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Sad loss

Co-editor of Dictionary of Newfoundland English dead at 91

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

Dr. William J. Kirwin, who was the driving force and co-editor of one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most important books, The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, died on Aug. 4 at the age of 91.

Born in Rhode Island in 1925, Dr. Kirwin served with the U.S. Forces in Germany during the Second World War and participated in the Battle of the Bulge, fighting his way across Europe to Germany. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1954 and came to Newfoundland soon afterward. He never lived anywhere else again.

Preserving language

He will be remembered for his considerable contributions to the preservation of the language heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador. He developed the first Memorial University program in English linguistics, pioneered research on the English dialects of the province, and was instrumental in the creation of Memorial’s English Language Research Centre (ELRC). The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is his living legacy and a towering achievement.

Thinking of others

Retired professor Dr. Robert Hollett of Memorial’s English department worked with Dr. Kirwin for 40 years and remembers his thoughtfulness above all else.

“Bill was an avid gardener and raised profusions of the most beautiful flowers. He always felt such beauty should be shared and made a tradition of delivering bouquets of his best or even a single exceptional bloom to the Department of English admin staff.

“Another example of how he was always thinking of others is that when I invigilated exams, after about an hour or so, there would be a soft knock on the classroom door and he would enter, go to the desk at the front of the class and sit in order to give me a break.”

Scholarly work

In addition to his work on the dictionary, Dr. Kirwin was the co-editor of the Journal of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.

He also co-edited Reminiscences of James P. Howley: Selected Years (with Patrick A. O’Flaherty) (1997), E.R. Seary’s Family Names of the Island of Newfoundland, Corrected Edition (1998), Seary’s Place Names of the Northern Peninsula, a New Edition (with Robert Hollett) (2000), and has written on the history of Newfoundland English, L’Anse aux Meadows, pronunciation keys in dictionaries, and Michael F. Howley’s toponymy. He was named professor emeritus in 1987.

He was also one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, and, as mentioned, was an active gardener.

‘A great loss’

Dr. Philip Hiscock worked with Dr. Kirwin in the English Language Research Centre and remembered him in a Facebook post:

“I’m not sure Bill instilled in me my love of words and dictionaries; I had that before I met him. But in the early 1970s I took courses from him that taught me how to read a dictionary, and that taught me how to think about words. He was certainly one of my most important teachers.”

Having retired in the 1980s, Dr. Kirwin continued to come to work daily up until five years ago, working on updates to the dictionary and writing research notes on Newfoundland words and place names.

In 2013, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences named an award for retired faculty in his honour. He was the first recipient.

“We have missed his presence at the ELRC already for several years. He’d been sick for four years and his death was really no surprise,” said Dr. Hiscock. “It is, however, a great loss to all of us who knew him or who are interested in Newfoundland and Labrador culture.”


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