Recently, interesting debate and commentary was heard on both CBC and VOCM regarding the appropriateness of using the word “Newfie.”
Some are not offended, while others feel insulted by its usage.
But that’s just the way it has been for the past 70 years and it is not likely to change.
Two events occurred during the 1940s that made “Newfie” famous throughout North America and Europe and memorialized in Newfoundland.
It seems it was first used in 1941 when some American soldiers were introduced to a powerful locally bottled Jamaican rum which they christened “Newfie Screech.”
However, “Newfie” was used in such a way in 1943 that is became instantly known on two continents and exploded into controversy.
In February 1943, Joan Blundell — one of Hollywood’s top stars — while hosting “Command Performance” from Carnegie Hall, New York, used the word “Newfie” and the slang, “Stay where you’re to till I come where you’re at” to introduce the song “Newfoundland Express,” poking fun at our “Newfie Bullet.”
It was done in a spirit of fun, but when Blondell returned to Hollywood she was overwhelmed by the angry letters it generated from Newfoundlanders.
The show was heard in North America and Europe.
Blondell defended herself in a letter to The Evening Telegram, in which she explained, “In my heart I refuse to believe that the true spirit of the Newfoundlanders I had the pleasure of knowing is behind such a petty onslaught upon a person whose every thought and effort since the beginning of the war has been to bring a few moments of cheer to those who are giving so much for us.
“For the Newfoundlanders who are outraged, may I say this: I was born in Brooklyn. I would be bent and grey and twisted if I shuddered and condemned those responsible for the endless Brooklyn gags. We Brooklynites have heard them and laughed at them since Brooklyn was born.
“Surely on radio shows emanating from the States you have heard the comics mimic New York talk. ‘Dis is Toity-Toid Abenue and Toity-Toid Street.’ Or that southern drawl, ‘Howdy y’all, a’hm shore glad to see y’all heah’?”
Several prominent Newfoundlanders defended Joan Blondell through letters to The Evening Telegram.
John G. Higgins, lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, asked in his letter, “Are we losing our sense of humour?”
Lawyer George Ayre provided them a most impressive defense of the actress and utilized a little humour of his own in responding to her critics.
He wrote, “It is a great pity that our cowardly, anonymous writers did not bless instead of curse; but they did not. I am prepared to do it for them, and in my simple humble way say:
“May heaven bless you Joan Blondell
Your form and acting both are swell
Let those who curse you go to —
Joe Batt’s Arm
And there, I bet, they’ll do no harm.”
Decades later, the word “Newfie” or “Newphie,” as Blondell spelled it, is still sparking debate.
Jack Fitzgerald writes from St. John’s.