August 13, 2007

Why Do Canadians Eat Donair?

There is a meat dish which in slightly different forms is widely eaten in the Eastern Mediterranean as well, in recent years, in many other countries. (See the Wikipedia articles Döner kebab and ドネル ケバブ.) In the United States, it is usually called gyro(s), from Greek γύρος, sometimes pronounced [dʒaiɹow] according to its spelling, with the <s> taken to be the plural morpheme, sometimes [jiɹos] as in Greek. In Canada, the same dish is almost always known as doner, from Turkish döner, also spelled donair. A few restaurants in Ontario seem to call it gyros, but here in British Columbia, and in my experience in Alberta as well, gyros is virtually never used. This is true even in restaurants run by Greeks. A new place specializing in doner just opened here in Prince George. The owners are Greek,but they use the term donair on their menu and even in the name of their restaurant. I have been wondering for a long time why it is that this dish almost always goes by its Greek name in the United States but by its Turkish name in Canada.

One hypothesis that comes to mind is that it has to do with the number of immigrants from the two countries. Perhaps Greeks predominate in the United States but Turks in Canada. That doesn't seem to work. The number of Greeks in Canada is about 215,000, whereas there are only about 25,000 Turks. It is conceivable that relatively more Turks are in the restaurant business, but although I don't have statistics on this, it seems unlikely: I have encountered a lot more Greek restaurants than Turkish restaurants.

I'm guessing, instead, that this is an example of a founder effect, that is, that it is essentially an accident, due to the language used by the first people to introduce and popularize the dish. If the initial introduction is successful and other restaurants imitate it, the term originally used may spread. In the case of Canada, if doner was used first, if Greek restaurants introduced the dish out of awareness of its popularity in other restaurants, where it was called doner, they may have used doner rather than their own name in order to attract customers already familiar with the dish under its Turkish name.

Such information as I can find on the introduction of doner into Canada supports this hypothesis. According to the History of Donair in Canada web site, this dish was introduced in Canada at Velos Pizza in Bedford, Nova Scotia, which later became a place called King of Donairs. I have no idea how authoritative the history given by these sites is.

If any of our readers know more about the history of doner in Canada, I would be most interested.

Incidentally, the Greek term is actually derived from the Turkish. The earlier Greek term is reported to be ντονέρ [doner]. Greek γύρος "turning" is a calque of a Turkish original that was first borrowed into Greek, then replaced after independence.

[Update: 2007-08-14. One reader writes that doner makes him think of "Donner Party Kebab". The Donner Party story being presumably better known to Americans than Canadians, one could imagine this discouraging the use of the name doner in the US but not in Canada, though I don't think that this is the real causal factor. (The Donner Party was a group of settlers who got bogged down in the snow while attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada into California in 1846-18947 and ended up eating several of their party in order to survive.)

Posted by Bill Poser at August 13, 2007 11:33 PM