Dictionary of Newfoundland English



'The circle of the English language,' observed the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, 'has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.' 1 Although this is especially true of the enormous subject to which the OED and its Supplements are addressed, any dictionary that sets out to describe the word-stock of a nation, or even of a region, within a world-wide speech-community such as that of English must also face, though of course on a much reduced scale, the practical problem of delimiting the lexicon, of marking its boundaries.

One common procedure2 is to confine attention to words or expressions which originate in a given country; but while this focuses clearly on the central nucleus of a distinctive vocabulary it does not, perhaps, allow sufficiently for such nice problems as the overlap of that vocabulary with other English-speaking communities, consideration of special senses or high frequencies of occurrence and so on. Much closer to a solution of the problem, in our experience, is the formulation by the editors of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles 3 (DC) who define a 'Canadianism' as a 'word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada.' This definition emerges from the basic procedure of the editors who instead of focusing exclusively on a vocabulary of 'Canadianisms,' however defined, shift the emphasis to the corpus of works read in collecting for the dictionary, confining themselves 'to source materials written by persons native to or resident in Canada who were writing about Canadian life or by travellers and other visitors to Canada who were commenting on their experiences in this country.' This is an important innovation which recognizes that the English language overseas, wherever it is spoken, is not a completely different or new language. Indeed, the special contribution of each country or region in new words and expressions, though often numerically large, constitutes a relatively small proportion of the total vocabulary, and to confine attention to it as an index of national or regional usage is to ignore the subtle issues of the frequency, popularity and semantic nuance of certain lexical items otherwise common to all English speakers.

It is the purpose of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English to present as one such index the regional lexicon of one of the oldest overseas communities of the English-speaking world: the lexicon of Newfoundland and coastal Labrador as it is displayed in the sources drawn upon in compiling the work, sources which range from sixteenth-century printed books to tape recordings of contemporary Newfoundland speakers. Rather than attempting to define a 'Newfoundlandism' our guiding principles in collecting have been to look for words which appear to have entered the language in Newfoundland or to have been recorded first, or solely, in books about Newfoundland; words which are characteristically Newfoundland by having continued in use here after they died out or declined elsewhere, or by having acquired a different form or developed a different meaning, or by having a distinctly higher or more general degree of use.

Thus, among the latter are articles on such words as cod, haul, quintal, salt water; articles on bawn, belay, cassock, cat, dog, graple, lanch, room, strouter, and tilt, for words which have been given a new form or meaning in the region; on droke, dwy, fadge, frore, keecorn, linny, nish, still, suant, as examples of the many survivals, or, equally common, dialectal items in use, or former use, in the British Isles; on bawk, caplin, janny, landwash, nunny-bag, penguin, steady, sunker, ticklace and water-horse among words apparently invented in Newfoundland or appearing first in books about the region. And to these are to be added a number of words which, while they are often in varying degrees part of the common English vocabulary, are nevertheless given entries in the Dictionary because they occur with important nuances in Newfoundland usage, are displayed with unusual fullness in our data, or themselves stand at the centre of semantic fields of great regional importance: barren, bay, coast, harbour, ice, salt, ship, shore, spring, trap, water, and so on. These take their place in the Dictionary side by side with many other words the precise regional discriminations of which have often been hard won--subtle, but critical, terms such as in and out, offer and outside, up and down, which display a people's exact sense of place; terms such as bank, berth, ground, fouly, ledge, shoal, etc, which reflect a complex system of classification of water bodies according to the types of ocean floor perceived by and significant for a coastal fishing people; names for birds and plants, especially those of economic or other importance; the seemingly endless nomenclature of seals at every stage of growth and development (bedlamer, dotard, gun seal, jar, nog-head, ragged-jacket, turner, white-coat, and a score of others); words for conditions of ice (ballicatter, clumper, quarr, sish, slob); and names for familiar operations in the woods or on the water, at work or play, in the ordinary and long-established patterns of Newfoundland and Labrador life.

