Compiled and edited over twenty years, the Dictionary of Cape Breton English records the social cultural and economic lives of Cape Bretoners. Drawing on archival, published, and oral sources, the quotations supporting the definitions tell the stories of Capers at work, play, socializing, sharing music and food, joking, and many other aspects of daily life. The Gaelic, French and Mi’kmaw communities have also contributed words. The book is accessible to the general reader and is also a resource for those working in regional dialects and Atlantic studies.

The following posts highlight some of these words (and some not included) and provide a little of their backstories.

(William Davey and Richard MacKinnon, Dictionary of Cape Breton English, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016)


Cape Breton Words


Right good is right old

A friend mentioned that “right good” is a typical example of Cape Breton slang. While considered regional or old-fashioned by many dictionaries, “right good” is not slang, which is often defined as undignified language. In addition, the phrase has a long history. The earliest record is “rihht god inoh” (right good enough) from the early 1200s (Oxford English Dictionary Online).

What is a little odd about right good is that right is usually an adjective, but here it is an adverb intensifying the adjective good, the way the adverb “very” frequently does. At the same time, this little oddity happily survives in formal and prestigious phrases like the “right honourable” and “right reverend.”

Right good is one of the many examples of a phrase that originated in England but later fell out of fashion only to survive regionally in the UK, the US, and Canada, including Cape Breton.

Like many human creations, languages are subject to fashion and change.

For more on Cape Breton words, see W. Davey and R. MacKinnon, Dictionary of Cape Breton English, available from the University of Toronto Press.

Questions and comments are welcome at bill_davey@cbu.ca.

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Origin of Boy and B’y

I received an email asking about boy, often pronounced as b’y or bye. The writer and his Newfoundland friend were debating whether Newfoundlanders or Cape Bretoners were the first to use b’y in expressions like “How’s she going, b’y?”

The short answer is that Newfoundlanders have been using boy/b’y as a familiar term for a male of any age (as opposed to referring to a young male) longer than Capers. The Dictionary of Newfoundland has 1863 as its earliest date for this meaning, and the earliest that we found for the Dictionary of Cape Breton English is 1925.

I didn’t hear whether this answer helped or hindered the emailer’s friendship, but it might help to know that this sense of boy dates from the sixteenth century and the b’y pronunciation is found in Middle English (Oxford English Dictionary Online). The survival of the b’y pronunciation is probably furthered by Irish English where the /oi/ sound (as in “boil”) may be pronounced as /ai/ (as in “bile”) as in “Put the ket’l on to bile, b’y.”

If anyone comes across Cape Breton evidence earlier than 1925 for boy/b’y being used in Cape Breton, please let us know using the contact information below.

For more on Cape Breton words, see W. Davey and R. MacKinnon, Dictionary of Cape Breton English, available from the University of Toronto Press.

Questions and comments are welcome at bill_davey@cbu.ca.

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Barachois: The land and water word

I first became aware of the word barachois (also spelled barrachois) from Barachois Harbour where my daughter liked to fish as a child. In Cape Breton, a barachois is understood as both a water and land feature: a coastal pond, at times partially opened to the larger body of water, and also sand or gravel bar that separates the pond from the larger body of water.

The meaning of barachois differs elsewhere. The Gage Canadian Dictionary sees it as a narrow strip of sand or gravel, a causeway (land only), and the Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English defines it as a “backwater, near the mouth of a river; a marsh” (water only).

Although the term is widely used in Nova Scotia in over thirty place names, Cape Breton has the earliest written evidence in English for the term. The eighteenth-century French administrator and British spy Thomas Pichon describes a barachois as a pond separated by a causeway from the sea. He adds, “There is no possibility of travelling even the distance of a league along the coast without meeting some of these pieces of water” (Genuine Letters . . . Cape Breton, 1760, 21).

The next time you have a flight over the Nova Scotia coastline, or especially the Bras d’Or Lake, look for these land and water features. Pichon was right about their abundance.

For more on Cape Breton words, see W. Davey and R. MacKinnon, Dictionary of Cape Breton English, available from the University of Toronto Press.

Questions and comments are welcome at bill_davey@cbu.ca.

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Words missing in action

As well as selecting words, dictionary editors also have to be gatekeepers who reject some words.

One of several principles used in editing the Dictionary of Cape Breton English required the words to be “characteristic” of Cape Breton speech. In practical terms, this meant three or more pieces of evidence (attestations) for each word included. By contrast, my wife and I will occasionally say “froggy” for “foggy” because, at one time, a young member of our family said this. This use has sentimental value to our family, but it is not “characteristic” of Cape Breton usage.

Because of this principle of inclusion, we held back interesting words like stump potatoes (potatoes planted between the stumps after the forest has been cleared and burnt), sham marriages (those awaiting a church wedding), and milk leg (a swollen leg after giving birth).

However, rather than being heartless gatekeepers, we are more like Robert Frost’s narrator in “After Apple Picking,” who is troubled by dreams of the apples (or words) left unharvested. If you know of words missing from the Dictionary of Cape Breton English, let us know using the contact information below.

For more on Cape Breton words, see W. Davey and R. MacKinnon, Dictionary of Cape Breton English, available from the University of Toronto Press.

Questions and comments are welcome at bill_davey@cbu.ca.

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