“Come on boy and have yer grog!”: Alcohol and liquor in the DNE

Although February is the shortest month, it can feel like one of the longest. With the fill-dyke (bad February weather) over, beyond the March horizon you can see spring coming like the faintest glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel. Who knows what it will bring this year.

Ingredients for a hot toddy. Photo courtesy of Matt Reynolds.

Last month, Twig was concerned with ways to stay warm in the harsh Newfoundland and Labrador climate. One Twig reader felt that an important way to stay warm had been glossed over and said, “Nothing takes the chill out like a good strong drink” while another reader asked, “What about hot toddies?” A third reader related a story about a group of neighbours who take a bottle of their favourite spirit out with them when they shovel, taking a slew or welt every now and then for motivation, claiming that it helps keep them warm while doing the dreaded winter chore. In response to these readers, and to adequately cover a significant and enjoyable way to keep warm in the winter months, the only thing to do is to focus this month’s Twig on alcoholic beverages. Our featured photo comes from Matt Reynolds and shows the ingredients for a great hot toddy. Visit his blog 3 Silly Hats for instructions on how to make the winter-fighting drink.

Word-file for 'filldyke' from 1968. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'slew' from Daniel's Harbour in 1971. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

As you might imagine, when researchers were compiling the citations for the DNE, they came across many alcohol-related terms that were not specific to Newfoundland, and therefore not eligible for inclusion in the published version of the dictionary.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “liquor” in the sense of a “liquid for drinking”, particularly one that is fermented or distilled, dates back to at least 1300. However, the OED lists seven senses for liquor and only two of these refer to alcoholic beverages. In the DNE collection, one example of such a term is pot liquor which refers to the liquid left over after boiling meat (and sometimes vegetables or Jigg’s dinner). This usage is not specific to Newfoundland as the OED contains citations for pot liquor dating back to 1773.

Word-file for 'pot liquor' from the withdrawn files. "Way back the word liquor referred to all types of liquids. Now liquor refers only to alcoholic beverages. Today in Nfld the old meaning has remained in referring to the liquid in jigs dinner. It is called pot liquor "After I eat jig's dinner I like to drink the pot liquor"." Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Another non-specifically-Newfoundland term included in the DNE research collection is alky which can refer to grain alcohol generally. This term is found in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang with evidence of usage mainly in the U.S. in the mid 1800s. There are several citations in the DNE word-files; the most well-known one comes from Any Mummers Allowed in or The Mummer’s Song by Simani. Other citations suggest meanings that refer to alcohol which was bought in St. Pierre (or Miquelon as the word-file below attests) and then diluted or alcohol received when mummering. Most of the alky citations were collected in the 1960s, before Simani released their popular tune in the 1980s.

Word-file for 'alky'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Other terms were rejected because of insufficient evidence, such as a single written attestation. These terms are however preserved in the collection of DNE research materials, which is currently being digitized through the DNE word-file digitization project and will eventually be available online. Of the 46,421 (out of approximately 100,000) DNE word-files that have already been digitized, nine relate to non-alcoholic senses of liquor.

The Newfoundland term constant screecher is an example of an item that was not included in the DNE since it is attested by only one written citation. This term refers to a concertina, not an alcoholic as those familiar with a screech-in ceremony might think. At one point in the screech-in ritual the participant is asked if they are a screecher (willing to drink the dark Demerara rum called Screech for which the ceremony is named). Interestingly, a screecher refers only to a howling storm or a seal-pup in the DNE.

Word-file for 'constant screecher' containing editor's notes regarding a single citation in the Evening Telegram. "It was hooked on to that bundle of cards, I think M. C. Not very important variant of British slang, possibly even a mistake. Withdrawn. Shall we allow the Even Tel to blackmail us into including? Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'screecher' collected in 1970. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

'Screech' word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

During Prohibition, resourceful Newfoundlanders made sure they could access alcohol in a number of ways. Of course there was the Liquor trade, which has a long history here in Newfoundland. These days it seems that many people have a story about an uncle, brother, or father who was somehow connected to rumrunning and/or involved with St. Pierre and transshipment of alcohol elsewhere. These connections are evidenced as far back as the 1800s in the DNE research materials in two citations about St. Peter’s gin or St. Peter’s rum, meaning any liquor imported (legally or illegally) from St. Pierre. On the South coast, illegal alcohol was called steam. You would have been able to purchase these illegal brews at a jig-house (also known as a jig-loft) or a shebeen.

Word-file for 'steam' collected in 1969. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'shebeen' collected in 1967. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

According to D. W. Prowse’s 1895 A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, rum and molasses was the liquor that servants drank while wine and brandy were the drinks of those with higher social status. Of course the meaning of rum was quite broad, referring to pretty much any kind of liquor.

Word-file for 'rum'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Another way to get alcohol, particularly during Newfoundland Prohibition (1917-1924), was to get a script from your doctor which would entitle you to alcohol for medicinal purposes. Or you could try Jakey’s gin (a hair tonic containing alcohol) if you’re particularly hard up for a drink!

