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Camp, cottage or cabin? What do you call your weekend getaway? Add to ...

‘Originally used for a peasant’s home or farm’ It’s a strange thing to stand accused of committing a linguistic faux pas when you’re using the word that’s correct and exact in your own milieu. Yet most Canadians would raise their eyebrows in similar circumstances, as if you were passing judgment on their habitat or somehow elevating yourself by reaching for exotic terminology – if your outsider’s term doesn’t sound would-be genteel, then it’s probably faux-rustic. Either way, it’s jarringly foreign in a highly localized context where people are used to understanding and agreement.

Because even though a cabin is virtually synonymous with cottage at the level of assumed humbleness, the implications in a Canadian setting are far different.

“It’s interesting that, in Ontario, the word recruited for this meaning was originally used for a peasant’s home or farm,” Prof. Boberg says. “Whereas the one used in Western Canada referred more to a rude shack built in the woods by pioneers or loggers – perhaps indicating a more virile western kind of experience versus a more genteel Ontario experience. And then camp is the ultimate virile word.”

Them’s fightin’ words. But even without an innate sense of conflict based on local self-image, descriptions like cabin and cottage may be predisposed to have a regional distinctiveness. “The terms evoke a very different summer experience dictated by geography, temperature, climate,” Mr. Campbell notes with lawyerly precision.

That’s part of the explanation for the amazing variation in our summer-house vocabulary: A building so deeply integrated with our understanding of nature is subject to huge variations in terrain, the materials the landscape provides, the physical conditions under which buildings are built and people choose to live.

But language at the local level responds to many other pressures of history and the contributions of settlement and the whimsy of etymology. Why do Anglo Montrealers call their rural getaway a chalet? From the French, of course, but also, Prof. Boberg speculates, because the real-estate word for cottage was already taken by a two-storey city house.

The dominance of camp in the two widely separated entities of Northwestern Ontario and New Brunswick troubles word people. Ms. Barber speculates that the joint connection is through logging camps common to both areas – “rudimentary but permanent structures for seasonal use in the countryside,” is her phrase for tying it all together. Prof. Boberg notes that camp is also a popular word in New England and may have simply migrated across the border, but he can’t explain Northwestern Ontario’s outlier position.

Even further apart from the norm is Cape Breton, where the standard word for a summer place is bungalow – originally a Hindustani word used to describe a low house with a veranda in the cooler foothills of the Himalayas that the British would have adopted as a summer retreat.

Somehow the word got to Cape Breton, and Cape Breton alone, to a denote a beloved family cottage of the kind British potentates wouldn’t acknowledge.

“Cottage here has the notion of something more expensive than a bungalow, more upper class,” says William Davey of Cape Breton University. “A bungalow is very modest, put together on weekends; you buy the cheapest materials you can and don’t worry about longevity. But there’s a great pride about them because most have been in the family for several generations.”

According to Newfoundland humourist Ray Guy, writing in 1975, the most common term for a summer place in his part of the world, however beautiful or spacious, is “a shack in the country” – one of those self-deprecating terms that grounds contemporary backwoods longings in a simpler, rougher past. The language of local habitat seems to have a natural conservatism, especially in buildings that pass from generation to generation – it’s a lot easier to keep an older word in the family, even as the shack gets renovated and upgraded into something more cottage-like.

Yet for novelist Michael Winter, who came to Newfoundland from England as a small child, “shack” doesn’t exist – the operative words are the utilitarian camp (“for hunting from, or for picking berries’), the “house around the bay,” (a fixed-up outport house) and the cabin, made for pleasure and situated on a “pond” (i.e. lake).

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