10.07.2013 09:14 PM

In Tuesday’s Sun: the national language omnishambles

Language changes.

Many eons ago at Carleton University’s journalism school, Prof. Roger Bird was listening to some of us energetically debate whether the proper spelling was “cigarette” (as The Canadian Press style guide dictated) or “cigaret” (as the Globe and Mail then bizarrely insisted).

Finally, Bird, who most of us adored, held up his hand. “Look,” he said. “Language is dynamic, guys. It changes all the time. Journalism, and society, have to accept that and reflect that.” Bird, or course, was right. Thus, every year, we hear about how new words and phrases are added to the lexicon.

The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, has just this year accepted “selfie” (a photo of oneself, taken by oneself), “phablet” (a device somewhere between smartphone and tablet), and, my personal favourite, “omnishambles,” which is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.”

The way in which we deal with important symbolic Canadian things, like our national anthem, are usually an omnishambles.

In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to his credit, used the Throne Speech to announce that he wanted to restore the “original gender-neutral wording of our national anthem.”

That is, change Robert Stanley Weir’s famous lyric, “in all thy sons command,” to “in all of us command.” Two words. From what it has been, to what it originally was.

A national omnishambles thereupon erupted, with traditionalist folks, mainly Conservatives, braying and screeching that the world was about to end.

At the time, I opined that the Conservatives had made a mistake, not in the decision they had made, but in the ham-fisted way in which they had communicated it. They thereafter beat an indignified retreat, and the anthem remained as is, in all of its boys-only ingloriousness.

Until last week, that is, when a group of prominent women — Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats among them — launched a super-slick website respectfully requesting the change to the original words. Some of these wild-eyed radicals included a former Conservative prime minister and a current Conservative senator.

To those who would say “enough with changey stuff, already,” the Restore Our Anthem group say: “In our opinion, change never stops and Canada never stops evolving, nor should it.” True, that.

They go on: “An amendment of the word sons in our national anthem is one that is not meant to alienate, but rather incorporate, every person in this country who identifies themselves as Canadian — a definition that has changed significantly over the years and will continue to do so.”

No biggie, right? The group of esteemed Canadians notes, also correctly, that government has lots of other things to worry about. But tweaking two words in the national anthem shouldn’t take up too much of their time, at all.

Newspaper editorialists and columnists have mostly shrugged at the initiative, with most suggesting it is probably a good idea.

Most online commenters, who are overwhelmingly white, conservative, angry and wearing pyjamas in their mother’s basement as they type up angry missives, think the Apocalypse is nigh.

I side with Roger Bird, at that long-ago journalism class. Language changes, whether we like it or not. This is one language change that is easy to do — and overdue, too.

An omnishambles it is not.


  1. Steve T says:

    First and most importantly, I don’t care if the wording of the anthem changes. I have no vested interest in “thy sons” versus “all of us”.

    However, what I do care about are costs – both financial and time/resource. The time involved in making this anthem change, and the associated outlay of taxpayer and private dollars, far outweighs any gain. This is a government boondoggle waiting to happen. Everyone and their dog will line up for the gravy train to implement this change.

    This is definitely an inside-the-beltway, latte-sipping problem. Joe and Jane Lunchpail don’t give a rat’s patootee about the wording of the anthem. The wording of the anthem doesn’t put one more dollar in their pocket, nor one more scrap of food on their plate. If only the consortium of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP proponents of this change could get this revved up about something like, say, the economy. Or even something more fundamental to human rights, like the Quebec Values Charter.

    This anthem “debate” seems to typify the tempest-in-a-teapot syndrome that average citizens despise.

  2. Swervin' Merv says:

    I can recall, as a policy advisor at the local government level, when some women who achieved elected office wanted to hang on to the traditional title “alderman” instead of the more generic “councillor” used widely today. My response to “Haven’t we got more important things to do?” was always “Yes, and we can get on with them after we take a moment to make the language more inclusive.” Same here.

  3. rww says:

    But Rex Murphy assures us that sons includes daughters, according to some dictionary he found somewhere.

  4. EB says:

    Be careful what you say about those dudes in the basement. They still cling to the idea that the red ensign is Canada’s flag.

  5. Peter Loewen says:

    The original anthem did not include “in all of us command.” The line was “thou dost in us command.” It wouldn’t be a big deal, except that the whole column is about language.

  6. Al in Cranbrook says:

    Here’s the thing about this…

    Nobody could care less, in large part because there are much more pressing matters that need attention.

    F’rinstance: I’ve received two emails in the last couple days from my daughter, mother of my two small grandsons, each with links to alerts in the media regarding two sexual offenders thought to be in her city…both considered to be high risks to repeat. Both already with multiple convictions.

    Her question to me: How do I explain this danger to two small children? Why do I even have to?

