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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, January 11, 2013

Slip sliding away

After an almost snowless winter last year, the kids in Toronto are once more enjoying the thrills of sliding down a snowy slope on a toboggan.

The word comes to us from an Algonquian language, probably Mi'kmaq or Abenaki. As early as the 1690s, the French in Canada were talking about the tabaganne, a very useful invention of the native peoples for transporting things over snow. The Algonquian word is derived ultimately from two roots meaning "a device" and "pulling by a cord". When English speakers moved north to Canada after the American Revolution, they too adopted both the word and the thing from the French Canadians.

Canadians may find it amusing to know that, in some parts of the US, a toboggan is what we would call a toque (see this post), so you might come across a sentence like "The burglar was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants"! Check out this link.


  1. When we lived in France, our landlady confused us by giving directions such as, "Go under the tobogan and turn right". In France, the toboggan is the slide, not the sliding device, and this was the local name for the overpass!

    1. Thanks for that, Snowparrot. I knew about "toboggan" meaning "slide" in French and even thought of mentioning it, but had no idea it had extended to highway ramps, though you can see how it would. I love how words are so slippery and keep acquiring new meanings!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.