[F Eh Q is a new feature where we answer your questions about Canadian topics. In this installment: TIM HORTONS!]


Dear Plaidspin,

I have a question about Canada. And, just to be clear, I am absolutely a real person writing this letter, and not just a fictional letter-writer conveniently invented for the sake of introducing a brand-new Q&A format.

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On a recent trip to Canada, when looking at the logo for ubiquitous coffee-flavored-beverage-purveyor Tim Hortons, I noticed that it was odd that there was no apostrophe in their brand name. Since the store is named after their founder, hockey player Tim Horton, you'd think that the chain would be called "Tim Horton's". What's the deal?

Sincerely,

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Punctuation Purist in Pennsylvania


Dear Punctuation Purist in Pennsylvania,

Thank you for your excellent question, person who, as far as I know, wrote in with this real letter!

Not only is this a question of proper grammar, but really, the missing apostrophe in the name Tim Hortons is a story that digs deep into the back catalog of Canadian history.

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But before we get into the punctuation politics, let's rewind with a quick refresher course on Canada's most famous donut shop. We'll be taking a bit of a detour, but I promise, we'll get back to your original apostrophe question.

Hamilton, 1964:

The franchise that would eventually become Tim Hortons was founded in 1964 by Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Horton as a humble standalone donut shop in Hamilton, Ontario.

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Horton, whose previous investments had included a burger restaurant and a Studebaker car dealership in Toronto, had decided he wanted to capitalize on his name by starting his own donut and coffee franchise. It's also possible that, as both an NHL star and donut magnate, he just wanted to go down in history as the most Canadian person ever.

The original Tim Horton Donuts (no "s") was opened in 1964, located on Ottawa Street in Hamilton. Ten years later, Horton, then playing for the Buffalo Sabres, was driving home from a road game in Toronto. Drunk and weary after a loss to his former team, Horton lost control of his Pantera sports car on the highway just outside of St Catharines, Ontario - killing him instantly at age 44.

(As a bit of a morbid aside, a popular bit of gallows humour from the era posited that the chain's popular bite-sized donut holes, "Tim Bits", introduced in 1976 shortly after Tim's crash, were... well, you get it.)

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Horton's sudden demise left his regional donut chain, which by then had 40 locations across southern Ontario, to his business partner Ron Joyce. Joyce took control of the chain and quickly started to expand across the country, and the rest is mediocre-fast-food-coffee history. Under the stewardship of Joyce, the franchise saw meteoric growth, quickly becoming the largest fast-food chain in Canada and an indelible part of Canadian culture.

Today there are roughly 3,500 Tim Hortons outlets from coast to coast across Canada - a figure of roughly one store per 10,000 Canadians.

While you're generally never too far from the nearest Timmy's no matter where you are in Canada, in small towns, the chain acts as more of a community centre than a donut shop. It's not uncommon in small towns to see two Tim Hortons a block apart from one another. In Moncton, NB, the Tim's-to-resident ratio is 20 locations serving around 65,000 residents, or one outlet per 3,250 residents. Tim Hortons' penetration is so deep in Atlantic Canada that when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice paid a visit to Nova Scotia with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in 2006, it was naturally where he took her for lunch.

But beyond the sheer number of franchises, Tim's is deeply embedded in the very fibres of Canadian culture. Even if we all agree their donuts are stale and their coffee tastes like burnt ass (at least, I'm pretty sure we all agree), they still know how to pull at the heartstrings of Canadians. I've honest-to-God seen people break down and cry while watching their patriotic TV commercials about topics as varied as hockey, and hockey.

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Tim Hortons sells Canadian patriotism first and bad coffee second. No, seriously: people write dissertations on this shit.

Tim Hortons holds a 22.6% share of the highly-competitive Canadian fast food market. That includes an even larger stranglehold on the Canadian coffee market. Tim Hortons holds 62% of the Canadian quick-service coffee market. Their closest competitor, Starbucks, boasts a measly 7%.

In addition to their near-monopoly on the Canadian coffee sector, Tim Hortons has recently thrown their hats into the ring in the highly-competitive US market. They now have an additional 800+ outlets in the United States, mostly centred around areas within striking distance of the Canadian border - Ohio, Michigan, New England, and New York state. (Apparently there are even 8 outlets in New York City, if you're stuck in Manhattan with a hankering for a cruller.)

