Published August 21, 2015
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Icelanders in Manitoba were nicknamed “Goolies,” which started out as a slur but has later been reclaimed as something of a term of endearment. This got a great response from our readers and some interesting comments, which offered various suggestions as to its origin.
Said Clark McCormick: “Goolies is slang for “Ghouls,” due to the death-white complexions of the arriving Icelanders.”
Margret Thomas noted: “I have been told that it comes from the way that the Icelanders pronounced the word goalie, referring to the first hockey team from Canada to win the Olympic Gold. The Falcons from Winnipeg were almost all Winnipeg Icelanders.”
Sylvia Gunnarson Georgeson suggests this explanation: “My understanding of the term is that the New Icelanders were called this on account of the colour of their hair—blonde, Gull being the Icelanders’ word for ‘gold’.
Karen Helena adds: “And a spawn of a Western Icelander and a Ukrainian in Canada is called a goolieuk!” It goes without saying that Karen herself is the proud mother of a brand new goolieuk.
I myself am partial to believing that goolies refers to testicles, as the term is a common English-language slang for testes. By this I don’t mean to say that everyone believed Icelanders had great big balls when they landed in Manitoba, as this would suggest awe and perhaps envy on the part of the speaker.
Although it would mean we could use this as a national anthem. And finally one we could sing along to…
No, sadly, if this is in fact a testicle reference it probably infers that Icelanders are partial to eating sheep’s balls, one of only a few cultures to regularly engage in the activity. My rationale for this explanation is that this still surprises, horrifies and/or amuses visitors to Iceland today, and would probably have done the same if word got out in 19th century Canada. Also, slurs often allude to culinary habits. The French call the English “Roastbiff,” the English call the French “Frogs”, the Americans call the Germans “Krauts” (during times of war), and so on and on.
But this is pure conjecture. To get to the heart of the matter, I summed a higher authority, one Stefan Jonasson, editor-in-chief of Lögberg-Heimskringla, Manitoba’s leading paper for all things Icelandic and also a member of the University of Winnipeg’s Board of Regents. He says:
“These explanations are interesting, but unconvincing to me. The word Goolie was already being used by English-speaking Winnipeggers before the Falcons were organized, so the hockey connection seems unlikely. And the reference to the colour of Icelanders’ hair is even more problematic: firstly, Icelanders aren’t nearly so blonde as some may think; secondly, Icelanders don’t use the word “gull” to describe hair colour; and finally, it’s even more unlikely that English speakers would have picked up on the word gull than that they would have known about the Gullfoss waterfall, another suggested explanation.”
“By contrast,” Stefan continues, “beyond being applied to Icelanders themselves, the most frequently recurring uses of the word “Goolie” involve Goolie Hall (referring to the IOGT Hall), Goolie Crescent (referring to Sargent Avenue), and Goolie Town (referring to the part of the West End surrounding Sargent Avenue). The word Goolie does not appear to have been in use before the IOGT Hall was built, but it was well-enough established by the time the Falcons won the gold medal to have appeared in the English-language newspapers, which suggests to me that its derivation from the Good Templars’ Hall is still the most likely explanation.”
Stefan has spoken, and not many people know more about New Iceland (or the old one) than he does. But don’t just take his word for it. He is, after all, editor of Lögberg-Heimskringla and as such has immediate access to their archives. He goes on to say:
“Several letters to the editor dealing with ‘the Goolie Question’ have appeared in the pages of Lögberg-Heimskringla over the years. Björn Jónsson’s explanation adds the interesting twist to the normative Good Templars’ explanation that “Good Templar” became “Goollie” because of a Chinese man corrupting the pronunciation – something that he (Björn) had heard from the late Gísli Jónsson (a.k.a. Gisli Johnson), who was the long-time editor of Tímarit, the magazine of the Icelandic National League and a man of letters in his own right. My own father shared this view. The Chinese man in question was Hop Sing, who ran a laundry on Sargent Avenue.”
“The learned men of Gísli’s generation and the one that followed pretty much all agreed with the connection of “Goolie” to the Good Templars’ Hall, although not all of them agreed that Hop Sing was the source of the corrupted word. Will Kristjanson, Philip Petursson, Axel Vopnfjord, Walter J. Lindal all supported the Good Templars’ explanation. In my mind, it’s telling that the alternative explanations the alternative explanations come mostly from the communities outside of Winnipeg, where the term Goolie does not seem to have been much used until the 1930s.”
Whatever the origin (and Stefan’s research seems fairly conclusive), the term is still proudly in use among Manitoba Icelanders. On Jon Sigurdsson Day this year, a young man called Logan Stefanson gave a performance called “Goolies” at the art museum, where he talked about growing up in Gimli. He started off with a joke: “What do you call the offspring of an Iceland and a Cuban?”
The answer: “Unlikely.”
By the end of the show, we finally get the proper punchline. The progeny would, of course, be referred to as an “Ice Cube.” Of course it would be.