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Friday, July 1, 2016

Do not mispronounce this!

It's Canada Day! Let us look at a Canadianism and how to pronounce it. 

This is "poutine":
Poutine. Do not pronounce like...
I will understand if you non-Canadians are mystified by the ingredients, which are french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. (Acadians in the Maritime Provinces have another kind of poutine, which is a dumpling made of grated and mashed potatoes with pork in the middle. Theirs is the older version of "poutine".)  Even my devotion to real-world research for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary could not persuade me to sample the Quebecois poutine, but it is quite popular with Canadians. 

The ultimate origin of this word beyond Canadian French is uncertain. It is probably derived from various similar words in many French dialects, and influenced by the English word "pudding" (which has a fairly disgusting etymology we'll get into some other time).

The story behind the concoction is that Fernand Lachance, a snack bar owner in Warwick, Quebec (pronounced WAR wick, by the way), when asked by a customer in 1957 to combine fries and cheese in a bag, told him it would be a "maudite poutine" (a hell of  a mess).  But the combination and the word stuck, and made its way into Canadian English starting in the 1980s. You can now buy poutine at Burger Kings across Canada.  Apparently a poutine stand has also just opened at Disney World. Here's the "nutrition" information for a serving of poutine, should you wish to be flabbergasted (not to mention flabby, if you actually eat it):
  • Calories 800
  • Protein  30g
  • Carbohydrates  68g
  • Sugar  2g
  • Fat  45g
  • Saturated Fat  17g
  • Trans Fat 1.5g
  • Cholesterol  95mg
  • Sodium 2860mg
Concerns about health aside, though, the really important thing is not to mispronounce this word. It is pronounced "pooTEEN". But many Canadians have vague memories from their school French lessons that consonants at the ends of French words are silent. (They are sometimes, but not when followed by an "e".) Armed with this little-learning-is-a-dangerous-thing, they bravely order "poo TANG" (with a nasal "a" vowel).

Unfortunately this sounds like the French word putain (whore), ultimately derived from the Latin putidus (stinking, rotten, fetid).


Please do not order a putain when you are at Burger King!

Another entertaining thing about "poutine" is that in French, "Poutine" is also the spelling for Vladimir Putin's surname. It always cracks me up when I read headlines in Quebecois newspapers like "Le pari risqué de Poutine" (Putin's risky gamble).

Although maybe they were talking about the risky gamble of eating poutine!
un maudit Poutine

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  1. Katherine, thank you for clarifying a pressing issue of the day! As it happens, poutine has swept across the States and is now a popular pub food - and of course there's great confusion over how to say it. You've done a public service.

  2. "pou-tang" reminds me of misguided attempts to pronounce "noir" as "noi." Either do a real French "r" sound, or a mild American "r," but no sound at all isn't right in either language.

  3. Have you heard the pronunciation "poo-tin", similar to the way Celine Dion's name is often pronounced "Say-lin"? Is that just a dialectical difference in French?

    1. In most varieties of Canadian French, the syllable would in fact be pronounced more like "tin" (or even "tsin") than "teen" (which is how it would be pronounced in European French.

  4. >French word putain (whore), ultimately derived from the Latin putidus (stinking, rotten, fetid)

    Interesting. In Spanish, "puta" for prostitute, presumably from the same unflattering root. There's also "podrido," rotten, which I believe you (or somebody?) recently wrote about w/r/t "potpourri."

  5. I enjoyed reading about the mix-ups you described, but the photo of the woman labeled "putain" is more misogynistic than amusing. Please let your writing stand on its own without this cheap shot at a woman who may or may not be a sex worker, and in neither case deserves to be labeled a whore.

  6. I'd love to hear the pudding etymological link...


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.