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With all of that said about the company's success, let's just set the record straight about their name: their official corporate name "Tim Hortons" is, illogically enough, not spelled with an apostrophe.

Now, the company was named after a real hockey player, Tim Horton, who opened the donut shop in his own name. Based on what we learned about punctuation in the 5th grade, the chain should be properly stylized as Tim Horton's, just like McDonald's, or Wendy's. The name "Tim Hortons" seems to imply that there were multiple people all named Tim Horton, all of whom started a donut shop, right?

The Tim Hortons name in all its grammar-shitting glory is gaining mainstream press in the U.S. of late with the news that Burger King has merged with Tim Hortons, in what may or may not be a cowardly tax dodge by the King.

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The real loser in all of this news (OK, other than the I.R.S.) seems to be your local business-section copywriter. You can't blame them for seeing a red squiggly line under "Hortons" and adding a logical apostrophe.

So let's settle this for all the poor editors having an OCD attack each time they read that bright red sign on their storefront. What's the deal?

Quebec, 1977:

To fully understand why the donut shop started by Tim Horton is called Tim Hortons, our story starts in 1970s Quebec. Now, telling the complete, heated history of Canadian language politics and the rise of Quebec nationalism is a bit beyond the scope of this blog post (and even if I tried, there'd be some outraged comment about how I'm a typical Ontario idiot who knows nothing about the subject - again, it's heated), but suffice to say that it's a complicated issue, and I'll do my best to give a very broad overview.

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By the late 60s, the burgeoning Quebec nationalist movement was gaining steam, bolstered by Charles de Gaulle's resonating battle cry of "Vive le Québec libre" at Expo 67, followed shortly by the founding of the Parti Québecois under René Lévesque in 1968.

In 1970 the more radical factions of the seperatist movement came to the forefront, with the terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (the FLQ, not to be confused with lighthearted Q&A blog segment FEhQ) placing bombs targeted at English-speakers and kidnapping two government officials, killing the Quebec Labour Minister. Still, for all of the attention focused on the more radical parts of the movement, the more mainstream concepts of Quebec nationalism had become widespread by the early 70s. Quebecers were sick of a century of being under English Canada's thumb, and they wanted change.

In 1976, under the leadership of Lévesque, the Parti Québecois formed their first provincial government in a resounding election victory that saw them win 71 of the 110 available seats. For the first time, Quebec was being led by their own sovereigntist government.

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Francophones and supporters of Quebec separation were elated, while the rest of Canada was understandably nervous. In Montreal, a strongly bilingual city where generations of Anglophones lived side-by-side with Francophones, tensions grew. Even as the city hosted Expo 67, got an MLB franchise and hosted the Summer Olympics in a ten-year span, English-speakers were starting to migrate out of the province, while Canadian businesses, nervous over the shifting political climate, started relocating their headquarters to Toronto.

One of the major platforms on which the PQ were elected was official language reform, in order to strengthen and protect the French language in Quebec. As one of their first major pieces of legislation after taking office, the Parti Québecois introduced La charte de la langue française into law, also known as Bill 101. The controversial bill made French the sole official language for all commerce, government agencies and public institutions in Quebec. (French had already been made the "official" language of Quebec a couple years earlier, but Bill 101's purpose was to enforce the French language from a legal standpoint as it applies to day-to-day interactions and transactions.)

This essentially made it illegal for restaurants to offer English-only menus, or for coworkers to send memos in English, even in primarily English-speaking neighbourhoods of Montreal. Businesses that had been operating for decades with English names had to legally change their names. Children could only be eligible to go to an English school if their parents had themselves gone to an English school.

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It's a law that remains controversial to this day, and you can probably see why. On the one hand, it essentially protects the French language from the creeping threat of English-speaking cultures on all sides, while preserving Quebec French as a unique dialect. Language protection laws, like the movement to promote the use of Gaelic in Ireland, have been successful in preserving languages and dialects under threats of endangerment. Plus, thanks to a strong push to promote French as part of the all-encompassing Québecois identity, the province's media and arts sectors were strengthened, and homegrown French-speaking celebrities are just as popular in Quebec as any American stars.

