Herring Choker Bakery

The Nickname Game

Written by Harry Bruce. This article was published in the January/February 2006 issue of SaltScaapes.

Blue Potatoes

Being named after a superior spud may be colourful, but is it a compliment?

Nobody knows why New Brunswickers are sometimes called “herringchokers” but according to one theory, it’s because the women working in fish-packing plants used their thumbs and forefingers to pinch the heads off sardines. Norwegians who settled in Minnesota to fish in Lake Superior were also called herringchokers but, in their case, the term derived from squeezing herring through gill nets. In Galway, Ireland, fishermen were also once called herringchokers. Since other Galwegians were “sheep stealers” and “donkey ayters,” however, the nickname may have been less than complimentary.

“Bluenoses” (sometimes “bluenosers”) now means only Nova Scotians, but New Brunswickers may once have been bluenoses, too. Before 1921, when the most famous Bluenose slid into Lunenburg Harbour, seven shipyards in the Maritimes built Bluenoses, and three of them were in New Brunswick. The origin of “bluenose” is obscure, but its application to Nova Scotians may have something to do with potatoes.

In 1815, a volcano on an Indonesian island hurled so much ash into the sky that winter lasted the next 12 months over much of the world. In July, ice covered lakes in Pennsylvania. In August, killer frosts destroyed crops in Maine. During the summer of what some jokers of the time called “eighteen hundred and froze to death,” Ontario suffered as much as any part of North America. The “summer of horrors” also punished Nova Scotians, but they still managed to grow a fair crop of potatoes: they had deep blue, pointed noses. In 1817, many Nova Scotians moved to Ontario-and with them took plenty of potatoes. They donated a lot of them to farmers in rural Ontario who were still suffering from the crop destructions of the previous “summer.”

“The people of Ontario called the potatoes ‘blue noses,’ and the name passed from the seed to the people of Nova Scotia,” Benjamin Waldbrook, an old man in the Ottawa Valley, told the Toronto Sun in 1901. “I am told the Nova Scotians do not like the title. They should be proud of it. It commemorates the time when their Province came to the assistance of the impoverished people of Ontario.”

Fresh Herring and Pan Fried Blue Potatoes – To Die For

Yet Nova Scotians were bluenoses long before 1817. In 1785, Jacob Bailey, a Loyalist clergyman who’d fled the American Revolution and settled in Annapolis Royal, complained that the “blue noses, to use a vulgar appellation…exerted themselves to the utmost of their power and cunning.” He was referring to New Englanders who’d settled in Nova Scotia in the 1760s, and resented the arrival of the Loyalists.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Nova Scotia’s first internationally celebrated writer, wrote in 1849, “The Nova Scotian…is a handy, frank, good-natured, hospitable, manly fellow, and withal quite good looking, as his air gives you to understand he thinks himself to be. Such is the gentleman known throughout America as Mr. Blue Nose, a sobriquet acquired from a superior potato of that name.”

Some sources say herringchoker is a racist slur for Scandinavians, who eat fish by the bucketful, but it’s quite OK to call a New Brunswicker a herringchoker. These days, it’s also OK to call a Nova Scotian a bluenose. However, it is not OK to call a Newfoundlander a “Newfie.”

“Imagine that half the people in your Toronto workplace insist on calling you a Newfie,” Newfoundland author Maura Hanrahan writes, “while dismissing your gentle assertion that the word is offensive. I was consistently head-butted over this:

‘I don’t mean it that way…You have no sense of humour.’

Harry Bruce Author – Cartoonist

“But here is the reality: if a Polish person says ‘polack’ is offensive, it is. If a Roma person says ‘gypsy’ is offensive, it is offensive. If a Newfoundlander tells you ‘Newfie’ is offensive, it is offensive.”

Newfoundland Grand Bank Fisherman

As a handy, frank, good-natured, hospitable, manly and, if I do say so myself, quite good-looking fellow from dear, old bluenoseland, I quite agree with you, Ms. Hanrahan. I shall never call a Newfoundlander a Newfie.

(I quite agree with Harry Bruce starting right now I shall never refer to Newfoundlanders ever again as Newfs or Newfies – NEVER! CAPER)


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