What’s in a name?

The Central Voice - - Editorial - David J. Clarke David J. Clarke is a grad­u­ate of Memo­rial Uni­ver­sity’s Doc­toral pro­gram in his­tory, and he is the au­thor of eight books fo­cus­ing on cen­tral New­found­land. He can be reached at bay­man­dave16@gmail.com

New­found­land and Labrador is renowned for its unique and var­ied nomen­cla­ture. From Aquaforte on the South­ern Shore – per­haps named for a type of liquor – to the re­set­tled com­mu­nity of Zoar, Labrador, we rightly cel­e­brate our an­ces­tors’ cre­ativ­ity in nam­ing their beloved homes. In this re­spect, cen­tral New­found­land is no dif­fer­ent than any other area of the prov­ince.

In my book, “A His­tory of the Isles”, I touched on the to­ponym (place name) ori­gins of a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties in the area I call The Isles. Lo­cated in cen­tral Notre Dame Bay, and for a num­ber of years form­ing a Pro­vin­cial Elec­toral Dis­trict, The Isles in­cludes well-known com­mu­ni­ties such as Twill­ingate, Fogo, More­ton’s Har­bour, Change Is­lands, Tilt­ing and Her­ring Neck. In dis­cussing th­ese com­mu­ni­ties’ early years, I took a brief look at the ori­gins of their names, and it might be in­ter­est­ing to dis­cuss a few of them here.

Some of our prov­ince’s sin­gu­lar to­ponyms re­flect the long years of in­volve­ment in the mi­gra­tory cod fish­ery by na­tions like France, Por­tu­gal, and Spain. The French are be­lieved to have vis­ited Notre Dame Bay as early as the six­teenth cen­tury, though the Bay has few place names of French ori­gin. One no­table ex­cep­tion is Notre Dame Bay it­self – “Bay of Our Lady,” to those early Bre­ton fish­ers.

Like­wise, one of the best-known to­ponyms in the area is Twill­ingate. Set­tled by the English in the 1730s, if not ear­lier, New­found­land’s one­time Cap­i­tal of the North, was pre­vi­ously the home base for a French fish­ery.

Like many of the prov­ince’s com­mu­nity names, Twill­ingate’s roots are a lit­tle ob­scure. While it is known to have de­rived from the word, Toulinguet, the ex­act ori­gin of the term is de­bated.

In the early 1900s Arch­bishop Michael How­ley con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search into New­found­land’s place names, and gave his own ex­pla­na­tion as to where Twill­ingate de­rived. He dis­counted an old the­ory that the term meant “all tongued,” in ref­er­ence to many points of land stick­ing out into its har­bour.

In­stead, How­ley pro­posed that Toulinguet was a well-known Bre­ton, or Basque, sur­name.

A third pos­si­bil­ity is that the is­land com­mu­nity was chris­tened based on its sea­ward re­sem­blance to an is­land group off the coast of Brit­tany. Named Toulinguet, the area was once home to a fort of the same name.

An­other long-set­tled com­mu­nity in the area – also vis­ited by the French – is Her­ring Neck, on New World Is­land, just south of Twill­ingate. English set­tle­ment be­gan there as early as the 1760s, and by the late-1800s Her­ring Neck was a ser­vice cen­tre with a pop­u­la­tion of about 1,000.

The com­mu­ni­ties which make up Her­ring Neck have changed over the years, and in the nine­teenth cen­tury the mod­ern town of Her­ring Neck was called “Goshen’s Arm,” with Her­ring Neck then re­fer­ring to to­day’s Pike’s Arm and Green Cove.

The to­ponym had very prag­matic ori­gins, based on the fish­eries which sus­tained all New­found­land out­ports. As unique as it sounds to­day, Her­ring Neck was sim­ply a de­scrip­tor, re­fer­ring to the fish­ers’ prac­tice of car­ry­ing their heavy loads of her­ring over a nar­row neck of land in Pike’s Arm. It is be­lieved that this al­lowed th­ese fish­ers to avoid the arm’s treach­er­ous head­wa­ters.

An­other of the Isles’ unique and charm­ing names, and one of the most well-known in all the prov­ince, is Joe Batt’s Arm, on Fogo Is­land. Even in the 1800s, “Jo­bets,” as it was of­ten pro­nounced, was the sub­ject of good-na­tured jests, with the Bri­tish hu­mour mag­a­zine Punch print­ing an ad read­ing, “Wanted: a Nurse for Joe Batt’s Arm.”

De­spite its fame, the name’s ori­gin is as mys­te­ri­ous as Twill­ingate’s. How­ley could find no good ex­pla­na­tion for the to­ponym, though it may orig­i­nate with a crew­man serv­ing with ex­plorer James Cook.

Ac­cord­ing to le­gend, Joseph Batt de­serted Cook’s ship in the 1760s while the famed nav­i­ga­tor was map­ping parts of New­found­land. As the story goes, Batt later set­tled on Fogo Is­land be­fore go­ing on to be­come a trap­per at Gander Bay. An­other can­di­date to be the Joe Batt may be one Joseph Batt of Bon­av­ista, pun­ished there in 1754 for steal­ing a pair of shoes.

This el­e­ment of mys­tery is com­mon to many Isles towns, in­clud­ing Fogo Is­land and its name­sake com­mu­nity. The Por­tuguese term y del fuego, or “is­land of fire,” be­came as­so­ci­ated with the lo­cale some­time af­ter 1500. Later cor­rupted to “Fogo,” the name may de­rive from a set­tle­ment in the Cape Verde Is­lands, or to ma­jor for­est fires recorded on Fogo Is­land as late as 1896. Other the­o­ries give the camp­fires of Indige­nous peo­ples ob­served by the early ex­plor­ers, or even the dense fogs that be­set the area, as the source of the name. Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing, if least ap­peal­ing, idea is that Fogo may have the same root as “funk,” re­fer­ring to the foul odour from the drop­pings of the thou­sands of seabirds which called Fogo Is­land home.

If time and space per­mit­ted, I could go on. Tilt­ing, Dur­rell, More­ton’s Har­bour, Change Is­lands, etc., all have in­ter­est­ing, mys­te­ri­ous, and unique sto­ries be­hind their to­ponyms, some­thing we New­found­lan­ders should al­ways bear in mind when we hear the ques­tion, what’s in a name?

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