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Newfoundland Folk Lore



Folk Lore has been defined as race experience crystallized into story, song or saying. A visitor to Newfoundland is amused and charmed by the quaint speech of the fisher folk and by the originality and picturesque form of their homemade phrases. The St. John's accent has a pronounced Irish quality, and the same may be said of the districts of Harbour Main, Ferryland and Placentia. In the north of the Island one hears an altogether different pronunciation, and listens to a Dorset or Devon dialect of three centuries ago with words and idioms long lost in England. More interesting than this variety of accent are the homely figures of speech that have their origin in environment through four centuries of settlement. These idioms have an unusual type of literary value because of their simplicity and their redolence of the things of Newfoundland life.

In the following pages we present a selection of Newfoundland folk lore which is classified under various headings. First we give a vocabulary of unusual words with their meanings. This is not by any means a full list, but has been culled from a collection gathered from every part of the province. Meanings and origins are given wherever possible; it is not always certain where a word originated, and its present spelling is obviously phonetic.

Next we give an interesting list of Newfoundland sayings. Some of these were brought out from England and Ireland by the early settlers. Others are of the type coined in this province, and are moulded from contacts with nature through generations of hardy toilers of the sea. These are the most valuable portion of the island's folk lore, and are indeed the very essence of race experience. These sayings are of two kinds, one taking the form of a mere peculiar expression, and the second being a homely simile or metaphor terse and picturesque.

Lastly we give a heterogeneous group of legends of multiple classifications, such as weather lore, folk medicines, omens of good or bad luck, superstitions, and quaint customs. Our sources are many, and have been derived from a lengthy study of the island's traditions. For our description of Christmas customs we owe much to the late Rev. A. C. Waghorne, the author of "The Flora of Newfoundland". We have also received invaluable aid from the writings of the late P. K. Devine, H.W. LeMessurier, and W. A. Munn.

