Origin of the Derogatory Term Newfie
The term ¡°Newfie¡± has always been a very controversial one, but never more so than it has been during the first six years of the twentieth-first century. Some people consider it to be a ¡°term of endearment¡± while the majority of Newfoundlanders regard it as a derogatory term.
Over the past several decades, many people have offered suggestions as to how the term first came into being. A certain number of people have given credit to the British sailors who were stationed at St. John's during World War II. A few others were of the opinion that members of the Canadian military started it. Most people, however, were of the opinion that the Americans coined the term.
People from Gander say it was started in their community while some residents from the Stephenville claim it began there. A few St. John's residents have maintained that it was started by the Americans at Fort Pepperrell U.S. Army-Air Force Base. Well, regardless of what they claim, they are all wrong. Contrary to what many Newfoundlanders, and some Labradorians, believe, ¡°Newfie¡± was never a term of endearment. In reality, they do not spell it in its original form, which is ¡°N-e-w-f-y!¡±
The U.S. military is an acronym-rich organization. Even today, its members like to make words and phrases as short as possible. As an example, instead of saying two distinct words, they often run them together in a bastardized form for any number of reasons ¡ convenience, laziness, satire, or derision.
The term "Newfyjohn" was coined by a group of soldiers at Fort McAndrew U.S. Army Base in Argentia in reference to St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland, where the U.S. Army headquarters (Fort Pepperrell) were being constructed. They meant it as a derogatory term because a large number of them had contracted a sexually-transmitted disease ¡ª gonorrhea to be more specific ¡ª at the ¡°lady of the night¡± establishments that were so prevalent there.
The U.S. Army Area Engineers construction division was the ¡°Project Coordinator¡± during the construction of Fort McAndrew U.S. Army Base. American civilian Gene Dougherty was truck foreman and his brother, ¡°Doc¡± Dougherty ¡ª first name not in records ¡ª was general labor foreman. Doc Dougherty was the man who coined the name "Newfy Bullet.¡± It was his derogatory reference to the notoriously slow trains operated by the Newfoundland Railway on narrow gauge rails between Argentia and St. John's.
The Newfoundlanders readily adopted that particular term as an insult to the railway system because they were just as frustrated as the Americans by the slow service of the Newfoundland Express. A trip from Argentia to St. John's ¡ª which was only 83 miles by rail ¡ª took anywhere from four to six hours, depending on the number of stops to pick up or discharge passengers and freight along the way.
The actual name of Newfoundland's train was Caribou, not the commonly used name ¡°Newfoundland Express.¡± However, after the American term caught on, most people forgot the proper name. The American servicemen also referred to the "Newfy Bullet" as their ¡°Liberty Train.¡±
Although those two double-word derogatory terms were started at Fort McAndrew U.S. Army Base, the first word in each one was not unique. It was an adaptation of one they had heard many times. ¡°Newfy¡± was first uttered in anger by a U.S. Navy officer at U.S. Naval Operating Base, Argentia. The term ¡°Newfy¡± is a derogatory term that was coined by Lieutenant (jg) Jay Silliman, and he meant it to be exactly that.
Initially, the American civilian construction foremen and military authorities were displeased with their verdant Newfoundland workforce. The Newfoundlanders were not used to working throughout the day at the sustained pace that the Americans wanted. Their priorities were quite different, and they did not share the Americans' sense of urgency. A week before Christmas 1941, almost 60 percent of the workers at the time ¡ª 3,021 men, to be exact ¡ª quit their jobs. They went back to their homes around the various bays ¡ many with the intention of staying there for the entire winter. After working for almost 12 months, they had already earned more money then they had in the previous 10 years. The Americans found that practice difficult to deal with, and they were very critical of the workers.
It was on Wednesday, December 17 ¡ª during a meeting to discuss the troublesome labor situation ¡ª that Lieutenant Silliman coined the derogatory term ¡°Newfys¡± in reference to residents of Newfoundland. In that meeting with Lieutenant F. B. Stephens, Lieutenant Edward Quinn, E. E. Davis, and several site supervisors, he was reported as having said: ¡®Newfys and Niggers are all alike, lazy and useless.'
The following day ¡ª before he left for a meeting with members of the Commission of Government at St. John's ¡ª he confirmed in writing what he had been credited with saying at the meeting when he sent a memo to Lieutenant Edward Poole who was not present for the previous day's meeting. In that memo, he gave Lieutenant Poole an overview of what was discussed at the meeting. Near the end he wrote:
¡ As I said before, Newfys and Niggers are all the same, lazy and useless. Their lack of purpose for and dedication to this project will cause major logistical problems if the situation is not rectified in the near future.
