Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is "Newfie" the Newest 'N' Word?

A few months ago, I read this post by Nadine at Missing The Rock. I left my "two cents worth" afterwards, but it got me thinking that perhaps I should elaborate a little on my own experience and add it to the conglomeration of writings on the subject already. I have hesitated to be a pot-stirrer and post on the subject, but it has recently come up again in my own personal life and so I thought it might be time to get this off my chest.

When I was growing up in Newfoundland, the term 'Newfie' was thrown around quite a bit and I never gave it any thought. I certainly never stopped to consider that it could be considered derogatory - I had never been exposed to anyone who had used it in such a way. It was simply a word we utilized to describe ourselves - a shortened form of 'Newfoundlander,' that contained all the same implicit imagery of home, the roots of our colourful culture, and the pride associated with being from our beautiful island, as found in the long version. It was a label applied to the shared aspects of our identity and that was all. As for 'Newfie' jokes, well, they were just harmless fun that mostly depicted our ingenuity or proved that we had a sense of humour and were simultaneously secure and humble enough to laugh at ourselves.

When I moved away, I bandied the word about with more pride than I had ever felt while living at home; I had never really embraced my Newfoundland roots until I left the island. In fact, being from "the Bay" was almost a source of embarrassment for a time when I was thrown into the mix with all the "Townies" at MUN. There was certainly some friction between our respective student communities at the university at times (then again there was also an issue with people from Mount Pearl as a separate entity as well, but that's a whole other ball game). I suspect this mutual slightly pejorative use of the terms "Bayman" and "Townie" varied largely between individuals and was not really an accurate reflection of the student population as a whole. However, I fast became aware that we "Baymen" were very much looked down upon by a faction of our fellow Islanders and learned to minimalize the more easily identifiable aspects of my accent to blend in and avoid being branded and scoffed at (a topic which I will talk more about at a later date). However, when I was with people from "out around the bay" I could let go of those self-imposed constraints and be free to let it all hang out and be who I was, so to speak. Of course, there were also those times when it was simply curious to find out that some of the words in regular rotation in my vocabulary were not in residence in those of my academic colleagues. I remember well the first time I said something that someone did not understand - it was my rude 18-year-old awakening that parts of my speech (aside from the obvious slang) were, in actuality, not standard English...but I digress...

Then, as I mentioned, came BC. Once I got over the initial culture shock I experienced after being displaced, I embraced my uniqueness and clung to my identity for all it was worth, feeling, at times, isolated and alone amongst a different breed of people altogether. It was then that I actually started to develop a fondness for "Newfie" music - which, ironically, I previously couldn't stand - because it brought me some comfort from home. For the most part, I was trying to learn about the new culture in which I found myself immersed and still didn't stop to think of any other connotations associated with "Newfie," proudly admitting to being one every chance I got. However, I did start to notice the scatter reaction from some when they learned where I was from that seemed a little less than flattering but without being blatantly obvious. Mostly, though, there were just a bunch of the typical humourous incidents when language barriers got in the way (luckily there were a couple of Nova Scotians in our midst who were pretty good at translating when the need arose) and were later laughed at by all parties involved....

...And then came a day when a young teenager quite seriously referred to me as a "goofy Newfie" (incidentally, there is a restaurant called the Goofie Newfie in Fergus, Ontario, which I am sure doesn't help matters for their local population of displaced Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who may take issue with the term). I was shocked. I mean, this kid clearly got that from an adult somewhere along the way, because I am pretty sure he hadn't been exposed to many Newfoundlanders in the area we were in, nor able to come up with that assessment or term on his own. I didn't let it bother me too much, because I knew him to be a very angry youth with deeper problems than I had ever known...but at the same time it made me a little uncomfortable to know that there were obviously those adults in the community who held those beliefs about us. Still, it was the "goofy" and the tone of voice in which it was delivered that made me take offence at all.

Fast forward to the following summer when we were visiting friends of ours in the Toronto area..We were out sightseeing one hot day and happened to stop and get some soft serve ice cream (the 'custard cones' of my youth) at an ice cream truck. The man who served us noticed that my friend was wearing a T-Shirt with a print of the map of the island portion of Newfoundland on it (isn't it funny how that image speaks to us and evokes such strong feelings?) and asked if that was, indeed, from where we hailed. At our satisfied confirmation, he proceeded to make digs and crack jokes about Newfoundlanders, asking how many drinks we had had already that day (it was before noon) as a parting shot as we walked away. I took it all in stride but, a little dumbfounded, turned to my friend and asked, "did he just say what I thought he said?" "Yes," she replied, shaking her head, "You wouldn't believe how much of that crap I have to put up with here."

Now, you may think I am a bit slow - and in retrospect, perhaps I was - but the meaning I associated with "Newfie" was so ingrained in me that it still did not fully occur to me that it was not necessarily a self-explanatory, complimentary thing to be called...that, contrary to being respected as hailing from a unique, colourful, and proud group of people by the world at large when they found out where I was born and raised, "Newfie" might actually be thrown at me as an insult. I mean, I'm not a completely oblivious individual, but I definitely came from a very sheltered upbringing and suffered from acute naivete for a good portion of my life. I just didn't really give credence to the fact that there might be that kind of inter-provincial prejudice in my country (I don't count a sense of competitiveness or light-hearted jabs as evidence of prejudice). I suppose that was utterly dumb of me, thinking back to the views some easterners have of westerners as well, but I didn't really take that seriously, having my own bias as an Atlantic Canadian. Having said that, there is not a widely known term applied to any of the other provinces' citizens to my knowledge (aside from the labels applied to French-speaking Canadians by some ignorants).

