canadians apparently share with South Africans), and energy drink (that would be Gatorade to you). This one gave us cause to reflect on the connotative power of words, since if it were called a high-calorie drink, which denotes exactly the same thing, it wouldn’t sell half as well. In F, our trendy new word was Ferberize, and I think it best to stop before venturing any further with our new F-words. The letter S continued to be the most productive initial in the language, with among others, supersize (as in what you do to your fries if you’re not worried about your waistline), Stairmaster (what you use if you are worried about your waistline), Super Soaker, the interjection sweet!, skanky, Shanghai noodles (which mysteriously seem to be known in Canada and North Carolina but not in New York), and of course . . . SARS.

Updating the encyclopedic entries was a real treat as we discovered that a mania for territorial restructuring seems to have swept the globe. We grappled with new countries, new place names and amalgamated cities in Ontario and Quebec, new counties in the UK, new provinces in South Africa, and every entry in which there was any mention of any of these. The entry for every former European currency unit now replaced by the euro had to be amended (for instance, the franc still is the currency unit of Switzerland but not of France or Belgium, so we had to have two definitions where one had done before). Every entry that mentioned the Northwest Territories had to be checked to see if the place mentioned had since "migrated" to Nunavut. Entries mentioning Newfoundland had to be adjusted to reflect the province’s new but cumbersome name, "Newfoundland and Labrador." Population figures for the almost 3,000 towns, cities and countries in the dictionary also were updated and 100 cities now exceeding our population cutoff figures were added.

Meanwhile, there was the task of updating biographies. Inspired by Canadian Idol, we decided to solicit from people across the country nominations of prominent Canadians worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. It was rather disturbing to see how many people wrote to nominate themselves! In the end, we managed to settle on a list of about 100 worthy Canadians (not nominated by their mothers) who have achieved household name status since 1998. Biographical entries for living people had to be updated to include significant events in their lives since 1998. We were immensely grateful for the Internet at this point! There was also the somewhat morbid task of determining who of those still living when the first dictionary came out had since died.

Because I know the excitement would be too much for you, I will spare you the details of a month spent spell-checking, another month spent checking cross-references and yet another month inserting recommended word-break dots, before four solid months of proofreading over twenty million characters—twice! If ever we needed confirmation of Samuel Johnson’s quip that a lexicographer is a "harmless drudge," we had it. If only the people who exclaim how interesting our job is would turn up to volunteer at those stages in the dictionary production process!

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