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origins of 'Canuck'

m. werneburg, 2001

Back in 2001, someone wrote and asked me about the origin of the word 'Canuck'. I realized that I had no idea! So I did some digging around on the 'net, and found this rather good post by Laury Walkey in a post to the newsgroup alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe. You can go to groups.google.com to dig up the thread from which it came, but I'll 'reprint' the vital bits of her post here.

The famous word 'Canuck' you say? Well, you've asked the right Canuck on this one, Michael! From The Apihna Bible (AKA Oxford's Guide of Canadian English Usage by Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, p. 93):

"In contemporary usage, Canuck (stressed on the last syllable) is a nickname for Canadians generally. However, the term does have a history in Quebec and the northeastern United States of being used in a derogatory way to refer specifically to French Canadians. The origin of the term is obscure; it has been connected to the Iroquoian kanuchsa 'hut'; to the Irish surname Connaught, which French Canadians used as a nickname for Irish Canadians; and to the Hawaiian word kanaka meaning 'man'. [I have NO idea how THAT came about!] A simpler explanation connects it to the first syllable of Canada.

Canuck was first recorded in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the century Johnny Canuck was being used to personify Canada in the same way that John Bull personified England and Uncle Sam the United States. And by 1901 Emily Murphy, a feminist and the first woman magistrate in the British Empire, had assumed Janey Canuck as her pen name. During the Second World War, Leo Bachle created the cartoon character Johnny Canuck, who fought the Nazis single-handedly. The major hockey team in Vancouver has been called the Canucks since 1946." [And haven't played a decent season for almost as long, discounting the few times they won the Stanley Cup...]

And from 'Success With Words: A North American Guide to the English Language,

pg. 118-119:

"Although the forms Canack, Cannacker, Canuck, Canuk, Conuck, Kanuck, Kanuk and K'nuck have all been known from time to time, only Canuck is now in use.

"MEANINGS AND USAGE (1) = 'any Canadian.' Used by Canadians to Canadians about Canadians, Canuck is informal but is not felt to be derogatory. It often has overtones, not un-welcome, of strength and roughness, and it has received the accolade of being adopted into the name of the Vancouver Canuck hockey team. However, several American dictionaries caution their readers that the word may be offensive, and they may be right to do so, since Canadians might well find the word uncomplimentary if used by non-Canadians.

(2) = 'a French Canadian.' In this sense the word would probably be interpreted as a derogatory usage.

(3) = 'Canadian French.' In this sense the word would almost certainly be felt to be derogatory.

(4) = 'a Canadian horse or pony.' This sense of the word is now obsolete.

(5) = 'anything made in Canada.' The word is neutral in this sense, but this use is rare.

(6) = Jack Canuck, Johnny Canuck = 'a Canadian soldier.' The usage level of this expression is approximately that of GI Joe or Tommy Atkins.

(7) = 'an imaginary figure personifying Canada or Canadians, or both.' In this sense the word applies to all Canadians and seems to have overtones of a possibly defiant pride.

RECOMMENDATION. Canadians need little advice on he various ways to use this term. Non-Canadians should avoid it altogether in the presence of Canadians, unless they are very sure of their company.

ORIGIN. Apart from those content to characterize Canuck as being of uncertain origin, lexicographers have propounded at least six theories on the etymology of this word; each will be considered briefly.

(1) The word is from Hawaiian kanaka = 'man.' Though not

impossible, it does seem improbably that Canadians should have sought

in far-distanced Hawaii for a word with which to describe themselves.

(2) The word is from Connaught, an early French Canadian nickname

for immigrants from Ireland. Although this theory is supported

(cautiously) by the "Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical

Principles", it does not explain the final /k/ sound of Canuck;

moreover, it does not fit very well with the fact that Canuck seems

originally to have applied especially to a French Canadian.

