The Other N-word & an Ode

Photo credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.
Photo credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.

We were enjoying supper at a casual restaurant the other night, the kind of place where there are regulars and the food is both good and relatively cheap. The kind of place where our server calls everyone “hon”, and is friendly and chatty and might sometimes forget to bring your coffee or some such, but nobody minds because she’ll remember eventually. We were sharing a piece of the homemade coconut cream pie when the aforementioned chatty server apologized for calling my husband “hon” and cited her Maritime roots as a reason for the friendliness. “From New Brunswick” she said “Imagine if I was a Newfie?”

My husband and I looked at each other and I felt my back stiffen and my teeth clench. We’re both Newfoundlanders, and the N-word is a loaded one. Long used as a derogatory term for natives of my home province, “Newfie” or “Newfy” is frequently coupled with “stupid” or “goofy” (how clever, with the rhyme, hey?) or even worse, the “Newfie” joke (I’ll get back to that one).

I remember the first time I heard “Newfie” used as an insult as if it were yesterday. Traveling with sea cadets from across the country, we were headed into the mess for dinner when one of the mainland girls said “Oh, that red stuff in the bottles on the tables is ketchup, you Newfies probably don’t get that over there”. I was stunned, taken aback by the scorn in her voice and the nastiness of the comment. You know where she was from? Nanaimo. A place whose claim to fame is a dessert square, on an island nearly a fourth the size of mine; funnily enough, on the same island on which I now live. And I can tell you, living here now, that Vancouver Island is no great bastion of gourmet ketchup.
I wish I’d thought of a response at the time, but I just stared at her as she laughed, unkindly. She made a few other comments before another Newfoundlander with us stepped in and deftly used his sense of humour to shut her up—I wish I could remember what he said.

And I wish that was the only time I’d been the butt of such mockery. Skip ahead a few years, and I’d moved to Halifax. Meeting people, always difficult for the painfully shy person that I was, became more so when I was asked where I was from. “Newfoundland”, I’d say, waiting for the comeback. Sometimes just friendly chatter “Oh, really, what part? I have a friend/family member/dog from there”
(As an aside, I don’t find it offensive at all that Newfoundland dogs are frequently called “Newfs” or “Newfies”. I’ve never heard it used derisively, but more to the point, most long name breeds have affectionately truncated names: Rotties for Rottweilers, Dobies for Dobermans, Leos for Leonbergers, you get the idea)
but sometimes, a response that went thusly: the greeter would affect their idea of a Newfoundland accent and spouted a phrase like “How’s she goin’ dere buddy?” and cackle hilariously like they thought there were making a connection while I cringed and wished for the ground to open up and suck the offender in.

But I could never find a way of expressing why I hated the word, or a way of telling the other person I found it so offensive. Then, I read an essay in the National Post that echoed exactly what I was feeling, and why it rankled me so to hear “Newfie”. I don’t recall the author, although I’m inclined to credit Rex Murphy as he wrote about it as well.
That essay somehow gave weight to how I felt, and gave me license to express my discomfort with the word.

Photo Credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.
Photo Credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.

Shortly after, I spotted an ad in a local real estate guide that described a home as having a “big Newfie kitchen”. I emailed the realtor and asked just what that was, and she replied that it was “a big kitchen for parties and drinking, like they have on the Rock”. Sigh. Wouldn’t “large family kitchen” or “big eat-in kitchen” or “kitchen great for entertaining” do just as well? I emailed her back and explained my position, asked her to reconsider the use of the word. Next thing, my inbox was full of vitriolic emails from her friends with whom she’d shared my message, calling me names and using disparaging comments. One read “Well obviously you ARE a stupid Newfy sorry NEWFOUNDLANDER if you take offence (sic) to that!!!” Not that quiet kid anymore, I took action by lodging a complaint with the NS Realtors Association and a letter of reprimand was placed on her file. The letter found the use of the word “Newfie” to be just fine, but her sharing of my email and address unprofessional. A tainted win, but I took it.