The Dictionary therefore has both a breadth and a detail considerably greater than we originally envisaged, and this realization has been forced upon us by the evidence at our disposal and has increased with the progress of the work. The levels and kinds of lexical record included might be displayed graphically as a series of concentric rings spreading out from a centre, these rings formed by successive stages of the historical experience of English-speakers in Newfoundland; or as a series of isoglosses marking the special lexical features shared by Newfoundland speakers with those of their principal points of origin, especially the south-west counties of England and southern Ireland, and, across the Western Ocean, with those with whom Newfoundlanders have been in language contact: the native peoples of the region (adikey, oo-isht, sina, tabanask), speakers in the Canadian North (fur, stove cake, trap line), along the Atlantic seaboard of North America from Nova Scotia to New England (banker, dory, gangeing, scrod, trawl, tub), and in a sea-faring world which has left a ubiquitous record of nautical terms and nautical transfers in the regional lexicon.

From a certain point of view, therefore, the work is presented as a regional parallel with the Dictionary of American English (1938-44), the Dictionary of Canadianisms, the Dictionary of Jamaican English (1967), and other dictionaries of branches of the language overseas planned or in progress for Australia and South Africa; but equally it supplements the OED itself, Wright's English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905), glossaries of Anglo-Irish, and numerous specialist works on the vocabulary of fishing and logging, the language of seamen and seamanship, and the lexicons of other specific activities.

The sometimes elaborate apparatus presented in the headnotes to the Dictionary articles reflects this conception of the work: it has grown out of an attempt to display the sources and affiliations of the Newfoundland vocabulary, as well as to document and clarify the substantial core of words unique to the region. The references to other dictionaries reflect the careful winnowing process by which, over a number of years, the editors have developed and applied a collaborative sense of what the Dictionary should include and what it should omit. Important factors in our selection have been the degree of frequency of comparable usage in Great Britain or continental North America; the importance of the term in the region's main occupations and traditional culture; the amount and authenticity of our evidence; the adequacy of coverage in the major historical and encyclopaedic dictionaries against which each word considered for inclusion has been checked; and even an aesthetic sense of proportion and balance in the presentation of the regional word-stock and semantics. A final motive has been a desire to establish the lexical record for Newfoundlanders themselves and their descendants, and for readers and scholars who need to know about the speech and material culture of the region, about

The ways of lobsters and tom cod, the subtle craft of dories, the topograpy of the wilderness under broad flakes, the abiding places of starfish and prickly sea-eggs, the significance of squid-squalls, and the virulence of squid,4

and about the planting, survival and adaptation of a small group of English-speakers overseas, the lexical evidence for which spans several centuries.

That evidence is drawn from sources the nature and variety of which are described elsewhere in the Introduction (SOURCES FOR THE DICTIONARY). It is of a kind which has led us in the Dictionary articles to avoid usage labels such as 'slang,' 'dialectal,' 'colloquial,' or 'literary' in the conviction that Newfoundland usage forms a continuum of cultivated and popular speech which the use of such labels distorts. We have similarly eschewed labelling words as 'historical,' 'archaic,' or 'obsolete' not because all the words in the Dictionary are in living use but because we have been too often surprised by the occurrence of terms, long absent from the printed record, on the lips of contemporary Newfoundlanders to be confident of making definitive statements on such matters.

Figure 1

The file of evidence upon which the Dictionary has been built is considerably larger than that portion which is displayed in the articles and listed in the BIBLIOGRAPHY. It may be represented in the form of a diagram (Figure 1). A large number of words collected over the years have been excluded on the grounds that they seem, on balance, adequately covered in other dictionaries. Among these are certain words and idioms of considerable regional celebrity to which the recent advent of the electronic mass media has given an exaggerated currency and which, on examination, we do not find to be distinctive (proper thing, rampike, up she comes). Many other words have also been withheld because, on the evidence available to us, they seemed of extremely limited currency, often confined to single reports. These await the collection of further evidence. We have also, naturally, exercised judgment in selecting from our basic file of lexical material the amount of illustrative quotation for inclusion in the work. However, the complete file of material is to be preserved for the use of other students of the language.

Our judgement of the proper scope of this Dictionary will not command assent in every detail. But each decision has been made on the basis of all the evidence available to us: on our very large accumulation of field data, and on the reading and experience of the editors. Whatever the debate engaged in during the process of editorial selection, the decisions have all, in the end, been made with unanimity.

1. Vol. 1, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, [1888]1933, xxvii.

2. See, for example, M.M. Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), v.

3. Ed Walter S. Avis et al (Toronto: W.J. Gage Ltd., 1967), xiii.

4. Norman Duncan, The Way of the Sea (New York: McClure, Phillips, & Co.), 6-7.