Words and Their Meanings

amphered; infected, purulent

angishore: a weak, miserable person

anighst; near

aninst; beside

arn; any

atirt; athwart

balderdash; nonsense

bavin; wood shavings to light fires

ballyrag; to abuse

bannock; a round cake of bread

ballycater; ice formed by spray on the shore

bannikin; a small tin cup

bawn; a beach used to dry fish

barrisway; a lagoon at a rivermouth; barachoix

bass; to throw small stones

bedlamer; a seal one yer old; bete de la mer

binicky; ill-tempered

biver; to shiver with cold

blather; nonsensical talk

blear; an ignorant person

bogie; a small stove

bostoon; to complain hudly

bonnif; a young pig

brieze; to press down firmly

breach; schools of fish on the surface

brack; a crack in a dish or fuMiture

brishney; dry twigs gathered for fuel

brewis; hard biscuit boiled, and pork fat

bultow; a line with hooks, a trawl

calabogus; rum, molasses and spruce beer

cant; to lean to one side

chucklehead; a stupid person

chinch; to stow tightly

clink; to beat another with the fists

clamper; ice detached from berg of floe

clout; to hit an opponent hard

clum; to grapple with an adversary

clobber; an untidy state of things

covel; a covered water barrel

cotched; caught

crannicks; dried roots of trees

crossackle; to vex by contrary argument

crubeens; pickled pigs' feet

cuddy; a covered space in the bow of a boat

daddle; the hind paw of a seal

dill; a cavity in a boat from which water is bailed

doter; an old seal

douse; to give a quick blow

drung; a narrow, rocky lane

drook; a valley with steep wooded shpes

dresser; an old fashioned kitchen cupboard

drubbin; oil and tallow to preserve boots

duckish; the time between sunset and dark

duff; pudding of flour, fat pork and molasses

dulse; a kind of seaweed

dudeen; a pipe

dwoi; a short snow shower

taddle; a bundle of firewood; fardel

faggot; a pile of half-dried fish

fipper; a seal's forepaw; flipper

flankers; sparks from a chimney

flinders; small pieces

fousty; mouldy, with a bad odour

frore; frozen

frape; a rope with blocks to moor a boat

fudge; to manage daily chores alone

tunk; smoke or vapour of evil odour

gansey; a woollen sweater; from GueMsey

gamogue; a silly trick

gandy; a pancake

glutch; to swallow with difficulty

glauvaun; to complain about trifles

gommil; a moron, a half fool

gruel; oatmeal porridge

grumpus; the whale

gulvin; the stomach of a codfish

gurry; blood and slime from fish

guff; impertinence

gilderoy; a proud person

gowdy; awkward

gumbeens; cubes of chewing tobacco

helf; the handle of an axe, haft

heft; to weigh in the hand

huffed; vexed

hummock; a small hill

jackeen; a rascally boy

jinker; one who brings bad luck jut; to hit the elbow of another

kingcorn; the Adam's apple of the throat

klick; the stiffening at the back of a shoe

lashins; plenty

lob; not of much value

lolly; soft ice beginning to form in harbour

longers; rails for a fence

lourd; dark, gloomy

lops; small breaking seas

manus; to mutiny aboard ship

mauzy; misty

mundle; a wooden baton used to stir soup

mush; porridge

munch; to grind with the teeth; from "manger'

narn; none

nish; tender, easily injured

omadhaun; a foolish person

oonshick; a person of low intelligence

peeze; to leak in small bubbles

pishogue; a story generally discredited

plaumaush; soft talk, flattery

planchen; the floor; from "plancher"

prise; a lever

pritchet; a prop under the shaft of a cart

prog; food

puddock; the stomach

quot; to crouch; squat

quid; a chew of tobacco; the cud

ral; a disorderly fellow

rawny; very thin, bony

rames; a skeleton

rompse; to wrestle

sadogue; a fat, easy going person

scrammed; numb with cold

scrawb; to tear with the nails

scrimshank; hesitation to avoid an issue

scut; a dirty, mean person

shaugraun; a vagabond state

sharoused; nonplussed

scruff; the back of the neck

sish; ice broken into particles by surf

slob; ice newly frozen

slinge; to stay away from school or work

shooneen; a coward

shule; to move away backwards

smidge; a stain

sloo; to get out of the way

slieveen; a deceitful person

suent; smooth, graceful

snarbuckle; a hard knot; burnt to a cinder

strouters; posts at the end of a fishing stage

squabby; soft as jelly

squish; the sound of waters exuding from boots

spile; a peg for a hole in a cask

sugawn; a rope made of twisted hay

swatch; to shoot seals in pools amid icefloes

swig; to drink from a bottle

switchel; cold tea

tacker; waxed hemp for sewing boots

tant; tall and slender, as trees and spars

talqual; the good with the bad; talis qualis

tantem; side by side

teeveen; a patch on a boot

titivate; to adorn exceedingly fine

tole; to entice with bait

trapse; to walk around unnecessarily

trunnel; a wooden peg in a plank; trenail

truck; payment for fish by merchandise

tuckarnore; a low clump of trees

twig; to catch the meaning

twack; to examine goods and buy nothing

vang; fried salt pork

vamp; the sole of a stocking; to walk

vandue; a sale by auction; Vendu

wattle; a small slim fir

weasand; the throat

witlow; inflammation around a fingernail

whiting; a tree from which the rind has been removed

water horse; salt fish just washed from a vat

wop; the wasp. A blow from a blunt weapon

yarkin; lines to fasten a net to a head rope

yean; giving birth to young by sheep

yarry; rising early; alert

yaffle; an armful of dried fish

yer; here

yoi; in this place

yerrin; a reef point; earing

yuck; to vomit

yap; to retort angrily

Newfoundland Sayings

As fine a man as ever broke a cake of the world's bread.

All mops and brooms.
This refers to an untidy condition of the hair.

An honest man when there are no anchors around.
Ironical tribute.

A fisherman is one rogue, a merchant is many.

