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Origins of the Word Hoser, eh?


Image result for great white north
Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as cultural icons Bob and Doug McKenzie

These days we often hear Canadians referred to as “Hosers”.  It’s a strange word, and it sounds a little insulting, but it’s sometimes used more with affection than malice.  Any such word is difficult to use correctly, especially if you don’t belong to the group the word describes.  I can’t say I feel comfortable throwing the word around, myself, but I can offer a little information about it that might shed some light on what it means.

First off: is it an insult?  Yes… and no.  The word hoser can be used as an insult or as a term of endearment; the variation hosehead, is certainly an insult.  It’s a mild insult, meaning something like jerk or idiot or loser.  Its origin is unclear, and there are several debatable etymologies of the word.  One claims that it comes from the days before the zamboni was invented, when the losing team of an outdoor ice hockey game would have to hose down the rink in order to make it smooth for the next game.  Another claim is that it dates from the 1930s, to describe thieves who would use pieces of hose to siphon gasoline out of cars.  (Both claims hold that the word is of Canadian origin, and neither have ever been substantiated.)

However, the first time the word hoser appeared in print was in a Toronto Star article in 1981.  The article was about a pop culture phenomenon that began in September 1980: the McKenzie Brothers.  Bob and Doug McKenzie are not actually brothers, but characters played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas on the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV.  SCTV started on Canada’s Global TV network in 1976, and moved to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in 1980.  When the show moved, the time slot it was to fill was about two minutes longer than the slot it filled at Global, so the troupe had to come up with something to fill it.  The executives at CBC told them that they wanted content that was specifically and identifiably Canadian. This was probably out of concern for Canadian content laws, which require that a certain percentage of media in Canada be focused on Canadian culture in some ways, as well as performed by Canadian artists.  Thomas was somewhat annoyed by this, since the way he saw it, SCTV was written and performed by Canadians, and it resonated with Canadians who watched it on a Canadian TV network, so just how much more Canadian could it get?  Thomas said, “What, so you want us to wear toques and sit around drinking beer and eating back bacon and ending all our sentences with ‘eh’?”  Missing the sarcasm, the executives said yes.
Image result for toqueImage result for backbacon canadaImage result for canadian beer 
Another part of the joke was a jab at Canadian content laws.  Thomas later said he was thinking, “Well, they get what they deserve.  This is their Canadian content.  I hope they like it.”  Just how much a TV executive likes a program typically depends on how much the viewing audience likes it—and they loved it.  To CBC’s surprise—and even more to Thomas’s and Moranis’s surprise—the Bob and Doug segments quickly became one of the most popular parts of the show.  And this wasn’t a show with a lightweight cast, either.  It launched the careers of the likes of John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, and others.

The Great White North segments, which were always completely improvised, quickly achieved cult status in Canada.  When SCTV made its way to NBC television in 1981, the American executives asked them to rework the show into 90-minute blocks, and specifically requested that those “two dumb Canadian” characters be included in every show, since they had it on good authority that Bob and Doug were comedy gold.  They did so, and the McKenzie Brothers took off in America, too.  This led to a platinum comedy album (titled “The Great White North”), a movie called Strange Brew (which performed decently at the box office, drawing on the talents of the celebrated Mel Blanc and Max Von Sydow), and a second album (which didn’t sell as well).  

The McKenzie Brothers sketches basically boiled down to two minutes of meandering bickering that were never quite as sophisticated as, say, the Smothers Brothers, but carried a definite appeal throughout North America.  They also carried a lot of Canadian slang.  Their sketches were the first popular media to use the word hosehead, which the Bob and Doug characters threw around largely as a derogatory term while their characters were bickering, but in later sketches also used it as a term for Canadians, since it was starting to permeate popular culture that way.  (Other Canadian-borne insults they used, like knob and sook, remained insults.)

The Bob and Doug fad swelled in the 1980s.  In some parts of Canada, the Hoser Day Parade served to celebrate the characters.  Bob and Doug released a recording of The Twelve Days of Christmas which is still frequently played on radio stations at Christmastime (though more in Canada these days than in the States).  They also had a hit single called Take Off, featuring the voice talents of Geddy Lee from the Canadian prog rock group Rush, which did well on both sides of the border.

Following the heyday of the fad, both of them went on to have successful careers in movies and television, seldom reprising their Bob and Doug roles.  They appeared in a few Pizza Hut commercials in the 1990s, thrilling fans by sparking rumors of a second McKenzie Brothers movie (which never happened).  A series of commercials for Molson beer in the 1980s still earn appreciation from the brewery, which regularly send the actors cases of the stuff.  (Thomas doesn’t even like beer, and just gives away cases that accumulate in his house to any visitors he might have.)  They also lent their voices and characters’ personalities to a pair of moose in the 2003 Disney animated film Brother Bear.  They have made other appearances since, but nothing like their original two-minute sketches.  Strange Brew remains a top-selling DVD, in no small part because of the McKenzie Brothers’ continued cult following.  As popular as the McKenzie Brothers still are, perhaps their most pervasive effect on the culture is their popularization of the word hoser, which is known even by people who have never even heard of Bob and Doug.

 A typical "topic" on The Great White North segments.

By 2006, at least, the influence of the McKenzies was still pervasive. And it still is.

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