What’s in a name?

Up­per Is­land Cove res­i­dents proudly wear nick­names


Imag­ine thi s con­ver­sa­tion un­fold­ing in an Up­per Is­land Cove neigh­bour­hood.

Visi­tor: “ I’m look­ing for Harold Mercer. Can you please help me?”

Res­i­dent: “ Harold Mercer? Lemme see ... Don’t think I can help you.”

Visi­tor: “ No? How about Harold Mercer Sr.?”

Res­i­dent: “ Oh, now I know who you mean. Harold Brave. He lives next door.”

It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted Up­per Is­land Cove is a unique town. Its di­verse and pe­cu­liar cul­ture is well known. It has a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing jokesters known lo­cally as “char­ac­ters.”

Much of the town’s unique­ness stems from a long-held and time­honoured tra­di­tion of iden­ti­fy­ing sur­names by nick­names. If you live in Up­per Is­land Cove, chances are you have your very own nick­name.

As the above ex­am­ple shows, it’s al­most use­less for a visi­tor to ask for Harold Mercer. There are four or five peo­ple by that name in the town. The inquirer must know his nick­name, in this case, Brave. Then and only then is the con­nec­tion made with Mercer.

Sixty-two-year-old Harold Brave is a char­ac­ter who takes keen de­light in this phe­nom­e­non. He ef­fort­lessly rhymes off a litany of nick­names, many of which tickle your funny bone. The tra­di­tion can be un­der­stood only with the as­sis­tance of such a will­ing and knowl­edge­able guide.

The ori­gin of most of the nick­names has been lost in the mists of his­tory. How­ever, Brave knows a bit about his own nick­name, which, he claims, orig­i­nated with his grand­fa­ther. Strangely, the older man was the only one of sev­eral brothers to be called Brave.

“ He didn’t care for any­body,” Brave adds. “ There was an in­ci­dent some­where, and they called him Brave. That went on down through the fam­ily.”

May as well ask about Brave’s son, his fa­ther’s name­sake. How to dis­tin­guish the two? The younger Harold is known as Har­ley Brave.

When an out­sider sud­denly thinks he has the hang of it, the plot thick­ens. The fact is, Brave is not the only nick­name for Mercers. Other fam­ily strands are known as the Toochs, Fes­sors, Nishes, Cur­rans, Cuffs, Stinks, Griffins, Bee Eyes, Straws, Dudes, Scuffs and Codoils. It’s enough to make you scratch your head in con­ster­na­tion.

Ap­par­ently, Up­per Is­land Cove boasts only one fam­ily of Teats, an el­derly cou­ple who op­er­ated a shop. “ She was very well en­dowed,” Brave says with a chuckle. “A lit­tle boy went in there one day and said to the old man, ‘Mud­der sent me here to buy a teat.’ The old fel­low called out to his Mis­sis. ‘A lit­tle boy here wants to buy the two of us.’” You gotta love this story. Philip His­cock of Me­mo­rial Univer­sity refers to “ the lo­cal folk­lore … that the Is­land Cove nick­names were ei­ther in­vented or crys­tal­lized by a doc­tor who kept notes on pa­tients by their nick­names.” There’s much truth to this claim. In his re­cent bi­og­ra­phy of Dr. Charles Cron ( 1886-1962), a well­known physi­cian in Con­cep­tion Bay North, Pa­trick J. Collins writes about his prac­tice of at­tribut­ing nick­names to pa­tients.

“ By giv­ing them a name, other than their own, he was able to find out where they lived when he was on a sick call,” Collins says. “ One can rest as­sured that Dr. Cron had a hand in most of these ‘chris­ten­ings.’”

Once, while try­ing to track down Har­ri­son Mercer, Cron joked that he might have to go all the way to Cashin Av­enue in St. John’s to find his pa­tient. Hence, Har­ri­son Mercer be­came known as Har­ri­son Cashin.

In a town with so many peo­ple bear­ing the same last name, nick­names are a use­ful and, at times, an in­dis­pens­able way of dis­tin­guish­ing one from the other.

Brave re­mem­bers a man ask­ing him for di­rec­tions to Ge­orge Mercer’s house.

“ Now you got me fooled,” Brave ad­mit­ted. “ Which Ge­orge Mercer are you look­ing for?”

“ I don’t know, but he worked with the Depart­ment of High­ways.”

“ You’re stand­ing in front of his house, Ge­orge Tooch.”

The nick­names are prob­a­bly associated with what Brave calls “char­ac­ter­is­tics of cer­tain peo­ple.” Collins con­firms this: “ Names were associated with any­thing that would give (Cron) a con­nec­tion.”

For ex­am­ple, Crow­bar is associated with a Crane who worked on Bell Is­land. His son’s nick­name was short­ened to Crow. He has over his house door a plaque, which reads, Two Old Crows Live Here. An­other man, who walked with a cane, be­came known as Stick. A crip­ple be­came known as Scuff.

Brave es­ti­mates be­tween 80 and 90 per­cent of Up­per Is­land Cov­ers go by nick­names. Most wear them proudly.

The oth­ers may have dropped their nick­names along the way. Other “ re­ally fool­ish” nick­names went nowhere. Some of the in­di­vid­ual nick­names sim­ply don’t last, Brave says.

The epit­ome of a dis­tinc­tive Up­per Is­land Cove hu­mour, Brave tells peo­ple, “ You can call me what you like as long as you don’t call me late for sup­per. Most peo­ple got the same attitude. We had noth­ing to do with the nick­names; they came gen­er­a­tions be­fore.”

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