Who's up for burbee?

A story in Sunday’s Star highlighted the difficulty of counting the number of words in the English language, partly because of all of the local dialects constantly spawning words that never make it into dictionaries. And these aren’t just national or regional dialects, either; words can be hyper-local:

In Toronto, a popular schoolyard game involves painting (or chalking) a rectangular strike zone on a wall. There’s a pitcher, who aims for the strike zone, and a batter, who stands in front of it. It’s called “burbee” in Toronto’s east end, “french” in parts of East York, and “wall ball” in other areas of the city.

None of those expressions made it into Barber’s book, Only in Canada, You Say, a treasury of words unique to the great dominion. Nor does “squared,” a Torontoism of ancient coinage that means, well, kicked in the groin.

I grew up in three different parts of East York and we didn’t call it french in any of them. We always played burbee. I didn’t encounter the term french (for this or other entertainments) until well into my teens, despite regular exposure to kids from all over East York. There was a severe shortage of suitable walls during my Scarborough years, so not only did I not play burbee, but I have no memory of ever even mentioning it. Good thing too, as I probably would have been laughed out of the borough for calling it burbee instead of wall ball. As for getting squared, how can such a wonderful term for such an awful thing be limited to use by Torontonians? For that matter, I don’t think I’ve heard it for 20 years or longer.

It’s wonderfully surprising to discover that some of the language I grew up with would have sounded foreign to kids just a few blocks away.

15 Replies to “Who's up for burbee?”

  1. Hahaha, squared. I can’t believe I forgot about that. I’m going to find some way to reuse it. Hopefully not because *I’m* getting squared. Hah.

  2. And on the topic of games:

    We used to play “ledgies” at my elementary school in Hamilton. The game consisted of throwing a tennis ball at the wall aiming for this narrow 45-degree “ledge”. When the ball hit the ledge it popped up into the air. Whoever caught the “ledgie” got a point.

    We also played “foot hockey”. I think that might be the most Canadian name for a game ever, considering that it was basically just a combination of soccer with a tennis ball / street hockey with no sticks.

    1. Hey Vic. Wow, it’s been so long since I heard the term ledgies. Yeah, my freinds and I used to play that game at our old elementary school in Niagara Falls. The school wall had the same narrow angled ledge, probably about four or five feet from the ground. I remember using tennis or sponge balls back then. We would play 3 or 4 people across, with the first person to 10 winning the game.

      Great memories…

  3. Good to know that “squared” has seen a larger audience.

    We used to play ledgies too, though I have no distinct memory of what it was called or even what our specific rules were. You needed to go to a school of a certain age to play it, though; modern schools generally don’t have the same brickwork. We had two ledges at my school, and I’m certain that the points were different depending on whether you hit the upper or lower ledge.

    As for foot hockey, it must be a schoolyard staple everywhere in Canada. At my public school, the basement windows were the perfect size to be used as goals. They were covered in heavy steel mesh, probably after too many frozen tennis balls smashed into the boiler room.

    Also, a fellow East Yorker has confirmed that he played burbee but was aware that some kids called it french. Wall ball is just wrong.

  4. I grew up in Scarborough and played lots of burbee. When I went off to university and I mentioned the term I got very strange looks. Everyone I met, no matter where they were from in Canada knew the game as wall ball.

  5. Well now, I also grew up in East York (north of Massey Creek) and we called it french. In fact I’d never heard of burbee until I was an adult.

  6. grew up on the Danforth – we called it burbee. When we moved to Oshawa for a short time we painted a box on the school wall. We heard later that the school thought it was some kind of satanic symbol!

  7. Played hours and hours of burbee at St. Brendan’s and Centennial Rd. schools (among other places in Scarborough) growing up. Live in East York now, but don’t know what the kids call it. Wall ball is so U.S.!

  8. I’m 40 and grew up in Scarberia. We played burbee at Blantyre PS, along with four square and dodgeball. One risked being “squared” in all three sports.

    Glad to hear that others remember this pastime.

  9. I grew up in the Beach and played burbee at St, John’s, Adam Beck, St. Dennis, Balmy Beach and Blantyre and well as a a few other boxes in the hood. I use to love those skinned tennis ball the one the dog had chewed the cover off of. I could make them curve five feet right into the center of the box. We use to play ledges against the church of St. Johns and more than once I got squared or if nothing else we;d give my friend Fish a Gotchie ( atomic wedgie ) you know what I mean.

  10. I lived on the edge of East York and Scarboro and there were 3 schools we played burbee at St. Bernadettes, Secord School and another one which the name escapes me. That was over 40 years ago and I never heard the term french until well into my teens as well. And I still get odd looks when I mention this game to anyone, anywhere except those I still know from East York…

  11. Philip says: I played burbee when I was in my early teens. I’m 60 years old now. There was a vacant building on my street where I grew up. We drew a chalked box on this building, and considered it to be home plate. I only remember the game been called burbee, nothing else. We used a rubber ball, not a tennis ball. It was sure lots of fun to play.

  12. I went searching for the word “burbee” to check the correct spelling, and would you know that this was the only page that contained the reference to the game? My brain had stored away burbee as the term used for playing baseball against a brick wall, with a batter, pitcher and one outfielder, with backpacks or school books used as markers to delineate the single, double, triple and home run lines…it never occurred to me that it would be called something different in another part of the country, let alone a few blocks away…

    I went to elementary school in Guildwood in the 1980’s. Thanks for sharing.

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