Katherine Barber’s PLAIN 2013 banquet talk

I was incredibly privileged to get to see Word Lady Katherine Barber‘s speech at the PLAIN 2013 banquet. Because it was a banquet, I wasn’t rigorously taking notes—and even if I had been, I know I couldn’t do justice to her humour (short of reproducing a full transcript). Despite the casual levity of her talk, though, some of her points are very much worth discussing, so here is an extremely brief recap.


“We ideally and naively believe that language is for communication,” said Barber. In fact, language has always been used to impress others or to make the speaker feel superior. In the sixteenth century, people used to borrow fancy words from Latin (Shall we ebulliate some water for tea?), and in the eighteenth century, they borrowed fancy words from French. A secondary function of language, beyond simple communication, is to create an in-group and an out-group (hence teen slang).

Geographical variance also creates an in-group and an out-group, whether consciously or unconsciously. Barber gave some examples of how the English  Canadians use might baffle our visitors. What must they think about our morals, for example, when they walk down the street and see a sign that says “Bachelor for rent”? Or when they go to buy a newspaper and see “Loonies only”?

Language varies even within Canada, of course: in Thunder Bay, a shag is a kind of party—a cross between a shower and a stag. And in Manitoba, people would understand that if you promise to bring dainties, you’ll be bringing assorted sweets rather than frilly underwear.

From our old fort cheddar to our midget basketball teams, we use Canadianisms all the time in our writing and speech without a second thought, but we should bear in mind that what might be plain to us may not at all be plain to outsiders.

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