That dratted word again

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You never have to launch an exhaustive search to bear witness to the immense, diverse talents of Newfoundlanders, an extraordinary output evident in just about every sector of society; a contribution that totally belies our relatively tiny population of a half a million or so.

And this time of the year, there’s always plenty of proof that we have destroyed forever, napalmed, blown to smithereens, any remnants of the stereotype of the stunned, illiterate, uncreative Newfoundlander, too slow to get out of his own way, the caricature perpetuated for over half the 20th century by, in particular, way too many Canadians, Brits and Americans.

In these first days of fall, we hear of four local writers — Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Elisabeth De Mariaffi and Wayne Johnston — among the 13 nominees longlisted for the prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.

There’s the CBC with its promotional television ads for its fall season, promos that, every year, seem dominated by the visual presence of Newfoundlanders, including Rick Mercer (I preferred the satirical Rick to the slapstick Rick, but you can’t deny his crowd-pleasing antics), the gang at “This Hour has 22 Minutes” (created by Mary Walsh), a fifth season of “Republic of Doyle,” and the list goes on and on.

At the same time, Colin Greening, Ryan Clowe, Daniel Cleary and others from this neck of the woods impress at National Hockey League training camps, a continuation of their successful careers, an eternity away from a time when we rejoiced that there was one Newfoundlander in the NHL for a brief and largely unforgettable stint (Cleary also made us proud recently by displaying a near unheard-of loyalty in pro sports in sticking with his Detroit Red Wings even as a more lucrative, longer-term offer from the Flyers was his for the taking).     

There’s also the newly released movie “The Grand Seduction,” shot in Newfoundland and starring many Newfoundlanders, creating what critics and writers call “buzz” at film festivals.    

But smack dab in the midst of all this ongoing celebration of the talents of Newfoundllanders, we have the word “Newfie” raising its ugly head, a word synonymous with the stomach-churning stereotype I referred to a few paragraphs back.

A couple of years ago, I swore to myself I would never write another word about our very own “N” word, believing that the time had long passed when we had to be defensive about who we are, that we should just ignore the few idiots from upalong who still use the word derisively, and forgive those naive souls from our own gene pool who will never, ever accept the fact that it is a God-awful, anachronistic word, one that conjures up a terrible history of condescension at best, a hateful putdown at worse.  

But, I’m on a “Newfie” slip, like a gambler who returns to the slot machines or a drunk who has one more shot at the booze; I just can’t help myself.  

Chain reaction

That Telegram story about “Newfie Lane” in Lower Sackville, N.S., prompted a bit of a pig-out on CBC Radio one day last week (I would have probably dined out myself if I had still been in active journalistic mode, knowing it was provocative and juicy stuff), and a so-called Telegram “survey” showing only about a third of respondents were bothered by the word “Newfie” (these online surveys, whether generated by The Telegram, CBC or the private stations, should always be viewed skeptically, and given a zero mark on scientific accuracy and credibility).

In any case, with all that attention to “Newfie,” I couldn’t resist another Saturday epistle on the subject.

And if you’ve stuck with me this long today, you’ve gotten the drift.

But to reiterate: I hate the word “Newfie” — it’s a despicable term that had its origins as a mean-spirited insult to Newfoundlanders.

And, along with being a nasty term, it can also have, as I’ve already alluded to, a real patronizing tone: “God, aren’t those Newfies just so quaint and entertaining?” (all that’s missing is: “wouldn’t you just like to bring one home for the evening, even own one?” or condescending (“God, those Newfies have sure come a long way, haven’t they?”)

It seems to me, as well, that many Newfoundlanders who have no problem with the word are those who’ve lived away for decades, and I can’t help but think it’s a direct result of their efforts, and perhaps those of their parents and maybe even their grandparents, to fit in on the mainland, to accept and tolerate being called “Newfies” because they would be more readily accepted wherever they happened to be living.

I’ll end with this: there was a tremendous scene in the highly entertaining movie “Down to the Dirt” of a few years ago, starring Joel Thomas Hynes and based on his novel, in which the main character was being tortured in a basement in Nova Scotia.

While hanging from a pipe by handcuffs, his face a bloody pulp, he’s referred to by his abuser as a “Newfie.”

The Hynes character, barely able to see out of his swollen eyes, still manages to look up at the bully and chastise him: “That’s Newfoundlander, if you don’t mind.”

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC Radio, National Hockey League, Detroit Red Wings Flyers

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia

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  • Cashin Delaney
    October 02, 2013 - 20:57

    "our very own “N” word" - really Mr. Wakeham? I heard Bill Cosby on CBC radio cut down this comparison in an interview last year. Every Telegram columnist on the goover this Newfie Lane silliness, has to include this reference, somehow attaching the brutal history of millions of African-Americans to our insecurity within our relatively free British heritage. Look at the examples given - "stunned, illiterate, uncreative Newfoundlander" First off, stunned is our own term. I've never heard a non-Newfoundlander call anyone a stunned Newfie. I've never heard someone derided for being an uncreative Newfie. Illiterate may be a realistic description in the past, but it seems that the rest of Canada and the US is on par with us these days. Referencing writers, and hockey players who would likely spurn the association with the "I-hate-that-word victim mentality" presented here, is the weakest tact of the column, if the obligatory N-word reference was the most reachingly obtuse and insensitive. Well, "the caricature perpetuated for over half the 20th century" is the same caricature used to describe the "other", the barbarians, the rustics, whatever-you-please, since the beginning of language, around the globe. How can you hate an abbreviation of a word? Do you think Danny Cleary got to where he is today by carrying the attitude Wakeham espouses here, projecting his nasty, patronizing, condescending aspirations to victimhood onto Britians and the greater percentage of North American citizens.

  • jeremiah
    September 29, 2013 - 07:28

    You are so right. The word has its origin with the British in WW1 and used by them in as condescending and disrespectful to Newfoundlanders who were considered no more than fodder for the cannon. Probably why they were sent over the top at Beaaumont Hamel. Shameful word and those who use it either fit the stereotype or are insulting us.

  • jeremiah
    September 29, 2013 - 07:26

    You are so right. The word has its origin with the British in WW1 and used by them in as condescending and disrespectful to Newfoundlanders who were considered no more than fodder for the cannon. Probably why they were sent over the top at Beaaumont Hamel. Shameful word and those who use it either fit the stereotype or are insulting us.

  • Puzzled
    September 28, 2013 - 10:22

    Your indignant rant against the use of the term "Newfie" notwithstanding, I'm wondering what was the origin of what you believe was the derogatory nature of its use?

  • Lived on the Mainland
    September 28, 2013 - 09:50

    I don't know how anyone cannot see the word Newfie for it what it is, it's an insult. Like most people in this province, I lived many years on the mainland and still make several business trips up there. My personal experience is that mainlanders use the word mainly as an insult. I've heard the Newfie jokes; I've heard how the "Newfies don't count"; I've heard how low paid jobs couldn't be filled until find some Newfies, and once I was called a "stupid Newfie". You can bury your head in the sand and tell yourself that the word Newfie means something nice but know this, when someone calls you a Newfie, they mean to insult you.