A warm smoke is better than a cold fog.

A single line may have two hooks.
A dual purpose.

An Irish youngster for the bow oar.
He gets the spray over him.

A gunshot away.
A short distance, about fifty yards.

A noggin to scrape.
A very difficult task.

An hour by sun.
An hour before sunset.

Come day, go day, God send Sunday.
Applied to a lazy person.

Cape St. Mary's pays for all.
This locality has a prolific fishery.

Done it brown.
Overdid the thing - the allusion is to burnt bread.

Don't cut tails.
Don't be too particular. Fish tails were cut as a mark.

Douse the killock.
Throw the grapnel

Empty vessels loom biggest.

Fair weather to you and snow to your heels.
Good luck on your way.

Far off cows wear long horns.

Fish in summer and fun in winter.
Everything in its place.

Give her the long main sheet.
To go afar with no intention to return.

Go to law with the devil and hold court in hell.
The odds are all against you.

Good morrow to you.
You are mistaken.

Jack is as good as his master.
The hired man is paid off when the end of the fishing season arrives, and is no longer a servant.

In a hobble about it.
Not worrying about the matter.

If you lose your grapnel, you'll find it in the fall.
You will find it on your account at the merchant's store.

In a leaky punt with a broken oar, 'tis always best to hug the shore.

I'll go bail for that.
I will vouch for the truth of it.

Let no man steal your lines.
Beware of competition.

Long may your big jib draw.
A good wish for the future.

May snow is good for sore eyes.
An old legend; many say it is true.

Nofty was forty when he lost the pork.
Never be sure of anything; the man Nofty held the best trump but allowed an opponent to reach game.

Out dogs and in dieters.
Prepare for the summer fishery.

Praise the weather, when you're ashore.

Pigs may fly, but they are very unlikely birds.
Hope in vain.

Skin the old cow.
When cold March weather persists far into April the old cow dies of hunger.

Solomon Gosse's birthday.
This was Thursday when the usual was pork and cabbage and pudding, a favourite meal in Newfoundland.

The devil to pay and no pitch hot.
Unprepared for emergency. To "pay a boat" meant to put hot pitch over a seam between the planks.

There's favour in hell, if you bring your splits.
Said of currying favour through underhand methods.

Tom Long's account.
To pay what you owe and have nothing left.

'Tis not every day that Morris kills a cow.
Favourable opportunity comes but seldom.

The old dog for a hard road.
Experience easily overcomes difficulty.

White horses on the bay.
On a stormy day waves break into foam. The allusion to white horses is apparently a reference to an Irish tradition of a chieftain named O'Donabue who was drowned in a lake in Killamey on his wedding morn, and could afterwards be seen in a storm riding a white horse and preceded by maidens strewing flowers.

Wait a fair wind, and you'll get one. Await opportunity.

When the snipe bawls, the lobster crawls.
After sunset.

You can't tell the mind of a squid.
This refers to an unreliable person. A squid can move backwards or forward.

You can get only one shot at a shell bird.
A shrewd person can be duped but once.

You are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Needless change of useful things.

You'll do it in the long run. Eventually you will succeed.

You are taking a rise out of me.
Your flattery is only for the purpose of making others laugh at me.

You are as deep as the grave.
Your real feelings are not easily judged from your appearance.

You are making a nice kettle of fish.
Making a mess of affairs.

You are moidering my brains.
Your noise is very disturbing.

Your tawts are too far aft.
The word "thwart': meaning * cross seatin a boat, is commonly pronounced "tawt" by Newfoundland fishermen. The expression means you are very wrong in your opinion.

You are too big for your boots.
You are assuming too much authority.

You can cut a notch in the beam.
Said when someone does the unusual.

You are like a fish out of water.
Not at home in your environment.

The older the crab, the tougher his claws.
It is not easy to fool a sophisticated person.

