Two Countries Separated by a Common Language and a Five Thousand Mile Border

Two years ago my wife and I were in Vancouver for our annual Christmas vacation.  It was cold and raining, and I foolishly had nothing on my head, so we made an emergency stop into the North Face on Fourth in Kitsilano. “Do you have any hats?” I said to the sales clerk, meaning “Please show me where the hats are.”  “No, sorry,” he replied. “We don’t have any hats.”

This was so clearly absurd, but he didn’t seem to be messing with me.  I stood there flummoxed, the tips of my ears painfully thawing, trying to think of a way to rephrase the question without insulting the guy.  Meanwhile my wife had noticed a rack of hats against the wall. “What about these?” she said.

The sales clerk brightened. “Oh sure, we have toques.”

To the (native anglophone as far as I could tell) clerk, a hat was exclusively a thing with a brim.  To me, anything you put on your head is a hat, and toques, derbies, gimme caps, and so forth are all hyponyms.  This was the only time in my life that a difference in Canadian and American English had been a source of actual miscommunication, instead of just mild amusement.  Though on that same day I took the word “toque” into my vocabulary.  My previous terms “little wool knit cap” and “ski cap” were either too clunky or absurd because I don’t ski.  I had gone that far in my life unaware I had a semantic gap until a Canadian import filled it.

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