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To catch the meaning

By Mandy Cook | June 24, 2011

In the research materials for the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (DNE), the word twig has two senses: the first is “a small drink” and the second is “to catch the meaning.” The first sense appears in the dictionary, but the second does not – the editors considered it too widespread for inclusion. It is the latter sense of the word that Jenny Higgins, manager of the English Language Research Centre (ELRC) at Memorial, has adopted as the name of the blog she created as a corollary to her work digitizing the DNE’s supporting word-files.

The physical magnitude of the ELRC’s DNE collection of more than 100,000 index cards and paper slips may be best appreciated by stopping by the third floor of the Arts and Administration building where the centre is located. Converting the paper files, or the “wall of words” as Ms. Higgins refers to the large metal filing system taking up much of one side of the room, to electronic ones is her daily responsibility.

But the blog is a different tool, another electronic device that allows for a more holistic – and accessible -- examination of what is tucked inside the dictionary’s distinctive yellow cover.

“It’s not academic writing,” says Ms. Higgins. “It’s very reader-friendly, and you can learn about maybe the thought process that went behind creating the dictionary and also a bit about how what’s in the dictionary relates to our culture and history.”

Not only is Twig written for a general audience, Ms. Higgins also punctuates the text with images of the word-files themselves in the form of yellowed index cards. Each card comes complete with the word’s actual usage, either from a printed source or an interview, and sometimes a comment from one of the dictionary’s editors or contributors. Other interesting visuals from Memorial’s various archives complement the entry and help draw visitors in.

Ms. Higgins, who has been working on the digitization aspect of the project since February 2010, decided to start the blog this past December.  The word-files have not been published or made widely available to the public before now. And as a significant past contributor to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, Ms. Higgins has the research background to understand how the subtleties between different but related DNE entries can provide a window into the lexical history of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is this keenness for the material that tends to prompt Ms. Higgins every month or so to make an entry.

For example, in the May entry, “Growlers, Rollers and All Manner of Ice,” she marks the springtime arrival of icebergs in this province. She notes in the post that it is “not surprising” there are numerous words in the DNE that describe ice. Weaving through the definitions of “growler,” “clumper,” ice-master” and “seal-meadows,” visitors to the site can absorb the syntactical relationship between the unique language of this province and the traditional rituals of its inhabitants. Growlers are described as masses of ice particularly dangerous to boats’ hulls due to their deceptively smaller size; readers learn that ice-masters were men who searched for seals on dangerous, unstable ice pans once their vessel manoeuvered into the ice fields during the yearly hunt.

Ms. Higgins says she employs the “fabulous” online DNE search engine to gather the related word-files for the entries, plus the numerous MUCEP students who are employed at the centre at various times of the year point out their favourite entries.

“One of the students actually named Twig,” she says. “I told them I was taking suggestions and one of them picked it out. For the international students who work here, it helps them deepen their understanding of the province.”

Ms. Higgins also credits the careful editing of some of the members of the ELRC’s management committee who helps ensure the accuracy of her entries. But there is one proofreader in particular who gives her a great sense of comfort before adding a new post to the site. Dr. William Kirwin, professor emeritus and one of the three DNE editors alongside George Story and John Widdowson, comes to the ELRC every day despite his retirement in 1984.

“It is a real pleasure to work with Dr. Kirwin,” says Ms. Higgins. “Whenever I make an entry I give it to him so it can go through his eyes. It makes me feel very secure having him check my writing about the Newfoundland language.”

For more, visit Twig online here. Visit the Dictionary of Newfoundland English online here. Visit the English Language Research Centre online here.


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