The Newfoundland Tongue
by Nellie P. Strowbridge
When I was in Cobh, Ireland, awhile ago, I started up a long hill on a
beautiful March morning to make the two-kilometre walk to the Old Church
Cemetery and to the graves of the victims of the torpedoed Lusitania. Soon a
man with a dog caught up with me. We talked as we went along. Suddenly he
stopped and looked at me, puzzled. “Ware you frum? Yer accent is all mixed
up; ’tis not American nor Irish. I don’t know wha-er ’tis. I carna tell head
na tail ef et.”
That’s the way it is now with many of us. Though the sounds of our Ireland,
England, and Channel Islands ancestors are sometimes heavy on our tongues,
we are no longer insulated from outside influences. We move around so much
that our forebears’ way of speaking has been turned over and mingled, and is
evolving so much that there may come a time when we will have no distinct
dialect. We will speak the Canadian way.
Still, I believe we will always season our words with an odd turn of phrase.
When we open our mouths, words dressed in colourful and delightful
expressions will often pop out. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English
became a precious testament to our more than 360 dialects. It awakened words
and expressions I had long forgotten. Some I knew with variations in
meaning. I have included words here that I hope will be added to future
editions of our Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Though some words and
expressions are no longer spoken, they have lived on our tongues; we may
hold them and the people who spoke them in memory. Come to “the tell” as the
tongue of a Newfoundlander stirs your memories to the way it was when our
forebears expressed themselves in many unique ways in work and words.
Some Commonly Used Expressions and their Explanations
• To be between a rock and a hard place. ~ To be nipped between two
• On pins and needles. ~ Restless, nervous.
• Money will burn a hole in his pocket. ~ Said of a spendthrift.
• To put ’er up. ~ Make a noise or hullabaloo.
• Lapping back at someone. ~ Talking back.
• Helping Larry. ~ Doing nothing.
• He’s got a gut like a whipped sculpin. ~ He’s blown up.
• To put the boots to someone. ~ To kick them.
• To get your ticky thumps. ~ To get a punishment you deserve.
• He didn’t know if he was coming or going. ~ He was confused.