A dic­tionary of our own

The Compass - - OPINION -

“Johnny? I was af­ter goin’ to the store. Didn’t have me fitout on. Sunny at first, but then a dwy came on. Bivver!! Now me head looks like a birch broom in da fits!”

This string of words would sound like a for­eign lan­guage to many main­lan­ders, and even some New­found­lan­ders, de­pend­ing on what part of the province they grew up in. But think about it: in those few sen­tences, one can find Ir­ish, El­iz­a­bethan English, Welsh and Scot­tish — thanks to our cul­ture and her­itage. To say to be “af­ter do­ing some­thing” does not ex­ist in stan­dard gram­mat­i­cal English. But it is proper gram­mar in Ir­ish Gaelic.

“Fit-out” is a word re­ver­sal once com­mon in El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land; “bivver” is a sim­i­lar old cor­rup­tion that com­bines “shiv­er­ing” and “chilly,” while a dwy, an­other name for flur­ries that man­i­fest when the sun is shin­ing, and we get it thanks to our Scot­tish and Welsh fore­bears.

No won­der lin­guists, folk­lorists and schol­ars of all sorts come to this province for study and re­search. If Shake­speare could travel ahead in time, he could hear snip­pets of his di­alect still alive on parts of the Avalon Penin­sula. The same goes for our Ir­ish an­ces­tors, whose brogue and ex­pres­sions are still alive here — though New­found­land Ir­ish Gaelic and New­found­land French are now ex­tinct.

Those are some of the rea­sons to cel­e­brate one of the most in­for­ma­tive and in­ter­est­ing ref­er­ence books of re­cent years. It’s the 30th an­niver­sary of the Dic­tionary of New­found­land English, a book wel­comed in many New­found­land homes, schools and li­braries not long af­ter its publi­ca­tion.

It’s still some­thing New­found­lan­ders should be proud of. No other province even has any­thing that ap­proaches it. Prov­inces where French is dom­i­nant, like Que­bec and New Brunswick, may have their own dic­tio­nar­ies, but they would re­late to the French lan­guage.

There is no schol­arly dic­tionary of Nova Sco­tia, Al­berta or On­tario English, for ex­am­ple.

But New­found­land has one. And while some of the words and say­ings have fallen into dis­use, or were only orig­i­nally known by a few groups, oth­ers sur­face from time to time. Oth­ers de­serve to be res­ur­rected in a big way.

One of Lieu­tenant-Gov­er­nor John Cros­bie’s favourite words to de­scribe an un­savoury char­ac­ter ( like a crook or un­scrupu­lous politi­cian) was “sleeven,” a word from Ir­ish Gaelic. It’s a good word to bring back to gen­eral use: “that (in­sert crooked politi­cian’s name here) is noth­ing but a sleeven!”

And as the Christ­mas sea­son ap­proaches, what will you call the night be­fore Christ­mas Eve? Why, “Tibb’s Eve,” of course! Some St. John’s res­i­dents are even hold­ing “Tibb’s Eve” par­ties at lo­cal es­tab­lish­ments in hon­our of the nonex­is­tent Saint Tibb.

New­found­lan­ders, es­pe­cially young peo­ple, should con­tinue to trea­sure the Dic­tionary as a sig­nif­i­cant part of cel­e­brat­ing our his­tory and cul­ture.

Against the in­flu­ences of Amer­i­can pop mass me­dia, the Dic­tionary of New­found­land English stands as a re­minder. It is part of where we came from, how much our cul­ture and tra­di­tions dif­fer, and why we need to keep them alive.

— Sue Hickey is a re­porter with The Ad­ver­tiser in Grand Falls-Wind­sor

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