After the term ¡°Newfy¡± was first uttered, the American servicemen used it in reference to all things pertaining to Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders. Everything was ¡°Newfy¡± something! Geographically, there was ¡°Newfyjohn¡± and ¡°Newfyland.¡± Local male workers were ¡°Newfymen,¡± but if there any who the Americans particularly disliked, they were called ¡°Newfy nuts¡± or ¡°Newfy dicks.¡± As for referencing women, it depended upon whether they were old, married, or eligible. Old women were ¡°Newfy prunes¡± and married women were ¡°Newfy tied.¡± The most desirable women of the eligible category were ¡°Newfy broads,¡± ¡°Newfy tits,¡± ¡°Newfy pussies,¡± or ¡°Newfy pieces of tail.¡± Some servicemen who were in Newfoundland longer than six months used to say that they were "Newfy Goofy."
The term ¡°Newfy¡± caught on quickly and spread to wherever American servicemen traveled. It was also picked up and used by some of the thousands of Allied military men who visited U.S. Naval Operating Base, Argentia via aircraft, ships, and submarines. Members of the British and Canadian forces quickly picked it up and started using it as much as the Americans throughout World War II and beyond. Within a few months of Lieutenants Silliman's derogatory remark, the word ¡°Newfy¡± was being used by sailors, soldiers, and airmen around the world, many of whom were not aware of the meaning behind the term.
While "Newfie" has become a term of endearment for many Newfoundlanders and Americans over the years, they are probably unaware as to how it originated. Contrary to the belief of a major portion of today's population, Newfy was never, absolutely never, a term of endearment. Using the word "Newfy," whether attached to other words or not, was the Americans' way of insulting or degrading others in a subtle manner ¡ and it was very condescending. Whenever servicemen from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada used Newfy, even in a seemingly friendly way, it was for the surreptitious purpose of ridiculing, degrading, and belittling Newfoundlanders.
How often have you heard a comment such as, ¡°Ahh, that's different; he's a nice Newfy,¡± especially from former U.S. military men who were stationed in Newfoundland. It is as if the ¡°nice Newfy¡± were a ¡°nice dog¡± or a ¡°nice cat.¡± Regardless of how they say it is meant, the term is condescending.
Are you one of those who do not believe the condescending aspect of "Newfy?"
The next time you hear an American ¡ª especially one from California, New York, or Texas ¡ª use the word "Newfy" pay close attention to the tone of voice and his/her body language. The same applies to mainland Canadians ¡ª especially some of those from Quebec or Ontario. If you ever have the opportunity to observe certain Torontonians making references to ¡°Newfies,¡± it will not take you very long to understand why the term can still be so condescending.
Those Newfoundlanders who know how derogatory "Newfy" once was find it very difficult to understand why so many fellow Newfoundlanders take pride in referring to themselves as "Newfies." ¡°After all,¡± they say, ¡°you would never hear African-Americans take pride in publicly calling themselves 'Niggers,' Italians calling themselves 'Wops,' or Chinese people referring to themselves as 'Chinks.'¡±
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Newfoundlanders ¡ª whether it was by accident or design ¡ª started doing what many people of marginalized groups have done for almost a century with slurs that were aimed at insulting or belittling them. They threw the insulting term right back in the faces of their ridiculers ¡ by changing the spelling of American-style N-e-w-f-y to British-style N-e-w-f-i-e and adding a positive meaning. It was much the same way with African-Americans, women, poor white people, and children born out of wedlock who defiantly appropriated and re-valued terms like nigger, bitch, redneck, and bastard. In spite of that situation, ¡°Newfie¡± is still derogatory.
Within two weeks of that mass exodus of Newfoundland workers ¡ª and several labor relations meetings later ¡ª George A. Fuller, Merritt-Chapman & Scott agreed to re-hire the majority of those who had quit. The few who had been classified as the ¡°ring leaders¡± were blacklisted and refused employment. The Americans branded them as trouble makers and wanted nothing more to do with them. They did not want a repeat of that major delay in their high-priority war project.
Upon being re-instated in their jobs, the Newfoundlanders' work habits changed dramatically. The adjustment in their sense of purpose was brought about by the sudden realization that their impetuous actions could jeopardize any chance of a future livelihood with the U.S. Navy. With the Newfoundlanders' change in attitude and improved work habits, productivity was greatly increased. The Americans' attitudes also changed when they observed the Newfoundlanders' willingness to learn and cooperate. The military officers were quite pleased when they saw the high level of proficiency that the Newfoundlanders attained with the proper training and guidance.
