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Remember This, Newmarket: Old-time sayings bring back memories of grandparents

History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls the expressions and words our ancestors from around the globe brought with them that have influenced our language
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Here's a fun topic that should spark memories of our parents and grandparents: let's look at the quaint ways they spoke, their phrases and unique idiomatic expressions.

Canada is a country of immigrants, and our words and expressions reflect that fact. Newmarket’s early ancestors came from England, France and after the American War of Independence, the United States. My relatives on my mother’s side were Pennsylvanian Quakers and British immigrants, my father's from Scotland.

They brought with them, along with their political and religious beliefs, a way of speaking that quickly became known today as Canadian English. Every immigrant brought a speaking that was to have an influence on the meaning of words and expressions spoken locally and that were often different from those words expressed elsewhere in the English-speaking world.   

Many of our words and phrases have been adapted from the French, Italian, or German language over the years, brought to us by those seeking a new life for themselves. If you listen to our American neighbours, you will most certainly note there are many variations in the words and meanings of words that are part of their version of the English vocabulary.

We quite often adopted an entirely different word to describe a common article in use, one that reflected how our ancestors spoke. We use the word pail instead of bucket.  We go down to the creek to fish, not to the brook. My grandmother would make johnny cakes that I would often call corn bread, much to her annoyance.

My Nan would call a darning needle a dragon fly, which would invariably produce a quizzical look on my face. The word kerosene was rarely used in our home, it was always coal oil. My Grandpa would say he was going to have a wee piece when he was having a snack.

Many words are interchangeable, words like eavestroughs for gutters. I would often be invited to have a sitdown on the stoop rather than on the veranda. One of the biggest divides in our household was the use of the word frying pan for skillet. My mom and dad had learned different words for that simple appliance and so it was up to me to understand that they were the same utensil.

My father, being of Scottish background, used the word ‘pudding’ for anything that even remotely looked like a pudding, hence ‘Jello’ was pudding to him. My grandmother would ask if I wanted ‘a sweet’ that could refer to anything that had sugar in it. 

It is interesting how, as a child, one learns to adapt and instinctively learn the terms (or the variety of terms) necessary to communicate. When we get older, it seems so much harder to do so, hence the experiences of the new Canadian in learning the nuances of our language must be extremely confusing.    

Another linguistic variant that come to mind when looking back at the way our grandparents and parents spoke are the various expressions they brought with them to this country and were quickly absorbed into our local dialect. Many of these expressions are still in use today. How many of these did your ancestors use and do you still use them today?

These expressions were common around our household:

  • It cost you nothing to take a look (my Grandpa’s favorite – nothing wrong with window shopping)
  • God helps those who help themselves (do not complain, get busy)
  • Ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies (you really do not want to know!)
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew (moderation is the key)
  • It cost you nothing to say thank you (a favourite of my Mom)
  • He / she must have gotten out of the wrong side of the bed (person is grumpy)
  • You can read him like a book (they are easy to understand)
  • He / she blows hot and cold (they are changeable or fickle)
  • You can’t get blood out of a stone (impossible task, he is cheap)
  • It is as plain as the nose on your face (it is obvious)
  • You made your bed, now lie in it (there are consequences)
  • Slip downtown or uptown (a quick trip)
  • It takes lots of elbow grease (hard work)
  • The cheapest is usually the dearest in the long run (there are no real bargains)
  • One good turn deserves another (karma or paying it forward)
  • He is wet behind the ears (he is innocent or inexperienced)
  • Do as I say and not as I do (a real favourite of my family)
  • If you want something done right, do it yourself (actually very true)
  • He has too many irons in the fire (he has spread his efforts too thin)
  • Strike while the iron is hot (do it now, seize the opportunity)
  • All that glitters is not gold (first impressions often deceive)
  • The clothes make the man (first impressions)
  • Cold hands, warm heart (appearances can be deceiving)
  • Making a mountain out of a mole hill (exaggeration)
  • There are many fish in the sea (there is always another)
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink (some things are beyond your control)
  • It takes two to tango (disagreement requires a partner)
  • Make your hay while the sun shines (seize the opportunity)
  • Six of one, half a dozen of the other (it really doesn’t matter)
  • Early to bed, early to rise (never understood this one but I think they meant be prepared)
  • Never to old to learn (my Grandpa used to say this when advising my mom)
  • Where there is a will, there is a way (always an answer to every problem)
  • If the shoe fits, wear it (it is as it appears)
  • Hauling one over the coals (making someone responsible, interrogation)
  • Pull the wool over his eyes (deceive him)
  • It goes in one ear and out the other (not important, not listening)
  • Short end of the stick (placed at a disadvantage)   
  • Knows as well as the man in the moon (he has no knowledge at all)
  • Flat as a pancake (now that is flat)
  • Salted away (invested, hidden)
  • Work like a dog (the idea that dogs work hard and are determined)
  • Looks like a drowned rat (dishevelled)
  • Bleed like a stuffed pig (I guess pigs bleed a great deal!)
  • Proud as a peacock (vanity)
  • As thick as the hair on a dog’s back (meant to indicate thickness or plentiful)

