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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."

'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).

"Camps rarely turn into cabins," he says, "but cabins surely do get renovated into pretty spectacular residences."

From Millionaires' to Billionaires' Row

Of all the terms used in Canada, cottage was the first to move upscale in its pretensions to grandeur, which may explain its residual snob associations. Muskoka, a handy escape for Toronto plutocrats and American industrialists, had its Millionaires' Row in the early 1900s, and vacationers who wanted a sampling of the wilderness experience were already scorning its golf clubs and yacht regattas.

Highway development and automobile ownership opened up cottage country and made it more accessible to the do-it-yourself masses, restoring a certain democratic humility of habitat. But more recently, cottage megalomania has returned: Muskoka now has a Billionaires' Row and helipads for Hollywood holidayers – a far cry from "cottage" in its original sense.

"It's possibly a word brought here by Loyalist settlers," Ms. Barber says, "although these were people who probably didn't have secondary country residences." Native people lived in the woods, and their encampments would occasionally be visited by intrepid travellers such as Catharine Parr Traill in search of the picturesque. Loggers might indeed build a seasonal residence to shorten their commute to work, but it was a makeshift shelter with a down-at-heels name to match – a shanty, a shack, a tilt.

But when railways made the lakes and wilderness more accessible to the upper classes in the later 19th century, the word cottage was available to describe the civilized version of roughing it in the bush – nothing too fancy, but not too crude either, with all the advantages of the city available in a simpler, more restful setting.

This return to nature was predicated on an easy relationship with the beauties of the wild, as seen from the comforts of the veranda in the company of people like oneself. People stayed in railway-owned lodges at first, secure in the company of others. But quite rapidly a rougher, more individualized sense of wilderness experience begin to develop, creating the link we now recognize in Canadian English between the camps and cabins of the loggers and settlers and the cottages of the wealthier urbanites on holiday.

Luxury hotels come to Ontario's rugged Algonquin Park in 1908. By 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway is opening "outpost camps" with individual cedar cabins for guests who want to get closer to the wild (while maintaining access to hot and cold running water). A railway brochure touting the park's creature comforts promises "real camp life with only the rough edges taken off."

So the built-in tensions between vocabulary, locale and experience are integral to the summer-getaway experience.

"The whole thing goes back to the essential Canadian dream, the cabin in the north, the return to nature," says Dom Joly, a British comedian who discovered Muskoka's summers a decade ago. "But Muskoka has gone insane in the 10 years I've been going there. Now, it's like Kennebunkport, with all these uber-cottages."

The linguistic fit may be more of a mismatch than ever. But the pleasure at the heart of it all, the one Mr. Joly keeps returning to despite these delusions of grandeur, remains the throwback experience the summer-getaway words suggest.

"For all that, there's still a sense that you're going back in time a bit," he says. "You don't have to worry about the kids all day, you don't watch television, you play board games, you're cut off from the stress of normal life."

There's only one problem he faces when he tries to spread the word about his Canadian cottage experience, and it's once again a problem of language.

"Do you know what cottaging is here in Britain?" he asks. "I'm being polite here, but it's what George Michael might get up to in a public convenience with another man. So when I tell people I'm off cottaging in Canada, it causes great confusion."

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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