[lg policy] Has a Canadian Slur Lost Its Sting?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Jun 3 11:09:08 EDT 2017

Has a Canadian Slur Lost Its Sting?

By CRAIG S. SMITH <https://www.nytimes.com/by/craig-s-smith>JUNE 2, 2017
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Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the writers of the musical “Come From Away,”
in New York in February. The show has renewed interest in Newfoundland.
Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Newfoundland, the last of Britain’s North American colonies to join Canada
is enjoying newfound attention thanks to the hit Broadway musical “Come
>From Away.” But if you see the show, don’t expect to hear talk about
“Newfies,” a colloquial term for the island’s residents.

Use the word at your peril: To some Newfoundlanders it is offensive, a
vestige of the derision toward locals expressed by some American G.I.s
stationed there during World War II.

For decades stoic Newfoundlanders have endured national ridicule, the butt
of jokes that cast residents of one of the country’s more remote corners as
bumpkins and dimwits. Recently, though, a sociologist at McMaster
University in Ontario has been looking into whether the term retains its
sting among younger people. He found that attitudes were mixed and that
time had diluted the word’s potency.

There is evidence
of the word’s use as early as 1938, but according to lore, the term’s full
fury developed during the war, when soldiers rode between bases on the
Newfoundland Express, the island’s now defunct poke-along train. The train
was sarcastically called the “Newfie Bullet,” and “Newfie” became
synonymous with all things slow. “Newfie” appeared in a dictionary of
American slang published during the war.
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“I hate the word,” said Overton Colbourne, 69, a professional engineer from
Newfoundland who grew up at a time when the word delivered the sharpest
slap. “I think it’s ugly.”

The sociologist, James Baker <http://mcmaster.academia.edu/JamesBaker>, 42,
a proud Newfoundlander himself, grew up knowing the word as a slur. But
when he talked to
students at Memorial University in Newfoundland, where he earned his Ph.D.,
he found that the term had become “context dependent,” he said in a
telephone interview, meaning that whether or not it is offensive depends on
how it is used and by whom.

It can be taken as either an insult or an endearing nickname these days, he
said, and young Newfoundlanders don’t need a field guide to understand
which is which.
“A production of Come From Away” in New York in February. Credit Sara
Krulwich/The New York Times

Dr. Baker said he believed that young Newfoundlanders had reclaimed the
term as a word they used to refer to themselves, a common sociological
reaction among discriminated groups, the way some use the word “queer.”

“Certainly, there was a mixed sense among the youth that I interviewed,”
Dr. Baker said. “Some said, ‘Yes, I could be offended,’ and others said
they weren’t even offended by ‘Newfie’ jokes.”

Dr. Baker argues that “Newfie” is an ethnophaulism, a derogatory word or
expression used to describe a racial or ethnic group, because he believes
that white Newfoundlanders are a distinct ethnicity. Asked why, he cited,
among other things, the existence of Newfinese, a colloquial mix of 17th-
and 18th-century English, Irish and French that is still spoken in rural
communities on the island.
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A distinct language is one of the markers for ethnicity (as opposed to
race), he explained. While most linguists consider Newfinese a dialect, not
a language, many concede that it is one of the most distinctive dialects in
the world.

“Newfie” jokes proliferated in the years after World War II, mostly
interchangeable with those about Poles or the Irish before them. One of the
more benign examples: “Newfies make the best astronauts because they took
up space in school.”

Newfoundlanders mostly took it in stride — with a few notable exceptions.
Last year, Walmart withdrew
a St. Patrick’s Day T-shirt featuring the term from its stores after public
complaints by Bob Hallett, a founding member of the Newfoundland rock band
Great Big Sea. There was also a minor uproar among some Newfoundlanders a
few years back when a town in Nova Scotia named a gravel road Newfie Lane

“Come From Away <http://comefromaway.com/>” recounts the story of how
Newfoundlanders welcomed 7,000 airline passengers who were diverted to the
small town of Gander after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The
show’s name is a Newfoundland vernacular phrase for “outsiders.”

Irene Sankoff, who wrote the musical with David Hein, said Newfoundlanders
in the production had made it clear that the term “Newfie” was not welcome.

“We grew up on ‘Newfie’ jokes,” Mr. Hein said. “When we wrote our show it
was really to honor and say thank you, so we weren’t interested in using
that word.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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