Well reader, I'll beg your pardon of my customary brevity, for a journey so long in the making as the lifespan of the tuque deserves a tale almost equally enduring (and perhaps somewhat lofty, given its place above our hearts).
Is it a toque or a tuque, or can it be both? Why have a Tuque Souq and confuse people when you can have a Toque Souq and let people go on with their day?
After all, the toque is pretty much enshrined in Canadian English. It's the standard in, for example, the Canadian Press, which pretty much means its the norm in most Canadian print media, certainly outside of Quebec. In Canadian French, on écrit la tuque, except if one is referring to a chef. Are we not all canadiens? Can't we have a single Canadian orthography for this one universal comfort, our beloved knitted hat?
The toque is Canadian. Nobody's arguing that. In America, it's a ski hat, or something similarly wordless, but it's not part of that country's linguistic fibre. In fact, in the unabashedly American Merriam-Webster dictionary, you won't find an entry for ski hat, or stocking cap; for toque, MW says it's a woman's small, brimless hat. This makes perfect sense, of course, given an earlier era of the word's history in Europe. But I'm not sure where you'd find it—the word, that is—in use in America today.
In Canada, the discussion of the hat's spelling is subordinate to the ubiquity of its wearing; nevertheless, its role as a national emblem—such that one would use it as the Canadian representative in a Canadian-Middle Eastern blog title—behooves a certification of a truly Canadian spelling.
As far as this blogger is concerned, that spelling is tuque.
Cue the wordmeisters, please, for a little support:
The dictionary with the most celebrated pedigree (though it was the latest in coming to Canada, and recently rendered editorless) is the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary. The COED enters toque as:
toque noun 1 /tūk/ (also tuque) Cdn a a close-fitting knitted hat, often with a tassel or pompom on the crown. b a long knitted stocking cap. 2 /tōk/ a woman’s small brimless hat. 3 /tōk / a small cap or bonnet for a man or a woman. 4 /tōk/ a tall white hat with a full pouched crown, worn by chefs. [French, apparently = Italian tocca, Spanish toca, of unknown origin; sense 1 by assimilation from Canadian French tuque.]
(Note in particular the different pronunciation of toque in definitions 2-4; the toque meaning knitted hat and the toque meaning chef's hat are not uttered similarly.)
There is also a theory out there that the toque's descent from the Spanish toca—from the verb tocar meaning 'to touch' or 'to knock—far from being unknown as the COED suggests, is substantiated by an etymological hypothesis that the flaps on these knitted hats 'touched' or 'knocked' the back of the neck, at least in medieval Europe.
The Canadian edition of Collins English Dictionary repeats some of the COED’s entries, adding that toque, in Canada, is a variant spelling of tuque (not, it is worth noting, the other way around). On the subject of origin, Collins is a bit more daring, suggesting that the old Spanish toca, meaning ‘headdress’, probably comes from the Basque tauka, or ‘hat’.
I love the Basque reference. Anytime the Basque language comes up in etymology, you know you’ve got an old word on your hand, and a hardy one. Basque is pre-Indo-European; the perpetual onslaught of Romance tongues for the past 2500 years couldn’t dislodge it from the mountains of northern Iberia.
(Canucks take note: the increasingly defunct word eskimo, morphed from the French spelling esquimaux, is also from the Basque: it means ‘raw-meat eaters’, a savage epithet bestowed by 16th-century explorers and fishermen. Hence our belated switch, in politically correct times, to the local inuit.)
More importantly, Collins traces the origin of the word toque—spelled as such, referring to a headpiece of some kind or another—to 16th century France. In other words: pre-Canada.
(At this point as opportune as any other, it would calm this blogger to acknowledge that our indigenous Canadians may sit out this particular debate on Canadianness; however should they disagree with the case for the tuque, as the senior partners in Canadian civilization they should certainly be party to the debate, if so moved. Anybody know the Ojibwe for tuque?)
To wit, the Collins definition of the entry tuque:
tuque /tūk/ n Canad 1 a knitted cap with a long tapering end. 2 Also called toque, a close-fitting knitted hat often with a tassel or pompom [c19 from Canad F, from F: toque].
The Canadian OED grudgingly concurs, even if it stubbornly labels tuque a variant of toque:
tuque noun var. of toque 1 Canadian French, ultimately from a pre-Romance form of tukka, ‘gourd’ or ‘hill’.
So, we have a morphology of tuque that stretches over many centuries and across various languages; its eventual meaning of a very particular kind of hat derives possibly from its shape, as in the pre-Romance tukka which may have influenced the Basque tauka, which may have been a hat that 'knocked' the back of the neck. The early-modern European French toque is another in a long series of localized foreign words, in this case toca and/or tocca from neighbouring Romance tongues which followed the Basque. Sometime later, the English language appropriated toque without changing the spelling. And later still, French Canada came up with tuque, which it then lent to English Canada, albeit probably after the latter had come to some kind of agreement with the toque because of its other definitions.
So while now toque and tuque are English-language lexical cousins, only the latter is truly Canadian. The tuque was firstly Canadian French, and as much as an earlier English took toque from a European French, so Canadian English has taken tuque.
Bottom line, if you’re Canadian—and you're referring to that now quintessential Canadian knitted hat and not a chef's poofy lid—it’s a tuque.
(Now I'm not just making a case that tuque should replace toque as the dominant spelling in Canadian usage; I'm advocating for the complete annihilation of toque as a form that defines our national headdress. Sure, I'm usually a 'live and let live' kind of blogger. But not in this case!)
In the 19th century, French-Canadian voyageurs called their knitted hats tuques. No one knows exactly when the instance of the first such spelling occurred, but we know these folks weren't chefs or dainty broads or old-country blue-bloods. They were Canadians. It's possible they were Canadians who couldn't spell toque correctly, whose subtle modifications in diction predisposed a phonetic spelling patently au courant. It is therefore possible that we owe our single most cherished national garment to the vicissitudes of illiterate beaver trappers.
Yes, we are Canadian! And so is our tuque!
The voyageurs roamed the Quebec backcountry, trapping and trading and logging and pioneering, wearing their tuques with pride, or at least with warmth.
North of a trading junction called Trois-Rivières, they saw a hill that looked exactly like the cap on their heads. They built a pulp mill there. They called their new town La Tuque.
The voyageurs gave way to the Québécois, who in addition to carrying on the tradition of the tuque also donated to their English-Canadian kin another local word turned national: poutine.
(Worthy of note, poutine dates only from the late 1970s, lest any notion that the voyageurs in their tuques scarfed on poutine survive!)
In Canada, we tend to play a lot of defence when it comes to our linguistic neighbourhood; at the centre of our famously robust labour for national identity is a guiding fear that other civilizations will figure us glib, as though we're just cherry-picking lexical strategies in various shades of grey while otherwise preoccupied with our colourful—or sometimes colorful—Canadian lives.
But we are not just all pop and circumstance.
I don't know who thought toque was a good idea for a word pronounced tūk but it's time to give that loony the heave-ho. We didn't invent the tuque, but we did invent the tuque, and it's time to register our one, truly lingua canada idiom not just with history's great etymological detours but with our own national consciousness.
Well, I hope that answers your question, reader. But please go ahead and make your case for toque, or touque, or wiiwikwaan. After all, the Tuque Souq is a marketplace of ideas, a this-and-that mélange of histories and perspectives, a metaphor for Canada, if you will, like a bolder, hardier e pluribus unum, a multis e gentibus vires. Or whatever.
—The Tuque Souq
With this posting, the Tuque Souq is pointing its compass east and going on summer hiatus until September. Très bon été à tous!