A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "Canuck"?

April 6, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

My girlfriend and I were watching an American game show the other night when the question (in multiple-choice format) was asked, "What are Canadians sometimes nicknamed?" or something of that sort. The answer was "Canuck" and was missed (I was surprised "beer drinkers," "cold," or "what's a Canadian?" weren't in there, but I digress). We both took to laughing because it was like us not knowing what a Yankee was. I then say to myself, "Self, what does Canuck mean anyway?" We had no idea. Now I feel stupid. Enlighten me, please, because not one Canadian I have asked knows or has even put any thought to the matter, till now.

As with many word origins, the origin of "Canuck" is obscure. We start with the word "Canada" itself.

William and Mary Morris in their Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1962 and 1967) say that the best authority seems to indicate "canada" was originally a word in the Huron-Iroquois language meaning "a collection of lodges." So the first Canada was an Indian village. Jacques Cartier, the French navigator who discovered the St. Lawrence River, first used the word in an account of his travels of 1535. He spent the winter in an Indian village near the site of present-day Quebec. The chief waved his arms about as if to include all the land stretching beyond the horizon and exclaimed, "Kanata!" Cartier thought the chief meant Kanata was the name for the entire area (along the St. Lawrence, from Grosse Ile in the east to near Quebec in the west), but it only referred to the Indian settlement nearby.

IMHO, that's not too far different from the "I don't know" origin stories for kangaroo. But different enough to be plausible.

The earliest recorded use of the term Canuck, sometimes spelled Kanuk, was in 1835. Similar terms such as Cannakers or Canukers were in use in the 1840s. The term was first used in lumber camps in Maine to refer to French Canadian loggers working in the Maine woods. It was used to distinguish them from other Canadians. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1970) suggests it was "possibly a corruption of Connaught, a name originally applied by the French Canadians to the Irish immigrants." This seems unlikely.

The usage had spread by 1850 to mean all Canadians, sometimes used as a derogatory term. Canadians generally use it with pride or light-heartedly. "Johnny Canuck" is a personification of Canada, dating from 1902, just as "Uncle Sam" personifies the U.S. There is at least one hockey team calling itself the Canucks.

The term "kanakas" meaning Hawaiian islanders is probably not related, although some authorities suggest there might be a relation. There is also the term cañada (note the tilde over the n), a Spanish word meaning a glen or small dale between two mountains, presumably also not related.

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