Figures Of Speech

Busy as a nailer
Black as soot
Big as Munn
Bold as brass
Brown as a berry
Cross as the cats
Crazy as a loo
Cute as a rat
Dark as pitch
Deaf as a haddock
Dirty as duck's puddle
Dry as a bone
Far as ever a puffin flew
Foolish as a caplin
Flat as a pancake
Hard as the hob of hell
Hard as the knockers of Newgate
Hungry as a hound
Ignorant as a pig
Like a northerly squall
Like a singed cat
Like a cat on hot rocks
Like a birch broom in the fits
Lazy as the dogs
Leaky as a basket
Lonesome as a gull on a rock
Mute as a mouse
Old as Buckley's goat
Proud as Guilderoy
Rotten as dirt
Rough as a dogfish's back
Round as the bung of a cask
Round as a barrel
Soft as mummy
Slow as cold molasses
Saucy as a crackie
Sore as a boil
Stiff as a poker
Solid as a rock
Smooth as a mill pond
Smooth as oil
Soggy as lead
Stunned as an owl
Smart as a bee
Straight as a ramrod
Sound as a bell
Smoky as a Labrador tilt
Thick as tar
Thin as an eggshell
Wet as dung
White as the driven snow
Wild as a deer
Wide as the devil's boots
Yellow as beaten gold

Weather Lore

Here again we find the result of race experience. The Newfoundland fisherman has to pursue his vocation in wind and sea, and generations of wisdom in forecasting storms have been handed down to him through the centuries. He has to foretell from nature just when favourable opportunity will present itself so that ventures to fishing ledges far from shore may be made with impunity. Also he has to predict rain so that fish may be spread when long periods of sunshine, are practically certain. He knows the winds and ocean currents that offer the best conditions for a good catch, and he is familiar in his own way with the humidity of the atmosphere that is an adverse factor in the drying process. Below we give some of the more common signs of good and bad weather as long observed and religiously depended upon.

    A red dawn is a sign of rain and storm. A red sunset is a sign of fine weather.

Brilliant Northern Lights foretell a fine day and then a storm.

Hoar frost in autumn is a sign of south wind and rain.

When gulls fly high, stormy weather may be expected.

When goats come home from the hills, expect rain soon.

When distant hills appear near, rainy weather is coming.

Rote from the shore on a calm night indicates wind from that direction the following day.

When wild animals take on thick coats of fur in autumn, it is a sign of a severe winter.

After the sun crosses the line in September, watch the wind and weather for the following days. Each day is said to forecast the weather for the individual months ahead.

When the wind shifts against the sun, Trust it not for back 'twill run.

When the wind is in the east 'Tis neither good for man nor beast.

Mackerel sky and mares' tails Make the sailor furl his sails.

Watch the new moon. If you can hang a powder horn on the lower rim of the crescent, it is a sign of stormy weather.

The following are common signs of Rain: Soot falling to the ground, dogs sleeping through the day, spiders very active, rheumatic pains with elderly people.

To dream of horses is a sign with sailormen that storms will come.

When cats are very playful, they are said to "gale up the weather."

Folk Medicines

While some of Newfoundland folk medicines do not fall into the category of superstition, others definitely belong to the witch doctor domain. Their origins are diverse, and we can trace customs from continental Europe, England, Ireland, Scotland and the Channel Islands, and from Indian and Eskimo sources on this side of the Atlantic. Some old time remedies in which the use of herbs and balsams hold primary place indicate racial knowledge of medicinal properties. Others to which we call attention suggest that it may be worthwhile to explore their possibilities. In the latter class we may mention the use of alder buds and bark, the so-called "fish doctor," the use of maggots in the Eskimo poultice, and the curative properties of sea shells. We append some common remedies as practised in Newfoundland:

Stopping Blood
The application of cobwebs, also turpentine of fir. Nose bleed could be stopped by certain persons who recited a secret prayer or rite to achieve the desired effect.

Curing Warts
Cut notches in a stick and hide the latter. Flub a piece of fresh meat to the wart, then bury the meat and as it decayed the warts disappeared. Count the warts and make a like number of chalk marks on the back of a stove; as these burnt off the warts went also.

