Michael Crummey's new book, The Adversary, explores dark themes of suffering and cruelty in a feud between two siblings, set in the Newfoundland of generations past. (Zach Goudie/CBC)
Settlers in Newfoundland of centuries past spoke English with words that have long since vanished in time — but are found again in Michael Crummey's latest novel, The Adversary.
Words like "prinked up," which describe a person who tried to dress fancy but failed miserably. Or "bedizened," for a flashy kind of dressing that looks utterly ridiculous. Then there are phrases like "making feet for children's stockings" — which means to copulate. These and many others were dug out from an old dictionary of Newfoundland English, Crummey told CBC News this week.
"It's is one of my favourite reads of all time because it details how incredibly creative Newfoundlanders were in their use of the language," he said. "It also provides a way of showing a reader how different the world was in that time."
Crummey describes his new novel, which is set to be published on Tuesday, as a "mirror image" of his previous book and bestseller The Innocents. Where the previous book portraits a brother and sister in difficult circumstances who survive through their love, The Adversary is the story of a brother and sister who despise each other.
The characters are set in a harsh and cruel environment, and Crummey says he looked for words that people in those times would use to describe their thoughts, motivations, and ultimately their actions. A book that was up for the task was A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, last updated in 1811, Crummey says.
"At the time 'vulgar' just meant 'common' — how the common people spoke. But there was an incredible amount of vulgarity outlined in this dictionary, so I just couldn't resist taking that colour and that salt and putting it into this book," Crummey said.
Part of the charm, he says, is not even knowing how to say the words.
"We just have it written down, and so a lot of these words, we don't really know how they would have been pronounced. I almost like that there was a little mystery."
The words that are used are at times funny and cynical, describing circumstances that are anything but, like one of the characters creating a brothel out of their childhood home, and scenes that most depict the suffering of women and children — all dark themes that Crummey says he didn't want to shy away from.
"What I was looking to do in this novel was to take the worst of the world that we're living in right now and have it play out. You know, to not protect myself from it and to not protect a reader from it too."
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