Filed under:

Frances Peck

Notes From Away: Cape Breton English

Cape Breton

My first job, selling sundries the summer I was 12 to the cottagers and campers who flocked to Cape Breton’s fabled Mira River, was about as far from the language business as you can get. Yet a few days in, I learned a humbling linguistic lesson.

Three times the customer bellowed his order across the counter to the slack-faced prepubescent that was me: “A Pepsi pap, a baar and a boonabrayed.” Each time, all but the Pepsi eluded me. At last my supervisor interjected: the man wanted a Pepsi, a chocolate bar and a bun of bread. Comprehension did not dawn. What, like a hamburger bun? With the contempt that only a 14-year-old in a position of power can summon, my supervisor tossed me what I had always called a loaf.

And there it was, a truth that shone bright as that supervisor’s red hair: despite growing up in Cape Breton, I still hadn’t mastered the language.

Cape BretonIt was a dialect I’d been immersed in since age three, when my family moved to the island from Regina. I passed every school day with Cape Bretoners, crossed paths with Cape Breton neighbours, bought cream sodas from Cape Breton gas station attendants. I knew that “I seen Dougald yesterday” meant the speaker saw Dougal; “Youse’re gettin’ a fillum in science” meant we’d be watching a movie in science class; “Yer ma’s right pissed” meant my mother was very angry. But my mother had grown up in Vancouver; my father, though a Caper, had spent most of his adult life in Saskatchewan; and my older siblings were Prairie kids through and through. We didn’t speak Cape Breton at home, so my vocabulary was riddled with holes.

To complicate matters, Cape Breton English, shaped by the island’s Scottish and Irish settlers, is, like its better-known cousin Newfoundland English, not a single dialect at all. It’s a collection of expressions and accents that vary by region. That’s why I’d been broadsided by boonabrayed.

Still, there is a shared lexicon. Here are 10 Cape Bretonisms you’ll encounter from Glace Bay to Gabarus:

  1. How’s she goin’, b’y? Literally, “How are things going, boy?” Not limited to boys. Arguably the best-known, most-mimicked Cape Breton expression. Locally, used mostly in self-parody.
  2. Right: Adverb meaning very or so. “Archie’s right good on that fiddle.”
  3. Some: Equivalent to right. “That neighbour a yours is some strange, wha?”
  4. Wha? Interjection; the Cape Breton equivalent of eh.
  5. Stunned: Dim-witted, obtuse. “Youse kids are some stunned.”
  6. Youse: Plural of you. Not unique to Cape Breton, but ubiquitous there.
  7. Never’d: Did not, never did. “Hector says I went and ate all the oatcakes, but I never’d.”
  8. To be + after: To indicate past or habitual action. “Mary was after givin’ him holy hell for them awful directions.” “Toronto’s so big, people are after getting lost there.”
  9. Dear: Term of address used for just about anyone, whether beloved or not. “See ya later, dear.” “Look, dear, quit gawkin’ and just give me a boonabrayed.”
  10. From away: Hailing from anywhere other than Cape Breton. From-away status can last a generation or more. “That stunned Peck girl’s after moving here from away.”

Cape Bretoners, can you add to this list? Readers from away, do you recognize any of these expressions?

A special “thank you, dear” to EAC member and current Cape Bretoner Patricia MacDonald, who reviewed this article for accuracy.

The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada. Contact us.

Discover more from The Editors' Weekly

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

About the author

Frances Peck

Frances Peck is an editor, writer and instructor who now lives on Canada’s West Coast.


14 Comments on “Notes From Away: Cape Breton English”

  • Claudine


    LOVE this! My Dad is a Caper and even though I spent most of my childhood summers there, there were always a few expressions that made me have to think hard. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anita Jenkins


    Delightful. Thanks so much for this. I suspect you left out the various colourful curses? At least I know there is a lot of that in the language of Ireland.

    • You are telepathic, Anita. I had a few savoury (or unsavoury, depending on how you view them) curse words lined up for this article, then thought better of posting them on our EAC blog. Here’s one, though, that’s particularly Cape Breton in flavour: “Jesus” used as an adjective, as in “Get your Jesus arse offa the couch, would ya?” So many of my rural neighbours said that, and despite attending mass every Sunday, I had no idea it was inappropriate until I was in my late teens!

