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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
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
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
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
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
gilderoy; a proud person
gumbeens; cubes of chewing tobacco
helf; the handle of an axe, haft
heft; to weigh in the hand
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
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
mundle; a wooden baton used to stir soup
munch; to grind with the teeth; from "manger'
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
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
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
yoi; in this place
yerrin; a reef point; earing
yuck; to vomit
yap; to retort angrily
As fine a man as ever broke a cake of the world's bread.
All mops and brooms.
An honest man when there are no anchors around.
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.
An Irish youngster for the bow oar.
A gunshot away.
A noggin to scrape.
An hour by sun.
Come day, go day, God send Sunday.
Cape St. Mary's pays for all.
Done it brown.
Don't cut tails.
Douse the killock.
Empty vessels loom biggest.
Fair weather to you and snow to your heels.
Far off cows wear long horns.
Fish in summer and fun in winter.
Give her the long main sheet.
Go to law with the devil and hold court in hell.
Good morrow to you.
Jack is as good as his master.
In a hobble about it.
If you lose your grapnel, you'll find it in the fall.
In a leaky punt with a broken oar, 'tis always best to hug the shore.
I'll go bail for that.
Let no man steal your lines.
Long may your big jib draw.
May snow is good for sore eyes.
Nofty was forty when he lost the pork.
Out dogs and in dieters.
Praise the weather, when you're ashore.
Pigs may fly, but they are very unlikely birds.
Skin the old cow.
Solomon Gosse's birthday.
The devil to pay and no pitch hot.
There's favour in hell, if you bring your splits.
Tom Long's account.
'Tis not every day that Morris kills a cow.
The old dog for a hard road.
White horses on the bay.
Wait a fair wind, and you'll get one. Await opportunity.
When the snipe bawls, the lobster crawls.
You can't tell the mind of a squid.
You can get only one shot at a shell bird.
You are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
You'll do it in the long run. Eventually you will succeed.
You are taking a rise out of me.
You are as deep as the grave.
You are making a nice kettle of fish.
You are moidering my brains.
Your tawts are too far aft.
You are too big for your boots.
You can cut a notch in the beam.
You are like a fish out of water.
The older the crab, the tougher his claws.
Figures Of Speech
Busy as a nailer
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.
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."
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:
Pain In The Side
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.
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.
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.
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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