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Frances Peck

The Story of Canadian English

Photo of Stefan Dollinger by Krista McKeachie

For those of us still grieving the defunct Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the release of the second edition of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, on March 17 this year, lent some comfort.

First published in 1967 to coincide with Canada’s centennial, the DCHP not only gives spellings and definitions but also tracks (and sometimes illustrates) the history of Canadian words and usages. The dictionary was released in 2013 as an open-access website under the direction of Stefan Dollinger, an English professor and linguist at the University of British Columbia.

Fast-forward to 2017 and DCHP-2, as the second edition is logically (if not mellifluously) called, was unveiled for the sesquicentennial (“a fine birthday gift to Canada,” said the Toronto Star). Media outlets from the Globe and Mail to CBC to the New Yorker hailed its arrival. This month’s Quill and Quire gave it an entire page.

I caught up with Dollinger in Victoria, where he’s on sabbatical. We discussed the dictionary, for which he’s an enthusiastic spokesperson and tweeter, and he showed me the Everest-like spike in site traffic following the New Yorker profile. When I asked what he was up to, digging into the DCHP archives at UVic, he shared some news: he’s writing a book about the dictionary.

Cool, I said. Like The Professor and the Madman?

Kind of. Aiming for a broad audience, Dollinger will explore the emergence of Canadian English, a lexicon barely recognized in the 1940s through 1960s, when the dictionary took shape. “But my research is first and foremost on the people, who have largely been banned from linguistic memory,” he says.

Dollinger plans to unveil the “Big Six” — the scholar-heroes who created DCHP-1. Some, like Matthew Harry Scargill, were not even Canadian. A lover of English whodunits, who fed his habit at Ivy’s Bookshop in Victoria, Scargill was a Yorkshire man with a PhD from the University of Leeds. Charles J. Lovell, who started the dictionary, was an American who never went beyond high school.

“These were remarkable people, from what the record and archives tell me,” Dollinger says. “They literally worked themselves to death to create a Canadian English.”


Apparently, yes. Lovell was only two years into the project when he was felled by a heart attack at age 53. Then there was Walter Spencer Avis, who took over after Lovell’s death. “I always thought Avis died suddenly in 1979 at age 60,” says Dollinger. “Then I discover that he had a heart attack in the early 1960s, so basically when editing DCHP-1. It was another one that killed him in 1979.”

As it turns out, lexicographers often die on the job. The Grimm brothers left the world before finishing their German dictionary. James Murray died while compiling the OED, and Frederic G. Cassidy was still reviewing entries for the Dictionary of American Regional English up until his death at 92.

Dollinger says he’s not worried. “My wife tells me I should not go play tennis all of a sudden. But I haven’t been smoking or drinking Scotch, as the DCHP-1 editors used to do,” he jokes.

Even so, Dollinger has no plans to continue as editor of DCHP-3 (readers take note: he will support any serious aspirant). Is one dictionary enough for a lexicographical lifetime? Or is there so much more to explore beyond words and meanings? Yes and yes. But, Dollinger says, the real answer is simple: he does not want to die a lexicographer, like so many of his predecessors.


Previous post from Frances Peck: Editing and Empathy.

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About the author

Frances Peck

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


8 Comments on “The Story of Canadian English”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Thanks for giving us the inside story so engagingly, Frances.

  • Virginia St-Denis


    Thank you, Frances, for this article. I seem to be having more and more conversations standing up for Canadian English and French. They may be different than what is spoken in Europe, but they are not wrong. It’s good to have a new online resource to help me make my point.

  • Anita Jenkins


    So great to see you back on the blog, Frances! Your posts are always fantastic.

    It seems to me that there isn’t really a Canadian English, but rather the opportunity to pick and choose which versions of British and American usage we prefer. Kind of cool, that.

    Having lived in Alberta all my life (the most American province) and having done a lot of writing with CP style before it adopted things like -our, I tend to spell “Murrican.” Lots of people in Ontario seem to prefer British, as in “programme.” ???

  • Margaret Shaw


    What an interesting post, Frances. Thank you for alerting us to a resource that we should all know about. And I see that proofreading was by our very own (BC Branch) Nancy Tinari. Way to go, Nancy!

  • Frances Peck


    Glad you liked the post, everyone. Dollinger and his crew do fascinating work.

    Anita raises an interesting question: do we Canadians truly have our own English? Or are we language pickpockets, quietly slipping the words of others into our own lexicon? It’s well documented (Katherine Barber et al.) that we have distinctive Canadian words. Order a double-double, pay for it with loonies and toonies and take it back to your bachelor apartment. There: you’re speaking Canadian. Is that enough to make a distinct branch of the language? Or do we need more, like an entire idiom or syntax that’s all our own?

  • Gurprasad Green


    The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is defunct? When did this happen? I had no idea! I’m lost without that dictionary! Was this a recent decision from Oxford or am I just not well enough informed?

    I will definitely be checking out DCHP. Thanks for this.

    • Frances Peck


      The offices of Canadian Oxford shut in 2008. Since then, there’s been no news from OUP about the prospect of a third edition. Katherine Barber, former editor-in-chief of the dictionary, still blogs about language if you’d like to check her out:

      • Gurprasad Green


        Oh wow! I had no idea. I’ve been using it as my go-to dictionary since 2013. Off to visit Katherine Barber’s blog. Thanks!

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