Before I went to St. John’s several years ago, I picked up a copy of a weighty book called the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, a scholarly work that runs 770 pages and was first published in 1982.
I’d been to the island province before, to the west coast, and often had a hard time understanding the local lingo.
So, as a part-time freelance travel writer always looking for an offbeat angle, I pitched a story I described as “talking Newfie” and got the assignment from the National Post.
After a flight from Toronto, leafing through the dictionary in my hotel room on my first night in St. John’s, I looked up the word Newfie.
I’d been in Canada long enough to know that people told Newfie jokes, the same way Americans told Polish jokes and, I’d discovered from my daughter who grew up in Bern, the Swiss told Fribourger jokes.
(I’ve been to the canton of Fribourg and didn’t find the Fribourgers particularly joke-worthy. Of course, I don’t speak French, or German, or Schweizerdeutsch.)
In any case, when I read the Newfoundland dictionary definition of Newfie, I was surprised to discover it was not a slur or slang, but simply: “A native born inhabitant of Newfoundland.”
There was a second entry that remains puzzling: “Sometimes used locally in imitation of Americans and mainland Canadians.”
Did that mean Newfoundlanders would hear my American-Ontario accent and call me a Newfie?
I got my answer a couple of nights later at O’Reilly’s Pub on George Street, the booziest block in Canada.
“I’m doing a story about ‘talking Newfie,’” I told the pub’s proprietors, Brenda O’Reilly and Craig Flynn. This was greeted by silence before Craig admonished, “We don’t use the N-word.”
They told me it’s okay for Newfoundlanders to use the word but not acceptable for folks from “away.”
That settled – I did not bring up the dictionary definition – Craig got down to the business of Screeching me into Newfoundland society.
He put on a floppy fisherman’s hat and administered the initiation oath. It took me several tries before I got the script straight.
“Is you a Newfoundlander Screecher?” he asked.
“Indeed I is, me ol’ cock,” I recited. “Long may your big jib draw.”
Then, as required, I ate a small hunk of baloney, tossed back a shot of Screech and, to seal the deal, kissed a cod – it was frozen, obviously preserved for such occasions.
“Now you are an honorary Newfoundlander,” Craig proclaimed.
Back in reporter mode, I asked: “Does everybody kiss the same cod?”
“Yeah,” Craig said, “but we wash it occasionally.”
Later, he informed me of a Screech-in he would be performing soon with another visitor from away, Ron Jeremy.
I was grateful I preceded the porn star in kissing the fish.