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Happy Birthday – a dictionary to call our own


“Johnny? I was after goin’ to the store. Didn’t have me fit-out 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. What other place in this country has a dictionary with a reference for the “black art book,” a supposed book of spells and evil prayers? The book may not exist in real life, but it is a part of Newfoundland folklore that made it into theNewfoundland Dictionary. Imagine what plots for horror movies and books could be inspired by a mythical Newfoundland book of spells!

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

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