  • Dwain Richardson


    Consider me a reader from away! 😉
    Of the 10 Cape Breton expressions you presented, I recognize two: “youse” and “dear.”

    In my desire to learn languages, I learned that one of many forms of address is the [kind of] equivalent of “youse”: the Spanish “vosotros/as” (second person plural informal address for “you”). The “vosotros” form is basically an accumulation of the second person singular informal “tú,” e.g. tú + tú + tú = vosotros (or -as, if referring to a group of girls or women). My Spanish high school basically said, “Think of ‘vosotros’ as ‘youse guys.'” BTW, this form of address is common in Spain, but not in Latin America.

    As for “dear,” well, I hear this endearment almost every day. Even I use it in my everyday speech. Thanks to you, Frances, I learned that “dear” is common among Cape Bretoners! I tell you, we learn new things each day, each week, each year. 🙂

  • Georgina Montgomery


    An informative and entertaining post, Frances. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  • Lynn Carter


    When I visited Newfoundland the fishermen asked us: “Where ya’ been?” They knew from our hot pants we were “from away”.

  • Vanessa


    As someone who grew up in Cape Breton, I am very fluent in it and had no problem understanding any of this, haha.

    Some very common phrases missed here would be “what’s your father’s name?”, being as how the communities can be so small that almost everyone knows everyone’s family somehow. Also “bootin'”, used to mean running really fast, such as “he was bootin’ it down the street.”

  • Dave Henry


    My roommate at “X”, half a century ago, was a Caper, John Errol MacDonald, son of Da Blue of Number 16 (named after the community coal mine). A friend said that “J’n Errol was after being right buckish” – a hick, not too urbane.

  • Lucy Carleton


    Many of these same phrases are found in the Ottawa Valley, such as ” Gidday…how’s she goin’?” The locals around here are often found “bootin’ it a far piece” as they go out ” gallavantin’ in order to “give ‘er a go”.
    Thanks for posting this.

    • Funny you’d mention the Ottawa Valley. I left Nova Scotia for Ottawa at 21, and the minute I boarded my first OC Transpo bus, I was 100% certain the driver was from Cape Breton. His accent, his cadences, his friendliness: I’d have bet big bucks he was a Nova Scotian of some sort. But when I screwed up the courage to ask him, he said he was an Ottawa Valley boy, born and bred. Was I surprised!

  • Joan Spaven


    I’ve heard them all, knowing many people from the Maritimes. When we asked why our car was thoroughly washed before boarding the ferry to leave NFLD in the 1970s, the attendant explained “Suputaydarot chunow.” Well no, we didn’t, but later learned about a nasty potato disease in Nfld that could be carried over to the mainland by vehicles!

  • Victoria.Neufeldt


    Good article, Frances! As you said, some of the terms are more general than Cape Breton, but one in particular raised memories for me. I haven’t heard “stunned” with that meaning for years, but I grew up with it — in Saskatchewan! I found it in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary just now, labelled as Canadian informal and defined as “stupid; foolish”, which doesn’t quite cut it. Your definition (“dim-witted, obtuse”) is definitely better, as I remember the word. I hadn’t realized that it was a Canadianism. It isn’t entered in either of two good, current U.S. desk dictionaries I checked just now (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, Webster’s New World College). I’d be interested to know if the word is known in other provinces too.

    I do love the use of “bun” for “loaf”!

  • Rob Williams


    Loved your article, Frances. My mother was from ‘down east’ and I’ve spent many a summer in the Annapolis Valley, as well as touring Cape Breton Island. The word ‘youse’ reminds me of the time I was a professional musician, traveling from one small Ontario town to the next. We’d perform in the local hotel bar, six times a week. After we’d finished performing on the Monday night, we’d check out to the ever-present Canadian-Chinese restaurant for a late snack/dinner. Invariably, the waitress would come over to our table and ask, “Are youse guys in da band?”

    • A great anecdote, Rob, and a good point: “youse” is heard throughout small-town and rural Canada, not just in Cape Breton. Is the plural in Ontario the same as it is in Cape Breton, “youses”?

Comments are closed.

To top