What’s in a place name?

The Compass - - NEWS - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

Names can be con­fus­ing. This cer­tainly ap­plies to peo­ple’s names, to which I can read­ily at­test. My daugh­ter Krista is dat­ing a Chris, and my son Chris is dat­ing a Krysta. So you can imag­ine the con­fu­sion around our house at times.

Place names can be no less con­fus­ing. By­ron A. Brooks, au­thor of “More Than a Name: A Trav­eler’s Guide to the Ori­gin of Place Names in New­found­land and Labrador,” can ver­ify this ob­ser­va­tion. An ad­ver­tis­ing blurb states: “In the past, when tourists drove the scenic trails of the prov­ince, they scratched their heads and wrin­kled their fore­heads in won­der at all the un­usual com­mu­nity names they were wit­ness­ing.” Been there, done that.

Brooks set out to help off­set this head scratch­ing and fore­head wrin­kling with his book, which pro­vides im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the ori­gin of over 600 place names in New­found­land and Labrador.

Take, for ex­am­ple, one of my per­sonal favourites, Dildo, to which Brooks de­votes al­most three pages.

“Now, here’s a name!” he de­clares. No kid­ding! “This place name has prob­a­bly re­ceived more world­wide at­ten­tion than any other com­mu­nity in the coun­try. Tourists ar­rive from far and wide to visit this town with its unique name. Of­ten, ve­hi­cles stop by the town road sign, while amused tourists have their pic­tures taken to bring home proof that there is such a place called Dildo. Some visi­tors have even taken the road sign with them! The Depart­ment of High­ways must have a store­house of spare signs pre­pared to re­place the stolen sou­venirs.”

Brooks sug­gests the prov­ince is gifted with qual­i­ties that dis­tin­guish it from other prov­inces. For ex­am­ple, we have our own ode, flag, an­i­mal breeds, mu­sic style and, of course, strange and un­usual place names.

Per­haps the prov­ince ex­cels in this lat­ter qual­ity. Some names, the au­thor notes, “seem hu­mor­ous or em­bar­rass­ing, grace­ful or awk­ward, ridicu­lous or ob­vi­ous, but al­ways dis­tinc­tive.”

He sum­ma­rizes the ori­gin of place names to help tourists “bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate our cul­ture.” He main­tains place names were for­mu­lated from fact, folk­lore or se­man­tics.

By­ron ac­com­plishes his pur­pose by fol­low­ing the of­fi­cial high­way map for New­found­land and Labrador. He in­tro­duces the reader to the 33 scenic drives in the prov­ince de­signed by the Depart­ment of Tourism, Cul­ture and Recre­ation. He then dis­sects ac­tual place names.

Ad­mit­tedly, much of what Brooks in­cludes in his book is al­ready con­tained in Joey Small­wood’s five-vol­ume “En­cy­clo­pe­dia of New­found­land and Labrador” and else­where. How­ever, “More Than a Name” serves as a con­cise and prac­ti­cal com­pen­dium of data be­tween the cov­ers of a sin­gle book. Be­cause the book is spi­ral bound, it lays open with­out dam­ag­ing the spine. The glossy pa­per is pleas­ant to the eye. The book’s use­ful­ness is aug­mented by ref­er­ence notes, a bib­li­og­ra­phy and an in­dex.

Now, the real fun be­gins. Where did the name, Fox Roost, come from any­way? Per­haps it’s a cor­rup­tion of the French phrase, Fosse Rouge, which means “red gully” or “red ditch.” Ac­tu­ally, there is a gully, though not red, in the town.

“If you visit the town, you may want to look for the gully and check out the colour. In my visit I didn’t no­tice a gully of any colour – or a fox roost­ing in the nearby trees.”

Hav­ing lived four years in Port aux Basques, I of­ten won­dered about the ori­gin of the place name, Tompkins. I didn’t know, un­til I read it in Brooks’ book, the town was named af­ter its first set­tler, Wil­liam Tompkins from Mar­ga­ree, Cape Bre­ton.

I also lived four years in Ham­p­den. I didn’t know it was once called River­head, but that its name was changed to Ham­p­den on Aug. 16, 1910, per­haps in­flu­enced by the vil­lage of Great Ham­p­den, Buck­ing­hamshire, Eng­land.

My late par­ents pa­s­tored in Car­manville which, I found out, was once called Rocky Bay. Its cur­rent name hon­ours Rev. Al­bert Car­man, a Methodist Church dig­ni­tary.

I spent a cou­ple of years in Twill­ingate, where French fish­er­men first set­tled in the 1600s and 1700s, and from whose roots the town re­ceived its orig­i­nal name, Toulinguet.

The name, Shearstown, where I lived four years, is a trib­ute to Wil­liam C. Shears, a Church of Eng­land min­is­ter who served the Bay Roberts par­ish for 35 years.

Then, as a pas­tor my­self, I lived in Deer Lake, Rod­dick­ton, Labrador City, How­ley and Makin­sons. You may be sure I will re­search Brooks’ book to dis­cover the ori­gin of those names, as well.

“More Than a Name” is a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove of lit­tle-known facts guar­an­teed to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of the reader in­quis­i­tive about the ori­gin of place names in New­found­land and Labrador.

— Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net

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