What’s in a name?
Having the same surname is a usual occurrence in the small outports of Newfoundland. When I tell someone I am originally from Branch, I am asked if my maiden name was Nash, Power or English. There are others but these three are the most plentiful.
When I grew up in Branch in the 50s and early 60s, it was a common practice to be named “after someone.” As a result there were lots of Margarets, Annies, Roses, Kates and Marys. Because local women often married within the area, there was a great chance that a number of Marys might end up with the same last name. In large towns, this situation would not even be noticed. In Branch, it caused a change in how one was addressed.
My mother, Aggie, was married to John Power. Never, in my childhood, did I hear her called Mrs. Power. Respectfully, she was referred to as Mrs. Aggie John. She accepted this as normal and never questioned why my father was not identified as Mr. John Aggie. He was just Mr. John. It was only when I sat down to write this article that the double standard hit me. I immediately remarked that this would not bode well with today’s liberated women who sometimes refuse to take their spouses’ surnames.
The locality in which I lived was known as the Hill. In the small confines of that neighbourhood, where three Margarets were wed to Powers, they were referred to as Paddy’s Margaret, Stephen’s Margaret and Ambrose’s Margaret. This differed from “Aggie John” in that the male name preceded the female one.
I am sure that women’s rights organizations of these modern times would take exception, but the status quo was different in the 50s. Feminism aside, I think the titles were quite attractive and lyrical. It was sort of musical the way Mrs. Rose Neil, Mrs. Rose Clifford, Mrs. Mary Pat and Mrs. Katie Gus rolled off the tongue. This method of identification helped decrease confusion.
When I was directed to bring a message to Mrs. Emma George, there was no mistaking where I had to go, although there was definitely no one in the place with the last name George.
Now males with identical names had to be distinguished also. My father was Kate’s John because he had a cousin also named John. Daddy’s red-haired uncle was Foxy Jack so as not to mix him up with another Jack. At one time there was a Foxy Nick and a Black Nick. All these nicknames arose for the sole purpose of clarity. It made things simpler.
A girl from the city who visited Branch every summer told me recently that she was almost adult before she realized that my last name was Power and not John. Laughingly, she added “I only heard your mother called Mrs. Aggie John and your father Mr. John.” There was no mention of Power at all.”
With the advent of modern day names such as Crystal, Kayla, Mason, Todd and the like, misunderstandings are less probable. If a Jennifer is married to a Jason, not likely she will become Mrs. Jennifer Jason. As rural populations decline, fewer young folks are settling down in rural communities. A snafu due to a misnomer is less likely to happen.
Some proud surnames have already been threatened with extinction in Branch. In the telephone directory, I found only one listing for the name Campbell and none for the beautiful traditional titles of Quigley and Downey.
I only hope these wonderful names and others such as Mooney, Corcoran, Hennessey, Roche, O’Rourke, McGrath, Linehan, etc. live forever in the descendants of those who were glad to call Branch their home. I am certain the names I heard while growing up there will abide in my memory as long as I live. Marina Power Gambin was born and raised in her beloved Branch, St. Mary’s Bay. She is a retired teacher who lives in Placentia where she taught for almost three decades. She can be reached at