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.