English, as Canadians speak it, is probably more unusual than we think. It’s true many people now use such Americanisms as gotta, vacation, and even that abomination, huh, but much vocabulary remains unique to us. Fiddleheads, chinook, tuque, toonie, and loonie are examples.
The loonie went into circulation 24 years ago, and, as far as I know, is never called by any other name. The word sprang up spontaneously in all parts of Canada almost as soon as the coin was minted in 1987. Although loonie was originally viewed as a nickname for the one-dollar coin, the appellation stuck.
Toonie didn’t gain popularity as quickly. In fact, several other words were suggested, among them doubleloonie. My own favourite among the rejected names was nanook, Inuit for “polar bear.” But toonie is what took hold.
The toonie, sometimes spelled twoonie, has been around since 1996 and, like the loonie, is never now called anything else.
So it’s a mystery that those dictionaries which
actually list these words still consider them “informal.” Actually, most dictionaries ignore both words. Our Canadian publications, Nelson Canadian, Canadian Oxford, and Collins Gage Canadian, all do list them, but also label them “informal.”
When lexicographers say a word is “informal,” they are indicating that the word should be used only in conversation, never in writing.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, goes still further. In that text, toonie is ignored
altogether, and loonie is viewed as slang. The recent Oxford publication, New Words, doesn’t bother with
I think both loonie and toonie have been around long enough to be seen as legitimate Canadian nouns. Both appear often in print and no journalist still places quotation marks around them.
Naturally, other countries’ currencies also have received nicknames. The British term quid, used for the pound, is probably named after the former site of England’s mint — Quidhampton — although some sources suggest it’s from the Latin quid pro quo (something for something).
The U.S. designation for a $10 bill is a “sawbuck.” Considered slang, this term is derived from the Roman numeral for 10 (X). The X is the same shape as a “sawbuck” or “sawhorse,” a contrivance used for holding a log in place while it is sawed into pieces.
However, words like quid and sawbuck (and buck, itself) have never been universally used in the way we see with loonie and toonie.
The loon, as portrayed on our gold-coloured,
11-sided, one-dollar coin, is the work of Ontario
wildlife artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael. The toonie’s polar bear is by artist Tony Bianco, also an
A loon is any aquatic diving bird of the Gaviidae family. Our Canadian common loon has a haunting call which, once heard, is never forgotten.
The word loon is from the Old Norse, lómr, probably referring to this bird’s unusual call. Loon has been known in English since 1634. Loon, as used for someone who is deranged, or in the offensive slang term loony bin, has a different source — the Middle English louen (rogue).