What do you mean when you say the word “home”? Amongst other definitions, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines “home” as “the place where one lives,” “a house or dwelling place” or “the place where a thing originates or is native or most common.” As someone with nomadic tendencies, these definitions have often clashed for me. In German, to be “at home” is to be “zu Hause,” which refers to a physical dwelling. The broader “Heimat,” often translated as “homeland,” can also mean “habitat.” These different definitions of “home” make me wonder how our language shapes our understanding of ideas and terms. And the question of what the word really means has occupied my thoughts as we approach a significant birthday for Canada.
When I lived abroad, I found it interesting how people responded to the oft-asked question, “Where are you from?” My default response was “Canada,” which I narrowed down if people were curious. Rarely would I get past “Nova Scotia,” as many didn’t believe there was a part of Canada east of Quebec. The Belgians I met referred to Brussels, Flanders or Wallonia instead of Belgium. I met Americans from “the Bay Area,” and was amazed at their confidence that others would know exactly where they were talking about.
As a foreigner, I felt the need to rekindle the feeling of “home” when it came to mundane things and momentous occasions. The day the humble bagel was introduced to Bern, Switzerland, I spent $22 Canadian dollars on a toasted sesame version with Philadelphia cream cheese. It was worth every penny as it let me pretend for a moment that I was in a Canadian café. In 2010, when Sidney Crosby scored the goal to win Canadian Olympic gold for the men’s hockey team, my family and I crowded into a London hotel room to celebrate with lukewarm bottles of Moosehead. We’d purchased them at an exorbitant price from Selfridges, laughing as the iconic yellow bag was walked around from behind the counter and handed to us as if it held the finest champagne. These actions can seem ridiculous from the outside, but for me that bagel offered a few minutes of familiarity. And it would be wrong to toast a Canadian win with British pints.
When we work with authors, of course not every word in their work is as nuance-laden as “home” is for me. But it is useful to be mindful of how our backgrounds influence our understanding of words, and of how simple word edits might change more than we realize.
For me, “home” is now less a physical place and more a reference to people, customs and the things we share. The definition of the word is nebulous, changing depending on the context in which I’m using it and the person I’m speaking to. As we celebrate Canada this upcoming month, let’s give some thought to the words we use to describe our country and how these might be different for the millions who call it home.
Previous post from Marianne Grier: German Lessons With Mrs. Cheese.
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