Woman in Northern Ireland finds people who can understand her — in Newfoundland

By Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Whitney McCullough says she has always felt like people outside her home of Banbridge, Northern Ireland, need subtitles to decipher her accent and slang. So it has been strange and delightful to discover through her TikTok videos that in Newfoundland and Labrador, people understand her just fine.

It was an invitation to a restaurant opening in Northern Ireland that led McCullough to discover Newfoundland English — and an island of people who know exactly what she means when she says, “The arse is gone out of ‘er, b’y.”

“I couldn’t believe it, it’s just like home from home,” McCullough said in an interview. “And everybody has been so lovely. The comments are great.”

McCullough has 173,000 followers on TikTok, where she posts videos about life in Northern Ireland and the region’s slang words. Her popularity on social media is what got her an invitation to the opening of a new Mary Brown’s Chicken restaurant last month in the nearby town of Lisburn.

The 36-year-old had never heard of the fast-food chain before, so she posted a video to TikTok asking if anyone else had. Newfoundlanders took notice.

Mary Brown’s was founded in St. John’s, N.L., in 1969, and has since spread across Canada. But its fried chicken and “taters” hold a special place in the province’s heart, and people began leaving her comments to explain.

“I could see that people were talking to me like we speak here,” McCullough said. “I go to London quite often, and they were using words that I use in London and nobody understands me.”

Someone pointed her to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which was first published in 1982 to document and define some of the language spoken on the Atlantic Canadian island. Newfoundland dialects date back about 400 years, and they come from migratory fishermen from southern England, and from immigrants from southeastern Ireland, who began arriving in the early 17th century, according to a description of the dictionary on the website of the University of Toronto Press.

McCullough began reading the dictionary, and posting videos about the words she found there that are also used in her home region.

For example, “b’y” in Newfoundland and other parts of Atlantic Canada is the same as “bai” in Northern Ireland. They’re spelled differently, but they’re both pronounced the same and used to casually refer to a person, typically a male.

In both places, a “skeet” is a troublemaker, someone who might rifle through a parked car if its doors were unlocked.

“The arse is gone out of ‘er” is what someone in both regions might say if a thing or a situation had fallen apart, likely beyond repair.

And a “feed” or a “scoff” is a big meal, which is exactly what McCullough says she enjoyed at the restaurant opening last month. She even met Gregory Roberts, the chief executive of Mary Brown’s, who is from Newfoundland.

“He was like, ‘You sound like me,'” she recalled. 

Gerard Van Herk, a retired linguistics professor from Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., said the similarities McCullough is documenting are intriguing. “Especially because Northern Ireland is the ‘wrong’ part of the island for migration to Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said in an email.

McCullough now has several thousand TikTok followers from Newfoundland and Labrador, and she says she’ll keep posting videos about shared slang words as she finds them in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

“I think people in Newfoundland enjoy seeing that connection,” she says. “As long as people still find it interesting, and as long as I’m still having fun, I’ll definitely keep posting.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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