Watch What You Say
Strange things can happen when you use a word no one else knows
ISABEL GIBSON | Mar 08, 2004
THE PLACE: Anchorage, a great jumping-off place for Alaska's great outdoors.
The time: November 1993; when the Internet was still in its infancy.
The talk: the day's visit to a radar site a two-hour plane ride outside the city.
Six of us are technical and marketing experts representing a Canadian company that operates radar sites in Canada's Arctic. The other 20 are Americans from the contiguous states, the lower 48, warmer places in general. We may be in their country, but we feel right at home. Snowy? You bet! Cold? The locals glory in how cold it can get. This, a Canadian can understand.
Our guys wear bulky Arctic suits at the site and on the plane -- a military Hercules aircraft, adapted to carry passengers in discomfort so severe it can only be intentional. Most of the Americans are wearing parkas with fur-lined hoods. Quilted wind pants. Moon boots. Huge mitts. They look silly, but as though they know what "cold" means.
But two of the Americans, unbelievably, turned up for the flight in business suits, street shoes and hooded pullovers under trench coats. Guaranteed to freeze to death if the Herc goes down; unable even to get off the plane at the site.
Fast-forward two months to a meeting at my employer's corporate headquarters in Alberta. Still waiting to hear whether we've won the contract, everyone is focused on Alaska. I reassure a vice-president that our competitors don't understand the job requirements. I describe the site-visit duo -- suits, street shoes and bunny hugs under trench coats. The room goes silent. People are looking at me. Oddly, not admiringly. Oh dear, not again.
The vice-president asks, "What were they wearing?" I repeat it, wondering what the problem is. He looks at me, helplessly; looks around the table, hopefully.
Someone rescues him. "What's a bunny hug?" he asks. But this person, as I remind him, was on the site visit. "I remember the guys," he says, "but I've never even heard of a bunny hug."
It turns out that no one in the room has either. When I describe it -- a hooded pullover sweatshirt with a pouch for your hands -- they know what it is and they have a different name for it -- a kangaroo jacket. They agree on that. They agree on something else too, but are too polite to say much. I leave the meeting with something other than Alaska on my mind.
The next day, I canvass the office. No one has heard of a bunny hug. Maybe it's a family thing. That evening, I call my siblings and parents, now living from Vancouver to Cleveland. Nope. This is getting worse.
Time to regroup. I could believe that I've stepped into a parallel universe, one in which bunny hug is unknown but little else is changed, and that way lies, if not madness, then pointless idiosyncrasy. I could stop using bunny hug in polite company, but I know this word, I really do. Why?
I start a one-woman, ill-advised campaign. No stranger in a service job is safe. "Do you know what a bunny hug is?" I enquire off-handedly of fast-food servers, store clerks and gas jockeys over the next few days, but with no luck. The parallel universe scenario is gaining ground. I am near to giving up.
And so it is that my subconscious is able to make itself heard. One day, out of nowhere, "Reid wore bunny hugs." Reid -- a friend of my sons in Saskatoon. I have a clear mind's-eye visual of him riding up to our house and wandering in, wearing a bunny hug with tattered cuffs.
I call my sons. "Do you know what a bunny hug is?" I ask, trying for a casual tone, not wanting to reveal how devastating it will be if they don't know this word. What, then, of my memory will I be able to trust?
"Oh, yeah," says the younger one, "but they call them kangaroo jackets here."(Nowadays he'd probably say "hoodie.")Something in me relaxes. The call to the older one confirms that he, too, knows bunny hug.
I feel better, but not yet sure. What if my sons learned bunny hug from me, rather than the other way around? I need another Saskatchewan source. I call a fellow in our Ottawa office who grew up in Kindersley, studied in Saskatoon and worked in Regina.
"Do you know what a bunny hug is?"
"Sure, a kangaroo jacket. But it's a Saskatchewan thing. Do you know what a Siwash is?"
"Yeah, a wool sweater."
We hang up, having connected at a place beyond words.
Fast-forward again. It's been months since I've asked anyone about bunny hugs. But today I ask the pharmacist if he knows what it is -- and he does! "Where are you from?" I ask.
"Cold Lake," he replies.
Ah, right on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. I can see a research project taking shape. Mapping the usage boundaries of bunny hug. Tracking its dispersal through time; studying its derivation. I take my prescription and leave quietly. I believe it's called quitting while you're ahead, but maybe that was in a parallel universe.
Isabel Gibson now wears bunny hugs in Ottawa.
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