The names given to places often reflect the basic values and priorities of the people who did the naming. Across North America are names that pay tribute to European monarchs, explorers and saints. Indigenous names, many of which persist in one form or another today, tend to reflect the original inhabitants’ innate knowledge of the landscape.
Around Atlantic Canada, place names tell the story of the land and its people. William B. Hamilton does a good job of tracing this history in his 1996 book Place Names of Atlantic Canada. Here are some of our favorites:
Barasway, NL: Also rendered as Barachois or Barachoix, this name traces its roots to Basque fishermen who coined the term to describe a shallow lake that fills at rising tide. It is said to stem from the Basque words ‘barra‘ + ‘txo‘ + ‘a‘ (barrachoa), meaning a sand bar.
Bay du Vin, NB: A number of theories exist to explain this spot in New Brunswick, the most logical of which is that it is probably corrupted from baie des ventes, meaning bay of winds (not bay of wine).
Billy Island and Nan Island, NB: No one knows if it’s true, but the legend holds that these islands on the Maine-New Brunswick border got their name from a couple who were canoeing across a lake on the way to their wedding. As they didn’t reach their destination by nightfall, the story goes that they each retired to their own island for the night, in keeping with the Victorian customs of the day.
Blow Me Down, NL: Used elsewhere by its variant ‘Blomidon’, this name is used to describe a headland, mountain or bluff under which a ship is liable to be vulnerable to squalls.
Burntcoat Head, NS: This area, now known for its high tides, reportedly got its name in 1795 when two early settlers, Thomas and Robert Faulkner, were burning marshland and lost a coat in the ensuing fire.
Cape Smokey, NS : Earlier variations of this Cape Breton place name include fumides and enfumé. The reference is to high elevated banks that, from a distance, bear a striking resemblance to clouds of smoke.
China Point, PEI: The theory is that this name has nothing to do with the Asian country or the tableware that bears its name. Rather, it probably refers to the French surname Chesnay or Chainey.
Dildo, NL: This is perhaps Atlantic Canada’s best known and most curious place name. Tourists make a special point of being photographed in front of the town’s post office, and several campaigns to change the name have failed over the years. Its origin is unclear, though the name dates from at least 1711.
Florenceville, NB: First known as Buttermilk Creek, this community was renamed in 1855 during the Crimean War to mark the contribution of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.
Gin Hill, NB: An incident in the 19th-century led to this place name: Two labourers carrying a load of logs and a case of gin overturned in their cart. The horses returned without the men and a search party later found them at the foot of the hill, drinking the gin.
Ha Ha Bay, NL: You may be disappointed to learn that this name does not refer to a terrific punchline, but rather an old French expression for an unexpected obstruction or dead end.
Joe Batt’s Arm, NL: Despite a campaign in 1901 to rename this community after Queen Victoria, the name of Joseph Batt still lives on, commemorating a man who was sentenced to 15 lashes for stealing a pair of shoes and buckles in 1754.
Johnny Belinda Pond, PEI: Here is a place name that dates to the 20th century. The name was approved in 1970 to pay tribute to Johnny Belinda. A play (and later a movie) written by Elmer Harris, who made his summer home in Fortune Bridge, PEI, the story was inspired by a girl he met in the village.
Massacre Island, NS: The local lore is that a French ship was wrecked on this island and the survivors were killed by the Mi’kmaq. The legend has been fuelled by the fact that human bones are discovered on the island from time to time.
Peekaboo Corner, NB: The local explanation is that the name refers to the fact that a house once obscured visibility at this crossroads.
Shut-in Island, NS: A good example of how French names got corrupted into English, this island was originally referred to in French as Chetigne, which must have sounded like ‘shut in’ to some ears.
Slambang Bay, NL: Apparently this name was coined by schooner captains who had been driven ashore or had their vessels tumbled by gusts from the high hills of the area.
Witless Bay, NL: Among the possible explanations are that: 1) the name is a corruption of the surname Whittle; 2) the name refers to a shrub known as a wittle or wit-rod; 3) the name describes the ‘crazy’ or ‘lunatic’ ocean, thick with seabirds, humpback and minke whales. We hope it’s the latter.
What fun place names have we missed? Tell us in the comments.