(3) The word is from the first syllable of Canada, or is an

'alteration' or 'corruption' or 'mispronunciation (by Indians) of

English Canadian or French canadien.' Unfortunately, these

theories are not really adequate, since they too fail to explain the

final /k/ sound.

(4) The word is a blend of the first syllable of Canada and the

Algonquian noun ending -uc (-uq). This theory has at least the merit

of fully explaining the sound of Canuck.

(5) The word is a blend of Can(ada) and (Chin)ook or is formed

from Canada by analogy with Chinook. Like the preceding, this

theory fully explains the sound of Canuck but is open to objections

based on time and geographical factors.

(6) The word is the English version of kanuchsa, the Iroquois word

for a resident of a kanata, or community. Of all the explanations,

this one, referred to by M. H. Scargill in "A Short History of

Canadian English", seems the most probable.

Although the "Dictionary of Candianisms" gives 1849 as the date of

the first appearance of the word in the form Canuck and applied to

a Canadian, the "Dictionary of American English" (Chicago, 1938)

records the form Kanuck applied to a French Canadian as early as

1835. This may indeed have been the earliest sense of the word, for

event he general term Canadian was at first most commonly used to

mean a French Canadian: as late as 1832 an English-speaking

inhabitant of British North America was referred to as an

American. It may well have had the meaning 'French Canadian' in

Canada, and have developed its general meaning 'any Canadian' in the

United States.

Johnny Canuck probably 'made his first appearance as a cartoon

character in ... 1869 ... The cartoonist had already translated

Johnny into a Western hat and vaguely British field uniform and used

him as a symbol for young Canadians, regardless of language' (K.

Lefolii, The Canadian Look—A Century of Sights and Styles.)."

Probably more information than anyone needed to know about the etymology of the word, but I thought perhaps it would be interesting to some of you linguists

out there. I'm actually glad someone asked because now I've learned a few

things myself. The day isn't TOTALLY wasted! :-)

As for whether or not calling us Canadians 'Canucks' is considered offensive,

well I guess it really all depends on the individual being termed a Canuck and

the tone and manner with which it has been said. As with every 'nickname' some

people will be offended and some won't. I think we are generally an easy-going

bunch who are able to laugh a bit at ourselves and not take things *too*

seriously. And so we might refer to ourselves as 'Canucks' in a joking

manner. Basically, if any term, such as 'Brit', 'Yank' or whatever is said in

a derogatory fashion, it will likely be deemed derogatory. [Oh, and by the

way, Mr. Rumjuggler, from a much earlier post, I don't think we Canadians like

being called 'Canoodleheads' or something like that, ok? THAT might be

considered a tad offensive... :-)] I guess a good rule of thumb is to use the

terminology that is comfortable for both sides of the conversation—if the

Canadians with whom you speak are happy being called Canucks, then it's

probably safe to refer to them as such. And to err on the side of caution,

just call us Canadians.

I hadn't realized that the British folk weren't keen on being called 'Brits.'

Perhaps we here in Leftpondia are trying to differentiate between the English,

the Welsh, The Scottish and the Irish folk in the United Kingdom? I suppose

there are just as many Americans who would object to being called 'Yanks' -

which conjures up ideas of the American Civil War (which is the topic of the

book I'm currently reading—all 1016 pages in hardcover and quite possibly the

only book I've ever own that weighs more than my cat!).



Of the theories above, #4 is a personal favorite.

Another source I found indicated that the tie-in with the Hawaiian word came about because Hawaiian labor was used during fur trade in western Canada. While this seems on the face of it to be completely preposterous, my genealogical research has found that there is quite a bit of preposterous stuff tucked away in factual history. See, for instance, these references:

Who knows. Maybe we wound up calling ourselves Canucks because the Hawaiians called themselves Kanakas!

P.S. One reader wrote in a comment on this page, saying "Sorry to tell you this, but Canuck means 'Canadian fuck'."

A "Canadian fuck"—is that the kind with your winter boots still on?


rand()m quote

Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan.

—-Old proverb