Word-file for 'script' from 1965. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'Jakey's gin'. This citation was withdrawn but is interesting all the same! Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Nowadays, you can get your grog legally although you might not venture out to the grog-shop to get it.

Word-file for 'grog' from 1965. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

'Grog shop' word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

When the rum barrels were emptied, you could make swish by pouring water into the barrel and letting it stand.

Word-file for 'swish'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

If you’re short on cash, you might consider a splice or a bottle shared between two or three people. If you get your hands on some cheap wine or port, you might give pinky a try. If you picked a lot of berries last year and they’re still sitting in your freezer, maybe you’d like to try your hand at making squatum.

'Pinky' word-file that was used in the DNE supplement. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'squatum' from 1967. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

At the end of a long work day, it can be nice to get home and relax with a glass of your favorite spirit. This is known as the evening; it is one of three drinks allotted to a tradesperson, according to the DNE, the others being the morning and the eleven (also known as a dawn). These two early drinks for those who just don’t want to wait until the evening could alternatively be called bevers.

Word-file for 'eleven'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'bever'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Chowder is typically associated with a hot bowl of goodness to warm you up on a cold day, but if you’re at sea and having chowder or chouder-beer, it might be a concoction of spruce boughs and molasses to help ward off scurvy. This drink is also known as spruce beer.

Word-file for 'chowder'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

If you know an indiscriminate drinker who doesn’t really care what they drink, but they’ll drink lots of it, you might say of this person “Sure, they’d drink it off dead Nelson”. This saying references a legend that has been around for hundreds of years where a body packed in rum was sent home for burial but seamen tapped and drank from these casks of rum, unaware that there were bodies inside.

Word-file for 'nelson'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Many of you might know keg as a noun denoting a container for alcoholic beverages, especially beer or rum. In Newfoundland English, keg can be used as a verb. In its first sense, kegging or cagging means to swear off alcohol. In its second sense it appears in the phrase ‘keg/cag out’ meaning to pass out from drinking too much of the bung-your-eye or hard liquor. This second sense is linked to the expression keel out.

Word-file for 'keg'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'bung-your-eye'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Word-file for 'keel'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Here’s hoping that the winter chill doesn’t entice you to drink too much lest you end up in the dawnies!

Word-file for 'dawny'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Come on boy and have yer grog!”: Alcohol and liquor in the DNE

  1. Edmund says:

    Great work on presenting more very interesting pieces of information. It always nice to know more about the history of our Province. You mention “swish” so you may be interested to know that a barrel usually got swished twice (2nd batch not as good as the first) but some would try to get a 3rd swish and that was called “splinters” as it would be essentially wood alcohol. I have heard (not confirmed) that some people have died from drinking it. The barrels were very hard to get from the NLLC. You would have to know someone and a barrel would sell for about $40.00 and that was a lot back then (60′s & 70′s) but you got quite a few bottles. Once the barrels were swished out they would be used as containers to grow flowers and you can still see them used as such in many local gardens. Another word for “Pinky” was “Plunk”. It wasn’t that bad as long as one did not have too much of it. The popular ones for the winos and students (it was inexpensive, $2.50 a bottle) were, Old Niagra and Four Aces. Lots of empties could be seen on Sunday mornings around downtown and MUN campus with lots of people going aroud with the “dawnies”. Now port wines, the better ones, have become a choice of the upper class especially with a good cigar, my how things change. Did you know that there is a funny song about “Jakey’s Gin”? Also, some of the most well known downtown St. John’s characters of the day could be seen drinking it in the many alley ways around Duckworth and Water Streets. A final comment about Haig Ale. It was a locally produced 1% alcoholic beverage from a brewery in Stephenville in the 60′s. Like spruce beer you could legally consume it in public. It was a great hit with the young crowd but the company didn’t last long. Thanks for the space and we look forward to next month.

    • suzannepower says:

      Great to hear from you again Edmund. It seems that people are quite interested in this topic as this entry has been one of our most popular! I did not find any attestations of splinters or plunk in the DNE research materials. I did find some information on plunk. The original term was plonk and according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, “plonk [1930s], describing cheap wine, started out in Australia. It is probably a humorous form of blanc in the French phrase vin blanc ‘white wine’, though some suggest that it might be meant to imitate the sound of a cork being taken out of a bottle.” This is echoed by the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. I did a quick Google search and the term appears to be used in British English as well. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given the history of contact between British and Newfoundland English speakers and British and Australian English speakers as well. I’m not familiar with the song about Jakey’s Gin. Do you know the words and would you mind posting them if you do? Haig Ale has an interesting history. Dawn Rae Downton wrote about it in Seldom: A Memoir and you can read the part about Haig Ale by clicking here. I also located a poem written by a Bell Island miner named Alison O’Brien called The Brighter Side that mentions Haig Ale that you can read here.
      Thanks for your comments,

      Suzanne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s