Quebec has a new professional basketball team in Quebec City. It has been officially named ¡°Kebekwa.¡± When suggestions for a new name were being entertained, the title ¡°Jumping Frogs¡± was put forward. While most people in the sports world viewed the name as a term of endearment, the general population of the province was outraged. People were quite familiar with
¡°frogs,¡± as it is a derogatory term often used to describe members of the French population in Quebec. Unlike some Newfoundlanders who like to call themselves "Newfies," they were not about to advertise themselves to the world as "Frogs." What a contrast between the two populations!
In spite of many Newfoundlanders developing a positive attitude toward the term ¡ª and contrary to what younger generations believe ¡ª many people in Canada and the United States still view residents of Newfoundland as ¡°stupid Newfies.¡± The fact that Newfoundlanders living in other parts of the world insist on calling themselves "Newfies," and proceed to establish those inane ¡°Newfie Clubs,¡± only exacerbates the situation. Even well known individuals and organizations from Newfoundland and Labrador ¡ª especially Buddy Wassisname and the Other Fellers and Ron Young of the Downhome magazine ¡ª do the province a great disservice with their ¡°cute¡± and ¡°endearing¡± way of propagating the term "Newfie" through stupid jokes and insulting tourist memorabilia. Then there are people like Bob Tulk who published the booklet Newfie Jokes and Bill MacLeod who published Cape Breton and Newfie Joke Book. If those people were not reaping financial or some other kind of benefits, it is a certainty that there would be very little interest in all things "Newfie."
We are well aware of the fact that the aforesaid individuals will vehemently deny that their intentions and actions are belittling to Newfoundland, or its residents, but ¡ª contrary to any claims they might choose to put forth, and in keeping with the opinions of many thousands of Newfoundlanders ¡ª that is exactly what they are doing.
We have just one question for all you Newfoundlanders ¡ª especially all you expatriate men and women ¡ª who like to proudly refer to yourselves as ¡°Newfies.¡± How would you react to your mother being referred to as ¡°Newfy prune,¡± your wife or sister as ¡°Newfy tied,¡± or yourself or your sister as ¡°Newfy tits?¡± Point made!
Some of your grandparents or great grandparents were referred to by the terms previously mentioned on a fairly regular basis for the better part of two decades. Now that you have this information about the derogatory aspects of the term Newfie, why not stop propagating the dishonor that was shown to them for no reason other than they followed a lifestyle that was different from some of the U.S. military men who were stationed in various parts of Newfoundland. Why not stop dishonoring your ancestors by referring to yourselves as ¡°Newfies!¡±
Although the official name of Canada's tenth province is ¡°Newfoundland and Labrador,¡± the people of Labrador do not refer to themselves as Newfoundlanders ¡ they never have and probably never will. They proudly proclaim themselves to be only ¡°Labradorians,¡± without any need for a nickname or ¡°term of endearment.¡± They fly their distinct ¡°Labrador Flag¡± to demonstrate that pride. The Labrador flag, by the way, was designed in 1973 by Michael S. Martin, the member of the House of Assembly for Labrador South, as a political statement aimed at Premier Joseph R. (Joey) Smallwood because he refused to recognize Labrador as any kind of separate entity.
Only on the island portion part of the province ¡ª and in other parts of the world where expatriate Newfoundlanders live ¡ª do many Newfoundlanders choose to call themselves ¡°Newfies.¡± Those people may place any kind of connotation on the term as they see fit, but they cannot change history. They will never be able to erase the derogatory sense in which it was uttered, written, and conveyed by a U.S. Navy officer in 1941.
For decades, Newfoundlanders have been complaining that they ¡°have not been taken seriously by the rest of Canada¡± and are often portrayed as inferior to other Canadians, and many Americans. Is it any wonder when Newfoundlanders constantly give them fodder for such opinions! Producing and sharing cultural humor among themselves is one thing, but those stupid ¡°Newfie¡± joke books and tourist memorabilia should become a thing of the past. Long overdue, it is about time that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador started setting the trend of portraying all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in a more positive light. The premier should take the initiative in instituting a policy forbidding government members from boastfully referring to themselves as ¡°proud Newfies.¡± Their language should be more in line with the image they want to portray to the world through the province's new logo, and "Newfie" does not fit that image.
Instead of broadcasting ¡°I am proud to be a Newfie¡± to the world, what is wrong with ¡°I am proud to be a Newfoundlander!¡± It is so much more appropriate!
Newfoundlanders ¡ª long may your big jib draw!
Update ¡ª Thursday, May 17, 2007
We received an e-mail from someone who did not sign his/her real name who stated that he/she had seen a reference to the term ¡°Newfie¡± in an article from 1937.
We will not dispute that information because we know it to be factual. Indeed, we also know the word was occasionally used in a non-descript manner by English merchants in their dealings with Newfoundland fishermen during the 1920s. However, its meaning and use as a derogatory term became widespread only after it was first used specifically for that purpose at Argentia in 1941.