Vinegar left in the mouth gave relief. Pebbles from the grave of a pious person provided a faith cure. The magician charmed away the toothache. One way to do this was to write some words on a scrap of paper and have the afflicted one carry the script on his person, but was forbidden to read it as the pain returned in punishment of such curiosity.

Distract the attention of the sufferer momentarily.

Pain In The Side
Put a pebble under the tongue.

Walk backwards, around in circle preferably.

A poultice of soap, flour and molasses on brown paper. To extract the core of a boil, put hot water in a bottle. Then empty the bottle and place its mouth on the boil; as the bottle cooled the core came out.

Infected Sores
Many people of Newfoundland recall some old resident of their community who was regarded as remarkable in healing festered sores. It was generally some motherly old lady who did the doctoring. Scorched linen, burnt cream, white of an egg, powdered dust of sea shells, dried and powdered seaweed, goose grease, mouldy bread these are some of the ingredients of a good poultice.

An old custom in order to cure a child of hernia was to split a green witch hazel tree and pass the child through it.

Stomach Trouble
The ground juniper boiled was supposed to be a panacea for stomach ills. Dogberry extract was also favourably regarded. Alder buds were also boiled and the extract used to good effect.

Pine tar applied to the affected part produced relief.

Sore Eyes
May snow was gathered and bottled for a remedy. Many old people testify to the efficiency of this strange cure.

Burnt ash of tobacco, powdered resin. Still used and approved by Newfoundland fisher folk.

Locally known as the 'old hag." Call the person's name backwards.

Ingrowing Nails
Drop hot tallow from a lighted candle into the part affected, and instant relief was afforded.

The great brown jellyfish was bottled, and when dissolved into fluid was rubbed to the affected parts and acted as a counter irritant. One objection to this cure was the offensive odour. The magician came to the rescue with an amulet of haddock fin which, worn on the neck, was a charm against rheumatic tendencies.

The most effective home remedies were extract of wild cherry and spirits of turpentine. Kerosene oil mixed with molasses proved effective. Snake root was also steeped for a cough medicine.


Good Luck

Seeing the new moon first over the left shoulder, picking up a horseshoe on the road, picking a four leaf clover, seeing two black crows flying overhead, putting on a garment inside out by mistake, picking up a coin, picking up a pin or a white button, a rooster crowing on the doorstep, to see a baby smiling in its sleep, to dream of one's father, a bee coming into the room.

Bad Luck

Breaking a mirror, having thirteen persons at table, coiling a rope against the sun, walking under a ladder, purchasing a broom in May, meeting a red haired woman, looking over another's shoulder into a mirror, coming in by one door and going out by another, meeting a cross-eyed person, to have a black cat cross your path, to spill salt, to cross knives on a table, to leave a knife turned blade upwards, to have a lone black crow fly over your head, to be called back just as you have begun a journey, to whistle on the water, to drop the ring at a marriage ceremony.

Death Tokens

A dog moaning near a house, a dog burying some object near one's home, a bird coming into a room, a clock which had been stopped for years suddenly striking the hours, a window blind falling without any apparent cause, a wall picture suddenly falling. When "rigor mortis" does not appear in a corpse it means that another member of the family will soon die. To dream of a wedding is a sign of a funeral. The banshee, a weird crying at night, is said to precede the death of certain persons of Irish descent in Newfoundland.

Tokens Good And III

A cat washing her face, sparks from a wood stove flying to the floor, a knife or fork falling, were regarded as tokens of a visit by a stranger. The first member of the assembled company at which the cat glared would be the first to die. Ringing in the ears betokened news, the right ear for good and the left for ill. To say things backwards betokened the sight of a long absent friend. It was considered taboo to step over a child, as this would stop the growth of the youngster. If a person had a cold spasm, it was said that someone was walking over the grave of the individual. It was considered very unlucky to incur the wrath of a widow, as her curse was sure to bring evil. An odd method of bringing ill fortune to an enemy was to throw the dust of one's shoes over the left shoulder in that person's direction. If things went badly on Monday, it was a sure sign of a bad week.

