As winter spreads her hand in Newfoundland and Labrador, we tuck ours into woollen mitts and fleece-lined gloves. It’s December, it’s cold, and it’s only going to get worse. The North Atlantic brings icy winds, sudden snow storms, and all manner of cold – from the crisp and invigorating chill of a sunny December day to the ear-numbing teeth-chattering assault of a February blizzard.
Today we can retreat into our heated homes or offices and turn on the electric kettle, but it wasn’t always that way. For centuries people here had to endure the biting winter weather with stiff, albeit ice-encrusted, upper lips. Traditional jobs were outside jobs, even in the coldest months. Sealers, trappers, and loggers spent long limb-numbing hours trekking across ice floes and snowy expanses, or laboring in forests. Wood stoves made homes more comfortable, but electricity and indoor plumbing were not widespread until well into the 20th century.
It is not surprising, then, that we have many words to describe the cold and our experiences in it. Take airsome. According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, airsome means cold, but pleasant and bracing weather. This sense of the word appears to have originated in Newfoundland, with its earliest known recorded usage appearing in Julian Moreton’s 1863 publication, Life and Work in Newfoundland. This is supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites Moreton in its entry for airsome (sense two) and provides the following definition: ‘Of weather: cold; windy, bracing. Canad. regional (Newfoundland).’
At the other end of the cold spectrum is the delightfully evocative creak-cold, which means extremely cold weather. Apparently unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, there is no entry for creak-cold in the OED, and the DNE only cites a single quotation, from the song “The Loss of the Danny Goodwin”, as reproduced in Kenneth Peacock’s 1965 collection, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: “It was on a Monday morning they got her under way. / The sixth day of December, a creak-cold winter’s day.” Similarly, only a single word-file exists for creak-cold in the DNE Collection and it is for the Peacock entry.
Not all words investigated by the DNE’s editors, however, made it into the dictionary. An example is airy frost, which describes an intense windy cold. As the below word-file indicates, this term can be found in the article by G. A. England in Dialect Notes, which was published in 1925 and treats Newfoundland dialect items. Notice this word-file does not bear the “DNE-cit” stamp, which typically indicates a card’s contents made it into the dictionary.
Newfoundland English also contains some wonderfully expressive terms to describe what it’s like to experience the cold. Feeling scrammed? Then you’re paralysed with cold. Or perhaps you’re shinnicked – numb and experiencing a violent shivering or contraction of the muscles. Both words have similar meanings, but different histories.
Scrammed appears to have entered the Newfoundland vocabulary by way of Britain. According to the OED, James Jennings defined skram as ‘to benumb with cold’ in his 1825 book, Observations on Some of the Dialects in the West of England, Particularly Somersetshire. That the word may have been brought here from southwest England makes sense. Close and historic ties existed between Newfoundland and England’s West Country. Since the 1500s, English fishers had been annually departing southwestern ports to engage in the migratory cod fishery at Newfoundland and Labrador; between the 17th and 19th centuries, increasing numbers also settled in the colony.
Shinnicked, on the other hand, appears to be unique to Newfoundland English. The DNE only presents quotations reported by Newfoundland speakers in 1937 and 1956. As the below word-file indicates, the term was still commonly used in at least one Newfoundland town (Carmanville, on the island’s northeast coast) by the latter date.
Although the speaker’s age is not given, most interviews the DNE quotes are those of people born before 1900. The dictionary’s reliance on oral as well as printed evidence is important because it allowed the editors to compile a wider range of terms than would have otherwise been possible. “Nothing less”, they wrote in the introduction to the DNE, “… would suffice in a work of this kind undertaken in a region in which the local tradition of print is late and relatively weak but which displays a tenacious and robust oral culture” (xxii).
Finally, if you ever are shinnicked on a creak-cold day, then consider using the marvelously telescopic word bivver. You can repeat the final syllable as many times as you like, perhaps once for each degree it falls below freezing.