By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today marks 150 years since the Confederation of Canada, so to commemorate this notable Canada Day, here’s a chance to learn a little bit about Canadian history and the word Canuck!
Canuck is a generallyinformal term for a Canadian. Canadians are usually surprised to hear that outside of Canada Canuck is sometimes used as a term of disparagement and often specifically applied to French Canadians. Within Canada the term has no negative connotations and is generally a light-hearted term of self-designation. It has been considered obscure in origin, however, there are a number of possible theories. Perhaps the most intuitive is that it’s somehow derived from the first syllable of the word Canada. The name Canada, by the way comes from the word kanata meaning “village or settlement” in a now extinct Iroquoian language spoken in the St Lawrence valley. But one alternate and altogether less intuitive etymology is perhaps surprisingly more likely, and looking at it as well as the overall history of Canuck will perhaps teach us something about Canada itself.
This alternative suggestion is that Canuck actually comes from, believe it or not, a Hawaiian word kanaka meaning “man”. The word came to be used in English initially in reference to Polynesians, who either settled in early British Columbia and the American northwest, or became sailors on North American whaling ships–as seen in its use in sea shanties such as “John Kanaka”– and there are two theories about the transmission of the word. The first is that it was picked up by fur traders who spread the word west to east along the fur trade routes. But the other scenario is that the word was carried by those Polynesian sailors to the east coast, and became a common Americanism used by New England whalers, transferred from the original referent of Polynesian sailors to other “foreign” peoples, in particular the French Canadians because of the perceived darker colour of their skin. So it became a derogatory, racist Americanism applied to Canadians, but while it retained some of that pejorative sense in the US–think of terms like “Canuckistan”–it quickly underwent amelioration in Canada, becoming used as a neutral colloquial term. It should be noted, though, that the source word kanaka does still have offensive connotations in some contexts, notably Australian English.
If this all seems unlikely to you, it actually is backed up by the earliest recorded uses of the word in the form Canuck. We have a letter which refers to kanakas written around 1830 by one Dr. John McLoughlin, the manager at Fort Vancouver, which was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s west coast headquarters, located in what is now Washington state. There were a great many Hawaiian settlers and workers at Fort Vancouver, so much so that it was sometimes referred to as Kanaka Village. Then in 1835 we have a traveller’s account of New Englanders, colloquially known as Jonathans, referring to Dutch and French Canadians as Kanucks. The two possible derivations come together in the end, though, since the wide-spread adoption of “Canuck”, whatever its origins, undoubtedly was aided by the similarity of its sound to “Canadian”.
And speaking of the term Jonathan or Brother Jonathan, this figure was a national personification and patriotic emblem of New England, often depicted wearing a stovepipe hat, tailcoat and striped trousers in editorial cartoons and posters, a sort of fore-runner of the Uncle Sam figure. Well the term Canuck gets a similar personification in the figure of Johnny Canuck. He started out as a political cartoon figure in 1869, often standing up to the bullying of Uncle Sam or John Bull, the British national personification, and was commonly depicted as a wholesome lumberjack or farmer figure. Johnny Canuck was later revived in comic book form during WWII as an action hero battling the Nazis, much like his counterpart Captain America.
And Captain America was an even more obvious inspiration for the later character Captain Canuck who was created in the 1970s, in a fictional then-future world of 1993 in which for some reason Canada had become the most powerful country in the world. The character, who appears in a red and white maple leaf emblazoned costume, gained his super strength from extraterrestrials and worked for the Canadian International Security Organization. The comic was independently produced and modestly successful in Canada, but never gained an audience outside the country. A more transparent allegory for the Canadian relationship to its Southern neighbour would be hard to find.
But perhaps the most well known use of the word Canuck today is in Canada’s national sport, hockey, as the name of Vancouver’s team—bringing us back to the possible west-coast origin of the term. Today the Vancouver Canucks are part of the National Hockey League (or NHL), but before that they were part of the Western Hockey League, and at that time their logo featured that old character Johnny Canuck, who also sometimes appears as part of the current Vancouver team’s uniform. The NHL has often had fractious relationships with rival hockey leagues, with teams and players moving back and forth between leagues, as was the case with the old World Hockey Association, which eventually folded with four teams moving into the NHL. The sole American team that was absorbed into the NHL from the WHA had a name that is very appropriate for our story: the New England Whalers, who then became the Hartford Whalers, before eventually being relocated to Carolina to become the Hurricanes—all of which brings us back to that possible east-coast origin of “Canuck”.
So, as you can see, the word Canuck is a good illustration of how national identities are shaped by, and in turn sometimes consciously shape, the terms we use to describe ourselves. From the word Canada itself—derived from a language whose extinction is part of the story of the very nation it names—to the origins of Canuck with an immigrant people and word — reflecting the multicultural ideals dear to many Canadians — to having that word reclaimed from the American racism of those New England whalers— mirroring a Canadian tendency to consider their country free of the more problematic aspects of US history—to the wholesome figure of Johnny Canuck standing up to bigger countries like the US and UK— a big part of the developing sense of Canadian nationhood in the 20th century—to the influence of American culture, like Captain America on Captain Canuck—a constant worry for champions of Canada’s culture—and finally ending up with Canada’s national sport, the ultimate identifier for many Canadians inside and outside the country. Turns out the story of the word Canuck can tell us quite a bit about our self-perceived national character.
If you’re interested in Canadian vocabulary and etymologies, check out the newly revised second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles freely available online at dchp.ca/dchp2.
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