'Newfie': Offensive or endearing? A McMaster researcher dives in

A McMaster University sociologist in Hamilton is trying to get to the bottom of the term "Newfie," and explore attitudes surrounding the divisive moniker.

Sociologist and Newfoundlander James Baker doesn't think you should be using the word

A researcher at McMaster University is studying the term "Newfie," and what it means for Canada's most easterly province in 2017. (Stacey Rebertz Imaging)

For some, it's a term of endearment as wholesome as a Purity cream cracker and a cup of tea. For others, it's a deplorable insult that's no better than calling someone a moron.

Now, a McMaster University sociologist in Hamilton is trying to get to the bottom of the term "Newfie," and explore attitudes surrounding the divisive moniker.

James Baker is a native Newfoundlander, and researched attitudes about the word's use for a paper, as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the university.

Baker went into it with some baggage, telling CBC News that he "always found the term offensive," but tried to not let that influence his approach.

"It always used to make my skin crawl when someone would use it in a negative manner," he said.

For his research, Baker studied historic accounts of the word, and interviewed 30 post-secondary students in Newfoundland about their feelings on it.

He unearthed two prevailing thoughts on where the term comes from.

A word rooted in American anger

The first suggests that it originated during the Second World War, when the U.S. was constructing a naval base at Argentia, on the southwest coast of the island's Avalon Peninsula.

Newfoundlanders had been hired to help build the base, and a large percentage of the workforce quit, Baker says.

"One of the lieutenants, in complaining about the supposed lack of work ethic among the Newfoundlanders, compared them to African Americans using the n-word, and then used Newfie as that derogatory term, basically suggesting they're both lazy and useless," he said.

Baker says there is no clear consensus as to how Newfoundlanders feel about the word. (Rick Hughes/CBC)

The other thought is the term originated from former Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood's radio program The Barrelman in the 1930s, where Smallwood was recounting an American narrative that used the term in a derogatory way.

"The consensus is that it was something that was created not by Newfoundlanders themselves, but by outside groups to refer to Newfoundlanders in a derogatory manner," Baker said.

The term still carries baggage today. In 2015, federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair apologized for using the word Newfie as a synonym for stupid, during a committee debate in Quebec's National Assembly back in 1996.

Bob Hallett, most famous as a member of Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, also took issue with Walmart selling t-shirts with the word Newfie on them last year.

Young people making it their own

Yet many of the young people Baker interviewed said they didn't have a problem with the word, suggesting there is a generational shift in how it's perceived.

"They see it as a term of endearment among their friends," he said — but respondents also knew when it was being used in a derogatory way.

Context was key, he said. A Newfie joke might be offensive, but using the word in conjunction with Newfoundland's deep-rooted sense of pride and identity wasn't.

"So I'd think to myself, 'You recognize that the term has negative connotations, but you don't necessarily think that it's a slur unless someone else directs it to you.' That's the exact definition of what a slur is. I found that quite ironic in that regard."

Still, the term endures in some circles in a positive light. It's often used in the popular Newfoundland "Screech-in" ceremony, in which tourists kiss a cod and make a proclamation to become an "honourary Newfoundlander."

Actor Kendra Kassebaum becomes a honourary Newfoundlander during a Screech-in for the cast of Come From Away. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Though embraced by many young people, there are also indications that the ceremony's origins lie in a Newfoundland Liquor Corporation marketing campaign to sell more Screech rum.

Baker says that many respondents didn't see "Newfie" as an ethnic slur because they don't view themselves as an ethnic group, because "like many people, they conflate race with ethnicity."

He compared it to use of the word Polack for Polish people, which is also seen as a slur. It also bears resemblance to using "Gypsy" as a description for the Roma people, which is also largely denounced as an ethnic slur.

James Baker is a McMaster University sociologist and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow. (James Baker)

"In Newfoundland, it's certainly an issue of class, more than race," he said.

Baker admits that it's hard to get a comprehensive view about how the divisive term is used based upon previous research and interviews with 30 people, and that he'd love to see someone research it on a wider scale.

Until then, there's no easy answer — but Baker still won't be saying it.

"I don't think individuals should be using the term," he said. "It becomes an easy descriptor to use to describe what has been … for a historic perspective for Newfoundlanders, being uneducated."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.