These are just some of the expressions I heard growing up. I am sure you can add to this list with ease. Most of these expressions relate to their ordinary life, things they were familiar with personally. Our current expressions are based on the same theory. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have become verbs in our vocabulary.  Unique expressions based upon farming or specific occupations are still prevalent these days.

After all, what is a good expression? It must immediately connect to something that is universally known and accepted. That is what communication is all about, the acceptance of commonly accepted terms to relate a thought, feeling or object. We may not readily understand many of these expressions above, but our ancestors certainly would have. Language is fluid, it changes over time and reflects the generation that is using it and quite often fixes you in a period of history when you speak.

Our ancestors came to this country from all over the globe and many of the words that were part of their language / culture were incorporated into our language.  

Here are just few words we expropriated:

  • Ad hoc (Latin) For the specific purpose, case, or situation at hand
  • Affaire d’amour (French) A love affair
  • Aide de camp (French) A military officer acting as secretary and confidential assistant to the superior of general or flag rank
  • Alma mater (Latin) The school, college, or a university that one has attended
  • Anno Domini (AD) (Latin) In a specified year of the Christian era
  • Bona fide (Latin) Made or carried out in good faith; sincere
  • Boulevard (French) A broad city street. Often tree-lined and landscaped
  • Bourgeoisie (French) The middle class
  • Cuisine (French). A characteristic manner or style of preparing food
  • De facto (Latin) In reality or fact
  • En route (French) On or along the way
  • Et cetera (Latin) And other unspecified things of the same class; and so forth
  • Fait accompli  (French) An accomplished, presumably irreversible deed or fact
  • Gourmet (French) A connoisseur of fine food and drink
  • Gratis (Latin) Without charge
  • Impasse (French) A road or passage having no exit or a situation that is so difficult that no progress can be made, a deadlock or a stalemate.
  • In absentia (Latin) While or although not present; in absence.
  • In memoriam (Latin) In memory of; as a memorial to
  • Laissez-faire  (French) Non-interference in the affairs of others or an economic doctrine that opposes governmental regulation of or interference in commerce beyond the minimum necessary for a free-enterprise system to operate according to its own economic laws.
  • Nom de plume (French) Penname; assumed name used by a writer instead of original name.
  • Persona grata (Latin) Fully acceptable or welcome especially to a foreign government
  • Post-mortem (Latin) Of or relating to a medical examination of a dead body.
  • Pro bono (Latin) Done without compensation for the public good.
  • Résumé (French. A brief account of one’s professional or work experience and qualification
  • Status quo (Latin) The existing condition or state of affairs
  • Verbatim (Latin); using exactly the same words; corresponding word for word
  • Versus (Latin) Against
  • Via (Latin) By way of
  • Vice versa (Latin) With the order or meaning reversed; conversely
  • Vis-à-vis (French) Face to face; with opposite to; compared with; in relation to

These examples are mostly from the Latin or French, but variations of these words appear in many other languages and have been firmly incorporated into our vocabulary.  We are not only a global community of people and cultures but of linguistics as well.

I hope that you have enjoyed this very quick look at the expressions and words that our ancestors brought to this country; expressions, and words that many of us remember well from our youth. The cool thing is that they are still in use today.

For brevity, I have provided but a few of the many examples that are out there so why don’t you share some of your favourites in the comments section. I must say, researching all these examples has produced a sense of nostalgia deep within me and I can still hear my family using these, taking me back to my childhood again. 

Sources: Foreign Words used in Canadian English Website; Some Early Memories by Elman Campbell; 10 Canadian Expressions That Confuse Newcomers from the Internet

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.