’s gettin’ cold out, eh. And you know what that means. Put on your toque.
Well, you know what that means if you’re Canadian. Of course, even if you’re Canadian, you may spell it tuque. Or you may not. Doesn’t matter. When I was a little kid I thought it was spelled twok, because, you know, two plus k. (I never sorted out what a threek might be, but of course you eat with a fourk.) It’s not as though it’s spelled phonetically anyway. It’s a short word, cold and hard as ice, and easy to say without opening your mouth too wide (handy when it’s –30˚C), but it has that fancy French que at the end. Which is because, like many of the best things in Canadian culture (poutine leaps to mind immediately, and maple syrup too), we get it from Quebec.
Dictionaries can be surprisingly thick-headed on this word. Some only allow the tuque spelling for what I’m talking about, even though I’m more used to toque (your results may vary). The definitions can be really a bit behind: the OED gives us “A knitted stocking-cap tapered and closed at both ends, one end being tucked into the other to form the cap; formerly the characteristic winter head-dress of the Canadian ‘habitant’; now chiefly worn as part of a toboggan or snow-shoe club costume.” I bet a lot of Canadians wouldn’t immediately recognize their habitual cold-weather headwear from that. On the other end of the scale, Dictionary.com says simply “a heavy stocking cap worn in Canada.” The Collins English Dictionary gives the version I like the best: “a close-fitting knitted hat often with a tassel or pompom.” Yep, that’s about it.
Outside of Canada, you will occasionally see the word toque to refer to other kinds of headwear (the tuque spelling is Canadian and specific to our national headgear). Depending on where you see it, it may be naming a small, close hat worn by women, or it may be referring to one of those tall white chef hats that look like stylized overgrown popovers. But for some reason, even though you may see what Canadians would call toques on the heads of people in the US and England, they don’t call them toques. They’ll call them caps or hats. (But, then, these are people who don’t know that gravy goes with fries.)
Now, yes, technically, a toque falls into the broad category of hats. But if I were wearing a toque and someone said, “I like your hat,” I’d wonder at first what they were talking about. I’m not wearing a hat right now… Oh, this! My toque, you mean, yes? A hat is a thing you place on top of your head; it typically is vulnerable to being blown off; it usually has a brim; in general, it holds its shape. A toque is a stretchy thing that fits over your head and keeps it warm and stays on. And it has the same kind of logo-bearing potential as T-shirts and baseball caps. Look, a hat is dressy, generally. A toque is absolutely not. It goes with skis, show shovels, parkas, and Tim Hortons.
Another thing: all those other toques are pronounced like “toke”. The word is cognate with Italian tocca (a kind of cap) and Spanish toca (a woman’s head-dressing or coif). But in Canada, the pronunciation shifted, and so did the spelling – partially: lots of us still write it toque and may even find tuque odd-looking. But don’t pronounce it “toke” no matter how we spell it. We’ll probably think you’re talking about smoking marijuana, or we won’t be sure what you mean. And then, when we realize you mean /tu:k/, not /to:k/, we’ll probably laugh. And think, “Well, these Americans can’t tell ‘ow’ from ‘oo’, so whaddya expect? Don’t mention poutine; they’ll think we’re talking about the Russian head honcho, and they won’t understand the concept of fries with gravy and cheese curds anyway. Weirdos.”
But who knows. Tim Hortons is expanding into the US. Many of the funniest people in the US are Canadians, and some of the most popular singers too (seriously, they can keep Celine and Justin, OK?). We might yet manage to civilize them.