Anyway, flash forward again to last winter when I was searching for a place to get some down-home grub on the west coast. I figured I'd look in Vancouver would probably be the most likely spot and, as we were planning a trip there in the near future to see some extended family, it would be ideal to bring them with us. I did happen to find The Newfie Tap and Grill (which is, in fact, now called the Atlantic Trap and Gill and which I wouldn't necessarily recommend, as we were sadly disappointed. Their online menu is outdated and the food we had didn't much resemble east coast fare in presentation, quality or taste) but during my online travels I also stumbled upon a site where some Vancouverites were debating whether or not we like being called "Newfies" because some of us take offense to it. That was the first time I really fully opened my eyes, but, again, I was incredulous and stunned. What? There are Newfoundlanders who don't like being called "Newfies"? When did that happen? Why? Aren't they proud of where they are from? Geez...oversensitive much? That's just being silly!

There was also an article I read online - which I cannot find for the life of me right now - about some incidents in St. John's whereby someone had the nerve to spray paint "Stupid Newfies" in various locations, which I thought was absolutely awful. There is no arguing that something is meant to be pejorative when preceeded by a descriptor such as "stupid." Of course, the article sparked a huge debate and a long list of feedback comments from all over the country, some of which were quite interesting to read to garner the differing perspectives of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, ex-pats, and the rest of the country.

I have been in my current locale for over 3 years, and I have to say I am very aware of these things now. The prior incidents - few and far between, for the most part - have taken on new meaning for me: My first boss here, who has a great sense of humour and whom I still love dearly, crossed the line one day by making a dig about 'lazy Newfies,' which got my back up...when I was doing my first play here, another actor found it quite amusing to regale me with Newfie jokes galore (which really grated on my nerves)...and more recently, when the cable guy came to hook us up at our new apartment, he immediately went to the topic of Newfie jokes when he spied some tell-tale elements of our decor. I quickly stopped him before he could start by relating a joke I had just picked up a couple of days earlier from Steve at Oh Me Nerves. I think he got the point. We then ended up discussing the various forms of prejudice we had both witnessed over the years towards various segments of the population, and he pointed out that Newfie jokes are no more than your run of the mill fill in the blank jokes that can be used to poke fun at just about any group of people and I shared that there are jokes in circulation in Newfoundland that exchange the roles of Newfoundlanders and mainlanders as well.

Anyway, I have done my homework over the past year and discovered that what I once considered an innocent source of pride has very disturbing connotations for many, and that the debate still rages on, as evidenced here at Todd's blog, here on a facebook group, here at Squidoo, here and here at, as well as any number of other examples posted on the web. In fact, there are even definitions of the word Newfie at Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary.

As for myself, well, I have been increasingly careful about my usage of the term in the last couple of years and I can't un-see or un-hear all of those things since having opened my eyes. Taken from another Newfoundlander I don't have as much of a problem with it (and I guess this is the basis some have used to contend that "Newfie" is similar to the other N word in circulation, whereby it is acceptable from peers who share the same - for lack of a better word at the moment - classification, but not from outsiders). After all, we are all entitled to our own thoughts, feelings and opinions and I was once with them in my beliefs...However, I cringe when I see or hear it used in the presence of non-Newfoundlanders because I am aware of what some of them may read into it now and I do not take kindly to being looked upon as a laughingstock. I am now very attuned to people's reactions to me once they have learned of my home province and I have to say that they have been very mixed, indeed. So, are there those who are prejudiced against Newfoundlanders and Labradorians? Absolutely. Is all of that summed up in the use of the word "Newfie"? Probably not. But I hesitate to apply it anymore, nonetheless.


  1. Nice post. I was going to comment on it in some detail, but the more I typed the more it morphed into a post of my own.

    I'll post it once I cool down :)

  2. Thanks, Chris. I look forward to reading your take on the issue.

  3. Excellent post indeed. I've read a bit about the 'Newfie' word conspiracy as of late actually. I'm not really sure I fall into either category of belief though. I just personally have the thought that we define ourselves and shouldn't let a word define us. We make us who we are and have never let anyone's perceptions of us slow us down. We all know deep in our hearts that no matter what somebody believes, their opinion will change upon the first meeting of a 'Newfie'.

  4. I haven't fully embraced one side or the other yet. However, I have been forced to open my eyes and am, as I said, much more careful about whether and when to use the term or allow it to be applied to me. I would hope that anyone who has gotten to know one of us knows better, but there are, sadly, those who do gleefully perpetuate the negative stereotype (and not everyone is keen enough to discern the difference between something that is said or done seriously or in jest - especially those not familiar with the culture). I guess all each of us can really do is be aware that those views exist, that we are representing our province and our culture, and conduct ourselves accordingly.

  5. Excellent post! I was taken to task (in the nicest way) by a Newfoundlander living in Ireland when I wrote an article for a publication which praised the cultural commonalities of "Newfies" and the Irish. I had no idea up to that point in time that Newfie would be perceived as a derogatory term. She sourced the origination of the word as being from the US army bases in Newfoundland, specifically to Argentia. Right or wrong I don't know.
    But coming from a race myself where "Paddy" is a derogatory term and one I had to fight against, I totally respect what she so kindly wrote to me about and have never used the term since and correct anyone - outside of a born Newfoundlander - who uses it in front of me. I do believe now that it is derogatory, having been myself the victim of "paddy" jokes and put downs.
    And thanks for visiting me!!

  6. Um you should probably research the history of the word and know what it means. You won't use it after reading this.

  7. I am a proud " Newfoundlander " living in Ontario for 60 years. The term " Newfie " really annoys me. I'm going to start asking people where ,on the map of the world, is the country called Newfie . When my husband passed away I choose the Ode TO Newfoundland " at his memorial service . The minister who was not a Newfoundlander read the words first and asked the congregation to reflect on them. Maybe some will realize that we are a proud people and not someone to be laughed at with their stupid jokes and remarks.