Thursday, February 10, 2011

Snowflakes keep falling on my head

Snowflakes keep falling on my head
They claim to speak English in Canada – the Queen’s English, given that this vast swath of land which comprises the northern half of North America still recognises Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as its official head of state.
But if you arrive in this cold frosty country in the middle of January – which is considered to be the peak winter month – you will hear the natives speak words that you have probably never encountered before in any other English-speaking land. While these words are all part of a distinctive Canadian lexicon, you will soon start to wish that you had never heard of at least some of them…
Wind chill factor
Once you begin to understand what these three otherwise innocuous words really stand for when they are put together, you will never leave home without wearing at least three layers of warm clothing or checking the weather channel on television.
For example, on any given winter day the thermostat might say it is ‘only’ minus 17 degrees Celsius, but in fact when you ‘factor’ in the outcome of  the howling ‘wind’ on the air temperature, the actual ‘chill’ felt on exposed skin can be as much as (or as low as) minus 30 degrees Celsius – or worse.

Those who attempt to ignore the chill factor or pay it little heed, leave themselves open to the unwelcome effects of frostbite, which is another well-known word in the Canadian English dictionary. In extreme cases of frostbite it is possible for one’s skin or tissues to become numb and even permanently damaged.
Freezing rain
To one who has grown up in the land of monsoon rains, the term freezing rain makes no sense at all – in the beginning at least. Then, sadly, the bitter cold reality sets in and one cannot help but want to turn to one’s imaginary dog and utter á la Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: ‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’
Freezing rain occurs when raindrops pass through a sub-freezing layer of air and then land on surfaces that are also below freezing temperature. The falling drops of water freeze upon impact and turn into ice, which can accumulate to a thickness of several centimetres. When a storm creates a significant amount of freezing rain, it is referred to as an ice storm. That’s right, another ‘cool’ term that needs to be memorised by those who must survive the treacherous Canadian winter.
Black ice
And if you thought that things could not possibly get any worse, there is always that wonder of nature called black ice. Not necessarily black, this particular category of frozen water is actually transparent but when it occurs on sidewalks and roads it takes on the hue of the asphalt so that it appears to be black. As such it is usually not visible to the human eye, but its tendency to be highly slippery has proven to be particularly hazardous for drivers and pedestrians.
But take heart, because it’s not all bad news from this winter wonderland. Indeed, there is no better time than winter to partake of those scrumptious, deep-fried BeaverTails, made by a Canadian-based chain of the same name. Warm, delicious and best enjoyed with a hot cup of coffee, this traditional Canadian treat almost makes up for the harshness of its winters – almost.
Oh wait. Why those looks of shocks and groans of disgust? Oh no. No need to worry. No furry animals are harmed in the making of these pastries; they are so named because they are shaped like the tail of one of Canada’s most popular national symbols – the beaver.
Even President Obama made it a point to make a surprise stop at the original location of BeaverTails – the kiosk outside Ottawa’s Byward Market – to buy the sweet treat during his official visit in 2009. Although traditionally made with cinnamon sugar, these goodies can also be eaten with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, maple butter, jam or any combination thereof.
Okay, alright, so this spoken interjection has nothing to do with January or the cold winter months, but it is so particular to Canada that it would almost be a sin not to include it in this discussion of Canadian vocabulary.
Although generally regarded to be the equivalent of ‘right?’ or ‘huh?’, this one word can be used any number of ways in a conversation. It may be used to frame a question (nice day, eh?), and it may also be employed to denote shock or surprise (Eh????). But in whichever way it is used, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary it ‘ascertaining the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed.’
It also clearly indicates ‘the speaker’s willingness to accept dissent or to invite further discussion.’ Which is, I suppose, one way to while away these long winter evenings.

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