Katherine Barber, Former Director, Oxford Canadian Dictionary (CBC’s Word Lady)

EVENT DATE: January 8, 2009
TOPIC: Bachelor for Rent

The definition of knowledgeable – Katherine Barber

Long-time editor-in-chief of Canadian dictionaries delivers address to Kingston Canadian Club


Billed as “Canada’s Word Lady”, Katherine Barber – former editor of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary – speaks to the Canadian Club of Kingston Thursday about the use of language in Canada.

Michael Lea /Whig-Standard

Look up the word hockey in your dictionary, Katherine Barber suggests, and you’ll see what makes Canadian English so distinctive.

“If you look in a British dictionary or one of these so-called Canadian dictionaries,” Barber said during a speech yesterday to the Canadian Club of Kingston, “you will discover that hockey is defined as, ‘A game played on a field with 11 players.’ “

That’s not generally the image that comes to mind when we think of the nation’s most beloved winter sport and for Barber, known as Canada’s Word Lady, it illustrates the need for a dictionary from a truly Canadian perspective.

As editor-in-chief of Canadian dictionaries at Oxford University Press from 1991 to 2008, Barber ensured that when we say hockey, “we mean the thing that’s played on ice, we do not mean the thing that is played on grass.”

In her distinctively witty style, Barber’s address – titled Bachelor For Rent – kept the audience entertained with examples culled from her years as a leading authority on Canadian English.

No dictionary, it seemed, could be free of cultural bias, even for seemingly objective words such as place names.

“Dieppe,’ Barber said, “is defined as follows in the Oxford British Dictionary: ‘A port in Normandy from which ferries depart for Newhaven, Sussex.’ ” Barber paused for laughter.

“This is only slightly Britocentric,” she I wrote to my colleagues in Oxford and said, ‘If you’re going to have an entry on Dieppe, don’t you think that you should mention the war?’

“They wrote back and said, ‘Did something happen at Dieppe in the war?’ “

Language, as Barber said, is in her genes. Her mother was an English teacher and her father was always interested in languages. Although she was raised in Winnipeg, Barber was born in England and lived there until she was eight.

“It was a real eye-opener to me that people could speak English in such different ways,” she said. “The difference between British English and Canadian English … piqued my interest.”

Aside from a unique combination of British and American spelling, Canadian English developed into its present form through British political institutions and the country’s bilingual status, which helped terms from Canadian French -poutine, anyone? -seep into the lexicon.

“The fact that Canada is a multicultural society means that we borrow from Italian and Ukrainian and Icelandic … and Canadian native peoples,” Barber said. “Then, of course, we have to use words that describe our particular geographic reality, dealing with the winter and so on.”

Barber’s most reliable rhetorical device was describing Canadian English from the perspective of an American visitor, for whom terms like “loonie,” meaning dollar, and “Can Stud,” meaning Canadian Studies, can be incomprehensible.

“If we are to maintain Canadian English,” Barber concluded, “we have to make sure that we maintain our Can-Stud attitude and never run out of loonies.”

Article ID# 1379974