Canada is a country with no shortage of nature and not nearly enough summer.
No wonder the weekend-exodus season begins as early as it does: With the head start provided by Queen Victoria’s thoughtful holiday, time spent at the summer getaway is precious for those Canadians who have one.
If the national identity is defined through some ever-evolving sense of accommodation between a small number of people and a vast amount of wilderness, then the summer place comes close to the heart of Canadianness. But the place that has the power to unite the country in a collective understanding of pleasure and beauty and carefree escape also has the strange ability to make us different from one another.
It all begins with language. Where do you go in the summer, or where do you hope to be invited by friends who see you as an essential refinement in their authentic backwoods experience? The cabin, the cottage, the lake, the chalet, the camp, the shack or – my, aren’t we fancy – the summer house?
“The whole phenomenon is such a central part of the Canadian experience,” says Katherine Barber, editor of the landmark Canadian Oxford English Dictionary. “And yet I can’t think of any other item that has this much variation in terminology.”
At the linguistic level at least, we’re a nation divided. Most of the words we use for our hinterland retreats are suitably rustic and modest, but just because they come close to being synonymous in the dictionary doesn’t mean you can trot them back and forth across the country and treat them as all-purpose lingua franca.
When Charles Boberg, a professor of linguistics at McGill University, conducted the North American Regional Vocabulary Survey from 1999 to 2005, he asked respondents what word they would use to describe “a small house in the countryside, often by a lake, where people go on summer weekends.”
The answers he got back were all over the map. The preference for the word cabin ranged from 85 per cent in Newfoundland and 72 per cent in the Vancouver-Victoria area to zero in Toronto. Camp was under 10 per cent across the rest of the country, but in New Brunswick was the choice of 28 per cent and in Northwestern Ontario soared to 78 per cent.
Chalet as a summer place barely registers outside Quebec, but 21 per cent of English-speaking Montrealers used the term. Cottage is dominant in Prince Edward Island (67 per cent), Nova Scotia (78 per cent), and Eastern and Southern Ontario, peaking at 89 per cent in Toronto (where a few also refer to “the lake,” which is more widely embraced in Manitoba, along with cottage and cabin).
In Alberta (66 per cent) and Saskatchewan (58 per cent), cabin is the majority preference. Pretty well every region admits cottage as an option, but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.
In fact, the best way to inflict a centre-of-the-universe attitude on fellow Canadians, linguistically speaking, is to talk about your summer cottage. They may understand what you think you’re referring to, but that doesn’t mean they want to hear the Southern Ontario norm being imposed on their particular patch of idealized nature. You might as well say the Maple Leafs are Canada’s Team.
For novelist Michael Crummey, growing up among Newfoundland’s cabins and camps, “there was something grand and effete in the notion of the cottage. A cottage was where rich people lived when they weren’t hanging out at the mansion.”
He went off to live in Kingston, Ont., and not surprisingly his working vocabulary adapted. The problem is that he continued to use the foreign term when he returned home. “People still make fun of me if I slip up and use it: ‘Oh, the Cottage,’ they’ll say in something approaching a fey English accent.”
Not fair, say the good people of Ontario who, after all, are only using the word they’ve grown up with, the one they use to communicate with their own kind.
But, of course, they’ll do the same thing to outsiders who violate the local linguistic code. “When I first moved to Ontario,” says Cameron Clark, a lawyer from Victoria, “people would raise their eyebrows if I referred to a cabin.”