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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Slip sliding away: sled or toboggan?

When I was a kid I loved to go tobogganing. My siblings and I would take a toboggan like the one pictured above to our local park and hurtle down the toboggan runs that the parks staff set up each year. Never would I have said, "I'm taking my sled and going sledding". For me, a sled has runners and a toboggan does not.

 Furthermore, "sled" is what Americans said for this favourite Canadian winter activity. But it seems to me that I am seeing "sled" more for it. "Toboggan" is certainly not gone: it is the term the City of Toronto uses on its website. 
It is hard to compare relative frequencies of "toboggan" and "sled" scientifically since the latter has many meanings other than "toboggan":


  • 1. a low vehicle mounted on runners for conveying heavy loads or passengers over snow or ice, usu. drawn by horses, dogs, or people.
  • 2. a similar but usu. smaller vehicle, or any of various devices made of moulded plastic, used esp. by children to coast down hills for amusement.
  • 3. a snowmobile.
  • 4. Cdn (North) a covered vehicle mounted on runners and pulled by a snowmobile or tractor with caterpillar treads, used to carry freight or crew as part of a cat train.
  • 5 a bobsled  
But if we look at 1980-83 in Canadian newspapers we find no uses of "sledding" to mean "tobogganing", whereas from 2017 to 2020 there are several.
We inherited "toboggan" from an Eastern Algonquian language, either Maliseet-Passamaquoddy (spoken in New Brunswick and Maine) or Mi'kmaq (spoken in the Atlantic Provinces), probably by way of French. The elements of the native languages mean "device pulled by a cord".
A usage of "toboggan" from the South and Midwestern United States that would leave Canadians perplexed to say the least is illustrated by the following quotes:

1907   Weekly Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) 24 Apr.   If an infant has been wearing a woolen toboggan this winter, it can now be changed on a warm day to a Swiss bonnet.
1975   Raleigh (N. Carolina) News & Observer 6 Jan. 24/4   The burglar was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said.

Well, now you have a bizarre image in your mind!

This is what we Canadians would call a "toque" (pronounced TUKE), a close fitting knitted cap, originally with a long tapered end (to wrap around your face to keep it warm). Toques nowadays do not have these long tapered ends, though I can attest from my childhood that they were very practical. In the States this was originally called a "toboggan cap" before being abbreviated.

Voyageur wearing the original toque

If you're Canadian, have you noticed "sled" creeping up on  "toboggan"? What do you say? Have you ever heard of a toque being called a toboggan?

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  1. I most often hear people talk about going tobogganing, even when they're using a sled.

  2. That's interesting! I grew up in England where, if we were lucky and had some snow, our parents took us toboganning down a local hill. It was exhilarating because it was a sturdy wooden structure on runners that could carry three or four people (Swiss-made, if I remember correctly) and built up a scary speed -- especially with a grove of trees waiting at the bottom of the hill! I was unfamiliar with the term "sled" until I came to Canada.

  3. I grew up in upstate New York (60 mile from the Canadian border) in the 1960s. As kids, we also loved to go tobogganing and sledding. We used the the words "toboggan" and "sled", at least back then, the same way as you do.

  4. Since the only thing to do in 2021 is go outside, I will make a plan to go to my local hill and see if anyone is sporting a toboggan and tight pants. Thank you for the fun, Wordlady!

  5. I England, although we did know what a toboggan was, ours were always called "sledges" and we went "sledging" in Winter. The word "sled" was totally unknown.

  6. A recent article using toboggan, sled, and slide. About Quebec. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/toboggan-knowlton-academy-1.5907739

  7. I've always called it tobogganing (and so does everyone else in my area (Toronto). I have a pretty big sample size as I work next to a toboggan hill and get a lot of questions about it.) The thing I find interesting is people call the activity tobogganing but refer to the device used as a sled or toboggan interchangeably.

  8. In Newfoundland we had individual slides/sleds with runners that could be steered by turning the front section a little bit. They were called "slides."

  9. To me a toque (toke) is a Chef Boyardee hat. A tuque (tuke) is the close fitting knitted cap with or without a long tapered end or pom pom that one would wear tobogganing, never "sledding", whether using a runnered "sled" or a proper wooden toboggan or other similar plastic or aluminum conveyance. Cultural reference 1960's Toronto, Riverdale or Withrow Parks.

  10. In our family we refer to a sled as a device WITH RUNNERS (with or without steering). We use our sled to tow or pull a child when going for winter hikes and when there is a lot of snow on the sidewalks and we can't use the stroller (or is it a wagon or pram? LOL). We never use our sled to go downhill "tobogganing". When we want to play in the snow, we use a "toboggan". We have both an older wooden toboggan (60's version now used by my grandson) or a more modern and faster plastic toboggan.


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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.