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It's A Fact, Eh?
August 17, 2005
“It’s A Fact, Eh?” is a new occasional series I am beginning today. In this series I will introduce various interesting and factual aspects of Canadian life and culture (and yes, both exist in this nation).
“And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell” (Judges 12:5-6).
Perhaps the most distinctive mark of a Canadian is his use of the word eh. While the word itself is not distinctly Canadian, its usage is. The right usage of eh is a Canadian Shibboleth - a way of immediately identifying a person as a Canadian or as a fraud. In their book How To Be A Canadian, Ian and Will Ferguson write, “Eh? is what seperates Canadians from the unwashed, envious hordes outside their national boundaries. (You know who you are.) Eh? is the secret password, the cross-Canada countersign, a two-letter, single-syllable symphony that takes years of diligent study to master. It must flow naturally into the sentence. It must never stand out, never call attention to itself - and yet must remain inextricably linked to the harmonial whole. It should trip melodiously off the tongue.”
Many people erroneously assume that the Canadian eh? is equivalent to the American huh?, but this is simply not the case. Many Americans feel that they know all about eh simply because they have watched a few clips of Bob and Doug McKenzie. Again, this is not true. Proper usage of the word can only be gained through complete absorption in Canadian culture.
Wikipedia defines eh as “a spoken interjection.” That does not do it justice. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary the only usage of eh that is peculiar to Canada is for “ascertaining the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed” as in, “It’s four kilometres away, eh?, so I have to go by bike.” Similarly, “It’s nine-o’clock, eh?” means “You do know that it’s nine o’clock? You are aware that it’s nine-o’clock?”.
In that case, eh is used to confirm the attention of the listener and to invite a supportive noise such as “Mm” or “Oh” or “Okay”. It essentially is an interjection meaning, “I’m checking to see you’re listening so I can continue.”
It is important to note that eh is always, always spoken as a question. There are no declarative eh’s - they are all questioning. Also, usage of the word must be completely naturally. If you have to think about it, you’re probably using it improperly.
Eh can also be added to the end of a declarative sentence to turn it into a question. For example: “The weather is nice.” becomes “The weather is nice, eh?” I believe that this usage points to an ingrained Canadian insecurity and tendency to duck any question. “The weather is nice, right? Because if you don’t think so, that’s okay too.” It is also a good way of encouraging conversation, as if to say, “The weather is nice, right? Don’t you agree? Wouldn’t you like to discuss this while we wait for the bus?”
Depending on the speaker’s tone or the dialectal standard, eh can also be perceived as rude or impolite, as “Repeat that!”, and not a request. If I were to say, “The weather is nice, eh?” and were to receive no response, I might then say, “The weather is nice, EH?” to try to force the person into replying. Eh? implies that I am looking for some type of response.
Further examples of Canadian usage include: “I know, eh?” This expresses agreement. “The Leafs look like they are going to win the Cup this year, eh?” “I know, eh?” I could also say, “Yeah, eh?” to express my agreement.
The Ferguson brothers believe that the quintessential Canadian question is “Why not, eh? “ ‘Why not, eh?’ is a phrase at once plaintive and cajoling, and Canada is a nation of cajolers, the Land of the Hedged Bet. All that talk about the “national genius for compromise” is just a bunch of hooey. Canadians don’t negotiate - they cajole. What was Confederation itself, if not the Cajoling of a nation? No burning slogans. No guillotines. No oppressed masses yearing to be rich. Nope, the fathers of our nation sweet-talked their way into a union.” Why not, eh?
So there you have it. While many nations use some variation of eh, the Canadian usage is unique and deeply-ingrained in Canadian consciousness. It is such a part of Canadian identity that rumors abound that Canada Customs and Immigration use it as an identifying clue when interviewing people at our borders.
It’s a fact, eh?