    What I didn’t reply to her was, “Oh, and BTW…what do you think about this issue of the word “sons” in our national anthem?”

    You see, as per usual, the people who fret this sort of stuff are the Margaret Attwoods type “activists” of this world whom clearly have nothing better to do, or more important/relevant to think about. People whom are obviously completely detached from the realities 99% of the rest of Canadians are facing each and every day.

    People whom have come to understand that, if they whine enough about such frivolous stuff, the rest of society will collectively say, “Oh, for God’s sake, just do it so we can move on to issues that actually matter a damn! Keeeerist, enough already!”

    I suspect the strong reaction to the throne speech that mentioned this came from a large core of Canadians who thought, “Reeeally??? We elected you so we wouldn’t have to put up with nonsensical distractions like this from the real problems!!!” Certainly was my thoughts.

  7. Chris says:

    A week ago I would have agreed with you. But as I read through this morning’s paper and discovered the police found a pipe bomb in northwest Calgary, I realized that there are more important things to worry about. We are the new Boston, apparently.

    And the fact that ACAD will not display my work on their premises even though I’ve taken 20 courses there also seems trivial right now.

  8. billg says:

    Sadly, the resistance to any kind of change is from the right, and im a rightie.
    Not sure who Mr Harper has battled more, the opposition partys or the far right in his own party. Change the damn words already. At best it may take a week’s worth of work from the Senate, which would leave them another 51 weeks to sleep in and renovate their cottages… er primary residences.

    • Al in Cranbrook says:

      It’s not resistance to change.

      It’s resistance to wasting valuable time on crap nobody gives a good GD about, all the while there’s serious issues in need of attention.

      And change for what real reason? To make, whom arguably are bunch of bored, self-indulged…???…whatevers trying to justify their existence (mostly to themselves), basically shut up and go away???

      People are getting tired of this nonsense! And the MSM’s all to eager propensity to give credence to it.

      • billg says:

        People are tired? And you know this how?
        Your tired of it, speak for you and not the people.
        There is always resistance to change. The Flag, bilingualism, GST, Free Trade, the loonie, the toonie etc. We are a great nation because we are willing to change, from womans rights to Gay rights, we change. All thy sons command means sons, not daughters, and, was meant for a time when sons were more important then daughters, when men were more important the women. Changing small things like this keeps us progressive.

        • Al in Cranbrook says:

          I mention this topic to people, and to a man they roll their eyes in contempt.

          “Changing small things is what keeps us progressive.”


          How many progressives does it take to change a light bulb?

          At least 250. One to do the deed, 49 to rally/protest/demonstrate in the streets on saving the environment, and 200 to clean up the mess and repair everything when it’s all over.

          • Al in Cranbrook says:


            I should have said, 50. As for the 200 others, progressives rarely clean up after themselves. You know?

            Ha ha! Right wing humor. Lighten up already!


          • I seriously laughed aloud at this comment. ‘ I mention the topic to people and to a man they roll their eyes’. So are you implying that only men are people? Or are the only people you know men? Or perhaps you do not mention this topic to ‘people’ who do not have a penis?

      • Swervin' Merv says:

        Perhaps Al in Cranbrook shouldn’t “waste valuable time” (here and earlier post) being so cranky and instead learn to be a problem solver rather than just a chronic complainer. Fortunately, our youth are learning to be multi-taskers: not only can they text and chew gum at the same time but they will also be able to tackle problems with males pedophiles as well as the gender bias in our language (and anthem).

        • VC says:

          Yes, Al’s posts here today would suggest that we can’t do more than one thing at a time and that we can’t carry on public dialogue regarding more than one issue.

        • patrick says:

          Well, for the cranks who are complaining there are bigger things to worry about, go ahead and worry and the rest of us will take the 30 seconds to think about this marginal issue, decide it’s a good idea to make 51% of the population feel included in the anthem, make the change and – oh yeah, what have the cranks solve in that couple of minutes of distraction while worrying about the “big stuff”.
          Yep, still no subways.
          Speaking of subways, Rob “Omnishambles” Ford has a fitting ring to it.

  9. Tiger says:

    I’m not terribly fussed over the current anthem lyrics, but I’m not terribly fussed about the proposed changes, either.

    If enough Canadian women want the change, let’s do it. Would’ve been nice had the same people spoken up in 2010, but that’s life.

  10. dave says:

    Change the words…I bet the gvt wouldn’t need closure on this one.

  11. frmr disgruntled Con now Happy Lib says:

    Wildly off topic…..but speaking of “change”…..Im curious about Mr. Kinsella’s(and others) views on this…..and are we seeing portents of things to come?……http://globalnews.ca/news/888728/trudeau-confidant-seeks-liberal-presidency/

  12. Brammer says:

    Just tuck it into the next omnibus bill. We don’t need no stinking debate.

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