Back to the Newfie jokes: so offensive on more than one level—substitute any disparaged group and the meaning of the joke doesn’t change, and most egregiously, they are just not funny. Newfoundlanders are nothing if not funny, with a long comic vein stretching back to the CODCO days, through This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Rick Mercer Report.
And lest you think we can’t laugh at ourselves, think again. We Newfoundlanders are excellent at poking fun of ourselves. Self-deprecating humour is employed with great effect. Comedian Shaun Majumber does a bit about his Pakistani father and Newfoundland mother, whom he identifies as being from two of the most maligned groups of people. “I’m a POOFIE” he cries, and the audience howls. Funny, because it has it’s edge in truth. And because he is holding the power—he is making fun of his roots, because they are his roots.

Another thing, while I’m ranting, is that it’s not only when “Newfie” is used in conjunction with negativity that I hate; I dislike positive stereotypes as well. “Oh, you Newfies are hilarious” is cringe-worthy, as is the widespread believe that we are all so warm and friendly. Don’t get me wrong, by and large, we are. We are friendly, warm, welcoming and funny, as a rule. But like all rules, this one can be broken and I know of Newfoundlanders who are neither funny nor warm and hospitable. I know cranky, humorless dolts who are bags of unfitness, miserable bastards. I’m not especially genial myself. But a stereotype, positive or negative, and the harm it can do, is another discussion.

I can express my thoughts on the word “Newfie” these days, not as eloquently as Rex Murphy or with the rapier wit of Rick Mercer, but I do feel comfortable telling someone I don’t like the word, and to please not to use it to refer to me if that’s what I want to say. And that’s the key—I don’t want my friends jumping in to say, “Oh Liz doesn’t like that word” because a) Liz can speak for herself and b) Liz will or won’t correct the person depending on the circumstances. “Newfie” is still ambiguous—some of us Newfoundlanders embrace it, some hate it, so I am not going to unilaterally jump at everyone who uses it. My perception on the speaker’s meaning or intent is key to my reaction.

As I said, not all Newfoundlanders feel the same way about the N-word; I’ve come under fire from some of my compatriots for finding the word offensive or objectionable. And that’s okay, because it’s their word too, to embrace or reject as they see fit.

Rant over, on to the business of the day–it’s National Poetry Month, and my entry today while not original, is definitely on topic with the rant. When I was in elementary school, we started the day singing O Canada and the Ode to Newfoundland. Musically, the Ode to Newfoundland is a dreary dirge, especially when croaked painfully by a group of tuneless 8-year olds. Lyrically, it’s a majestic ode that pays due homage to the splendour of our province.
(Trivia: I took the title for my work-in-progress horror novel, Silvern Voices, from these lyrics)

Photo Credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.
Photo Credit: Jacky Petrie. Used with permission.

Ode to Newfoundland

When sun rays crown thy pine clad hills,
And summer spreads her hand,
When silvern voices tune thy rills,
We love thee, smiling land.

We love thee, we love thee,
We love thee, smiling land.

When spreads thy cloak of shimmering white,
At winter’s stern command,
Thro’ shortened day, and starlit night,
We love thee, frozen land.

We love thee, we love thee
We love thee, frozen land.

When blinding storm gusts fret thy shore,
And wild waves lash thy strand,
Thro’ spindrift swirl, and tempest roar,
We love thee windswept land.

We love thee, we love thee
We love thee windswept land.

As loved our fathers, so we love,
Where once they stood, we stand;
Their prayer we raise to Heaven above,
God guard thee, Newfoundland

God guard thee, God guard thee,
God guard thee, Newfoundland.


4 thoughts on “The Other N-word & an Ode

Add yours

  1. Brilliant blog, Liz! Very well written and eloquent. While I don’t always object to the use of the word Newfie, it depends on the circumstances. I can hate it or smile at it, depending on the speaker and the tone. And as for being self-deprecating – we definitely know the best Newfie jokes; we just don’t share them with mainlanders. As you pointed out, our roots are best handled by ourselves and we can colour them as we see fit.


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