First, this question is not meant to be controversial. My goal is to have an analytical, academic discussion of this, for some, emotionally-charged word.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it was brought to the forefront after a discussion with one of my podcast guests. You see, she grew up about thirty miles from where I did, and we both have totally opposite impressions of this word.
I grew up in central Massachusetts. When I was learning French in high school, my mother would review the French vocabulary words with me. We would laugh over the difference in pronunciation. Her pronunciation sounded quite strange to ears that were used to hearing the Parisian French taught in school. Her explanation was, “I speak Canuck French.”
Then, of course, there’s the Canadian hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks.
With both my mother and an entire hockey team identifying themselves as Canucks, I grew up believeing it was simply a synonym for French-Canadians or Canadians. No negative connotations at all.
Then, a couple years ago, I read a conversation online where people were discussing how the word Canuck brought back horrible memories for them—images of name-calling and feelings of inferiority. If I’m remembering correctly, the people most negatively affected were those who grew up in Maine. My podcast guest, who lived a mere thirty miles distant in western Massachusetts, also had similar memories of the word.
How could two people living such a short distance apart in the same state have such totally different understandings of the meaning of this word?
So I asked my 80-year-old uncle if he had ever heard the word growing up. He said, “Sure. My best friend called me a maudit Canuck and I called him a maudit Irishman.” Then they walked away still best friends.
So I started thinking. How can the same word have such a different meaning to different people? Is it simply a matter of context? It depends if it’s said affectionately or with malice. Is it like the N—– word with African-Americans? It’s okay if they use the word with each other, but it’s very offensive when used by others. Is it a matter of geography? It’s non-offensive in Canada, but to immigrants in America, it claimed an entirely different meaning. Are there some parts of America where it’s a bad word, but other parts where it’s not?
Which connotation does the word hold for you? Also tell us the geographic location and time period to which you refer. Did it have a neutral connotation growing up in Place A in the ‘80s? Did it have a negative connotation growing up in Place B in the ‘60s? What about its present connotation where you are located now? I’d hate to use the word (as I sometimes do) and offend someone. Knowledge is the key.