Nfld. & Labrador

Sorry, skeets in backhoes: Merb'ys is the N.L. Word of the Year

The St. John's Morning Show sets out to crown the 2017 Newfoundland and Labrador Word of the Year.

St. John’s Morning Show, MUN linguistics prof pose a question about the talk of the town

Meet some of the Merb'ys. (Photo credit: Ritche Perez)

While classic words like skeet, state and streel all have a strong case for the 2017 Newfoundland and Labrador Word of the Year, the honour goes to a new term you won't find in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English: Merb'ys.

The St. John's Morning Show asked listeners to nominate suggestions for Word of the Year — and the submissions were just as creative and colourful as language you'll hear in sheds and kitchens across the province. 

Paul De Decker, an associate professor at Memorial University — and a "come from away" who can identify more bay accents than any Newfoundlander or Labradorian — helped launch the contest, and took the task to monitor the suggestions rather seriously. 

"Sitting down thinking about what the word of the year would be, we wanted to get something that would be culturally and socially significant," said De Decker.

"Something that was new or had new currency and something that got widespread usage." 

Paul De Decker, a linguistics professor at MUN, agrees that Merby's is the rightful winner because it is culturally significant. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Merby's made a big splash 

The word Merb'ys came into usage when members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beard and Moustache Club posed — as the bearded, male answer to the mermaid — for a fundraising calendar.

After getting attention worldwide, the Beard and Moustache Club raised $300,466.53 and donated it to Spirit Horse N.L, a group that enhances life skills through interaction with horses.

"It's a great word," said De Decker. 

"It's a new one, it's creative and it refers to something that was significant to us as a province."

Coining, and crowning, Merb'ys 

Hasan Hai, founder of the Beard and Moustache Club, said the initial title of the project was "less original." He said credit for coining the phrase goes to Clare Fowler, a costume designer who measured inseams and stitched colourful tails for the big, burly men to squeeze into.

(Via: Facebook; Photo Credit: Andrea Edwards)

"I was chatting with her one day when we were still doing fittings and she was still stitching up some of the tails," said Hai. 

"She kind of just off the cuff said, 'Merb'ys' and I'm like, 'I love it, I love it."

While Merb'ys gained the most votes for Word of the Year, there were many other terms in the running that deserve attention, including: backhoe (even better when dropping the 'h' when pronounced), satched, disisit and CFA. 

Local pop culture keeps N.L. words alive 

Although specific dialects in some regions may be dying out, N.L. words and phrases have been making a comeback in recent years through local pop culture and comedy.

"There is the power of the mass media to crush the localisms in Newfoundland," said De Decker.

Keeping dialect alive using comedy and irony is a way to keep words and phrases in use. Facebook pages dedicated to Newfoundland and Labrador humour have been gaining popularity. 

"If you can bring in Newfoundland English into the new era, say on Facebook or social media, then you know the language is going to be all right."

Keeping phrases alive in fashion

Combining her love of N.L. phrases and her love of fashion, Jana Petten created Figgyduff Dory, a local clothing brand that features traditional phrases — and creates new ones. 

"I wasn't intentionally trying to preserve our words and phrases but it's my way of expressing how much I love it," said Petten.

Petten's brand includes clothes with phrases like, "I dies at you," "froze ta det," "streel," and "fries before b'ys." 

Jana Petten produces clothing that celebrates familiar phrases in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

"I'm from Port de Grave. My dad's accent and the dialect is very specific and very strong and I love it. Now, my mom is from Notre Dame Bay and she talks totally different… and it just fascinates me."

The reaction to the clothing has been positive, and Petten — who welcomes suggestions from customers, and hopes to extend her line for sale across the province — has seen it as a way to keep particular phrases front and centre in local culture. 

"I feel like the specifics [of dialects] are fading away a bit and that makes me sad," she said.

"I mean I speak nothing like my dad, and my nephew — he's five, and he speaks nothing like me."

About the Author

Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.

With files from St. John's Morning Show


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