‘Newfie’: Friendly nickname, or ethnic slur?

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It’s been used in ethnic jokes as a synonym for “stupid person” and reclaimed as a friendly term that some Newfoundlanders use to recognize another, but at its core, is “Newfie” still an offensive slur?

“Newfie” remains a sensitive term whose interpretation depends on the context and the user, says researcher James Baker, a McMaster University sociologist and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow who researched attitudes about its use.

As a native Newfoundlander, Baker has heard the word in many contexts. He’s felt its hurtful sting and its warmth alike, so as a sociologist, he set out to see what young Newfoundlanders –who grew up in the generations after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 – think when they hear it. He’s presenting his findings May 17 at the 34th Annual Qualitative Analysis Conference at McMaster.

“It’s a polarizing term,” Baker says. “One must pull apart layers of history, geography and culture to understand how it has come to mean so much to so many.”

“Newfie” is broadly, but not universally, considered an “ethnophaulism,” or ethnic slur. (The Oxford dictionary definition of “Polack”, Baker points out by comparison, describes that term as “derogatory”, but says “Newfie” is merely “informal”.)

Baker says the term “Newfie” dates back to the Second World War, when it was first used by American troops stationed in Newfoundland. By 1949, federal bureaucrats working to integrate Newfoundland into Canada were being warned not to use the term “Newfie” because it was considered offensive.

Today, Baker has found, the term is the source of conflict over how it is used, or whether it should be used at all.

Bob Hallett of the Newfoundland music group Great Big Sea condemned Walmart last year, for example, for selling T-shirts that featured the term, while others saw no harm. Similarly, a transplanted Newfoundlander living in Nova Scotia complained about a road outside Halifax being named “Newfie Lane”, while another who lived on the road loved the name.

Newfoundland pride runs deep, Baker says. Newfoundlanders are more likely than Canadians in any other province, except Quebec, to identify more closely with their province than their country.

His theory, before commencing his research interviews, had been that younger Newfoundlanders were growing up seeing themselves more as Canadians than Newfoundlanders, and might care less about being called “Newfies”, for better and for worse. Instead, he found that almost all still saw themselves as Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second.

“What I found was a very strong sense of community, home, family – all these are very strong influences on their sense of identity as Newfoundlanders,” Baker says. “The idea of being a Newfoundlander was very much a part of their identity as young people.”

The strong provincial pride plays out in the “Newfie” debate, Baker says. Whatever side you take, the issue still matters as much as ever.

Baker’s research was funded with support from the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University through its Applied Research Fund.