Why do Canadians say ‘eh’ and what does it mean?

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One of the most popular Canadianisms is the use of the word “eh.” It’s a Canadian linguistic stereotype together with “aboot.” Have you ever wondered why Canadians say it all the time?

The origin of “eh”

The use of “eh” predates Confederation. Its first known use was in an Irish play written in 1773 called She stoops to Conquor. More than 60 years later, Thomas Chandler- Haliburton published The Clockmaker (1836) and the dialogue in the sketches are peppered heavily with “eh.” This points to the fact that Canadians have been using it for as long as Canadian English has been around.

“Eh” became entrenched as characteristically Canadian in the 1970s and 80s. In 1971, Time Magazine published the article Canadian English: It’s a little different, eh? which focused on “eh” as a true Canadianism. Then in the ’80s, characters Bob and Doug McKenzie of the hit show Great White North popularized the hoser stereotype. “Hoser” is a derogatory term meaning an unsophisticated slob who watches hockey all day, drinks beer all the time, wears a lot of flannel and ends each sentence with “eh.” The satire made an indelible mark in popular culture.

Why do Canadians say ‘eh’? CBC News

What actually is “eh”

In linguistics, “eh” is called an invariant tag. A tag is a word, sound, or short phrase added after a thought, shifting that thought in some way. “Eh” is of the invariant variety because it doesn’t change every time it is used. In the sentence, “Nice day, eh?”, it is used as a tag which changed the thought into a question. The “eh” here could be replaced by “isn’t it?” and have the same meaning. However “isn’t it” is a variant tag because if the subject and tense of the sentence changed, then you would have to make it “aren’t they” or ‘wasn’t it.” But not with the good old “eh.” You can just add it at the end of any statement and not be bothered by the subject or tense. It’s so convenient to use, it’s probably why you hear it all the time.

“Eh” is also called a confirmational, which means a word attached at the end of a sentence to confirm if something is true. For example, “It’s getting cold, eh” or “That game was intense, eh.”

Aside from frequent use, it is also said to be a reflection of Canadian identity because it connotes politeness, friendliness, and inclusivity. It softens a sentence to involve the listener, asking their opinion on the matter and including them in the conversation.

The many uses of “eh”

Aside from turning a thought into a question, “eh” can also be used:

  1. To state an opinion – For example: “It was a good movie, eh?”
  2. As exclamation or to express surprise“What an ending, eh?” or “What a game, eh?”
  3. To state a request or command – “Put that here, eh?”
  4. To confirm (or soften) a criticism“You really messed that one up, eh?”
  5. As the narrative “eh” – “Eh” used in storytelling denotes that there is more to come. It also engages the listener, using it to make sure that the person is still listening. “So I went to this party, eh?” “And everyone there was drunk, eh?” “And so, I …”

Newcomers might find it amusing (or endearing) when Canadians use it a lot in conversations. While we might still feel a little awkward using it ourselves in everyday conversations, it’s important that we know what it means and how it is used. Who knows, one of these days you might catch yourself feeling the urge to end your sentence with a little “eh” to complete your thought.

Don’t worry, that day will come. Give it time, eh.
Article updated July 8, 2020.
Sources: Why do Canadians say ‘eh’? by Dan Nosowitz, Jan 10, 2017, Atlas Obscura; Why do Canadians say “eh”? BCB News. Both accessed December 14, 2017.

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