On the other end, your gut feeling is right: for English speakers in Quebec, the law was, and continues to be, kinda shitty.

The Crackdown

Government officials in charge of enforcing Bill 101 - the Office québécois de la langue française, derisively called the "language police" by English-speakers - started cracking down on businesses and institutions once the bill became law. In practice the OQLF don't have any real coercive power like cops - their job is just to find businesses running afoul of the language laws, and to lean on those business to correct their ways.

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Businesses that offered any kind of English-only language signage or services were told to either shape up or face the legal repercussions, including possible costly lawsuits. Your family's been operating Johnson's Cheeseshop on this corner for decades, you say? Well you'd better make sure that all of your storefront signage, advertising and business cards start to say La fromagerie de Johnson, before some do-gooder neighbour threatens a lawsuit. (Last year the OQLF even famously sent a threatening letter to an upscale Italian restaurant for using non-French words on their menu, even though the offending language being used was basic Italian words like "pasta" and "calamari".)

For some English Canadian and American businesses operating in Quebec, this meant overhauling their logos and branding to make sure they were meeting the letter of the law. I'll give you an example: KFC operates in 118 countries around the world. And, in all of those regions except for one, they operate under their well-established legal name, KFC. You can find storefronts emblazoned with the letters "KFC" across France. Even in Japan, which doesn't use the Latin alphabet, KFC goes by their English name.

So what's the one place in the world where KFC isn't called KFC? You guessed it. In Quebec, "KFC" runs afoul of the Language Cops, since it's an abbreviation for the English words Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Quebec and only in Quebec, KFC goes by PFK - Poulet frit Kentucky. It's the only place in the world where it's illegal to sell KFC as KFC.

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In some cases, a lawsuit is the least of your worries. In 2001, a radical who self-identified with the largely-dormant FLQ decided to take matters into his own hands, setting off firebombs at three locations of the popular Canadian coffee chain Second Cup. The reason? The store's name, "Second Cup", was in English. After the incident, Second Cup quickly made sure that all of the signage on their Quebec locations changed to a longer French-ified name, "Les cafés Second Cup".

Which brings us back to...

Oh right, we were talking about Tim Hortons! By now, you've probably put the puzzle together on your own: the reason Tim Hortons doesn't have an apostrophe is because of Bill 101 and the OLQF.

The presence of the possessive apostrophe in the name signifies an English bit of punctuation that doesn't exist in French, where the chain would properly be stylized as les cafés Tim Horton, or the much fancier-sounding Chez Tim Horton.

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For a restaurant the size of Tim Hortons with thousands of outlets, it would be very costly to operate with separate English and French branding, when you consider the number of coffee cup sleeves, donut bags and napkins they print with their name on it. Instead, they decided to compromise: Tim Hortons, no apostrophe. (Tim Hortons isn't the only one to err on the safe side of Quebec language laws - when now-defunct Canadian department store Eaton's operated in Quebec, they also dropped the apostrophe, going by the name Eaton.)

Now, could Tim Hortons be justifiably sued under Bill 101 language laws if they did indeed go by the name "Tim Horton's"? It's hard to say - some chains do operate in Quebec with an apostrophe in their name and seem to get away with it, or at least, the language cops haven't tried to go after them yet.

Then again, consider the case of Bob Rice, owner of Bob's Plumbing, who in 2005 was visited by an OLQF officer and forced to either pay a $786 fine for having the name "Bob's" on the side of his pickup truck, or to have his truck repossessed. Now consider Tim Hortons, deep-pocketed national chain and the most visible symbol of English Canadian business in the world, and I wouldn't put it past some Quebec lawyer to launch a showstopper lawsuit over an errant bit of punctuation.

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So there's your answer. Tim Hortons doesn't have an apostrophe because doing so would be costly and might open them up to a lawsuit in Quebec. And unlike the driving habits of their namesake founder, Tim Hortons would rather be safe than sorry.


Hope that answers your question, Punctuation Purist in Pennsylvania! Tune in next time where we'll pile into an old van and keep solving Canadian mysteries.