What’s up with ‘eh?’ Researcher studies history of the iconic two-letter word


WATCH: ‘Eh’ is an iconic word that many Canadians love to hate. Ceilidh Millar reports. 

Along Government Street in Victoria, it doesn’t take visitors long to find a souvenir with ‘eh’ on it. 

“A lot of people come here specifically looking for that,” store manager Yusi Liu of Moose Crossing Gifts said.

The term has become a part of Canada’s identity, but where did it come from and why do we use it? 

Derek Denis, a post-doctorate fellow in the department of linguistics at the University of Victoria, has been studying the history of the two-letter word for five years.

“The first time we see ‘eh’ in English literature is in an Irish play in the 1700s” Denis said. 

In Canada, the word dates back well before Confederation more than 150 years ago. 

“It’s not until the 1800s when we see the first Canadian attestation,” Denis said. “So the first time we see ‘eh’ is before Canadian English was [just that.]” 

“So the first time we see ‘eh’ is before Canadian English was [just that.]” 

The two-letter word is what’s called a conformational, a word added onto the end of a sentence to confirm something is true, but other phrases are more common. 

“It’s actually used relatively infrequently when we compare it to other features that function similarly like ‘right’ and ‘you know.'”

Denis said the way we viewed the word changed in the 1980s when SCTV made Bob and Doug McKenzie of ‘The Great White North’ a Canadian stereotype. 

“What happened was that image became part of the Americans perception of Canadians,” Denis said. 

Over the years, Canadians have embraced the word. 

“It’s something that distinguishes us from Americans and for better or worse it distinguishes us when we’re abroad,” explained one man we spoke to. 

“I’m happy to be identified as Canadian a lot of the time around the world,” said one woman. 

Ceilidh MillarCeilidh Millar

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