What’s in a place name?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org