Quaint Beliefs And Practices

Maidens sought the name of their future husbands on the eve of Midsummer. They broke an egg and kept it in a glass, and spilled it on the road next morning. The first man to walk over the egg had the same Christian name as the husband-to-be. Belief in fairies was general; old folk still persist in vouching that they have seen these little fellows dancing on the grass on moonlit nights. Children lost in the woods were said to have been led astray by fairies; as a safeguard against this, every person carried a cake of hard biscuit in a pocket. Jack O'Lantern can still be seen on marshlands on calm nights; many believe that an evil spirit seeks to lure the unwary traveller astray. Fishermen's superstitions in boat building are interesting. It was deemed necessary to have witch hazel in some part of the new craft, she was first turned with the sun, and it was lucky to have an old sail on her at the launching. Dead dogs were buried under fruit trees to ensure a good harvest. Sick calves had a peculiar knot tied over them. It was tied nine times and pulled clear; if it became tangled, the calf was certain to die.

Perhaps no part of the world is more productive of ghost stories than the island of Newfoundland. There we find in all their grim detail, handed down and enlarged from generation to generation, legends of the supernatural. They run the full gamut in the scale of horrors, from the ghost in the dark lane to the spectre who guards the pirate hoard and the phantom ships that appear with spectral crews. The church apparition, the graveyard with its walking dead, the cries of anguish from dark gulches where sailors went to their doom, the eerie light beyond the harbour bar, the shrieking hag beside the dark waterfall, the great black dog that emits fire from eyes and mouth, and shapeless creeping things in haunted houses with their nameless noises-all these and more the folk describe with bated breath and awesome tones. No doubt, imagination and exaggeration play a great part in these ghostly experiences and in their repeated recital. The phantom ship may be but a mirage, and St. Elmo's fire may be explained by natural causes, but the lure of the bizarre and supernatural can lead to things strange and startling.

Festal Customs

The feast of Christmas is celebrated in the Tenth Province in the good old fashioned way. Many Yuletide practices that were brought from Europe over three centuries ago are still found in Newfoundland. The custom of hauling the Yule Log through the village on Christmas Eve has disappeared but the time honoured practice of dressing as mummers is still in vogue even in the city of St. John's. One ancient rite that was popular a century ago in many outports was the performance of a play known as St. George and the dragon. A peculiar and pleasing practice still observed is the visit of young people to the baptismal sponsors on New Year's Day, to receive the latters' blessing and to partake of the traditional cakes and candy. Another ancient custom still carried on in the outports is the game of rounders. The ball is the bladder of a pig, encased in hairy bull hide, and a heavy club is used to propel the sphere to distant spaces. The game is played on the frozen surface of a lake if the ice is of sufficient strength, otherwise a level field is chosen as the scene of combat. This ancient game is regarded as the origin of the modern American baseball.

Other festal occasions are celebrated with gusto. On the night of November 5th huge bonfires are lit in every village to perpetuate the Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Parliament buildings in the time of James I. Green boughs and tar barrels are used to create a thick smoke screen, and through this dense pall of smoke young people dance and collide with shouts of laughter. Should a novice come in good clothes, he or she is marked for a lavish smearing of burnt embers. Other times of much merriment are Pancake Night, the eve of Lent, and the feast of St. Patrick. Old time dances are all in order on these occasions, and the music of the fiddle or the inevitable accordion gives the gay throng the necessary accompaniment. One glad interlude is the singing of some folk songs by some virtuoso or the dancing of a hornpipe by a professional heel and toe artist.

The above was taken from a brochure printed by the government of Newfoundland and Labradour in 1955, titled "Historic Newfoundland and Labrador"



Page transcribed by: Bill Crant April 25, 2000
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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