Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland Labrador for the better part of 40 years.
Newfoundland and Labrador is Canada's tenth, and most easterly, province. It is made up of Labrador, the mainland portion of the province, and Newfoundland, the island portion. Originally established as a base for the European fishery, Newfoundland grew up around the fishing industry, which has resulted in a large number of small coastal fishing communities. Many of these communities have unusual names as interesting and as colourful as the people who live there and the places themselves.
Though the exact origin of some of these place names is known, for many this information has been forever lost to history, and the best we can do is make an educated guess based on legend, folklore, and oral tradition.
Map of Newfoundland Showing Location of Featured Communities
Joe Batt's Arm
Located on the northeast tip of Fogo Island, Joe Batt's arm is the largest of this small island's eleven communities. Traditionally, an "arm" referred to any settlement that wrapped around an inlet, as this community does, and not to a human appendage, as this particular community's name implies.
Though it is agreed that this place was named for someone named Joe Batt, there are two schools of thought as to who this Joe Batt was. One story holds that Joe Batt was a crewmember of the famous explorer Captain James Cook who, in 1763 deserted the Captain and his ship at Gander Bay, during a surveying expedition, and settled on Fogo Island. The less romantic version tells the tale of a Joseph Batt who was convicted in Bonavista in 1774 of stealing a pair of shoes but made his escape to Fogo Island to live out his days.
No place name in Newfoundland has raised more eyebrows or been the topic of more speculation and conversation than that of the town of Dildo. This name, despite its connotations, has nothing at all to do with any type of sexual device.
Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the word "dildo" referred to any cylindrical object. It is believed that the cylindrical object in this case referred to the pin on a rowboat used to attach the oar, also known as the thole pin. In spite of its innocent origin, the name can still elicit a giggle or a gasp from someone hearing of the place for the first time.
Though a number of residents over the years have petitioned to have the name changed, the community as a whole has chosen to embrace it. It has, after all, been very good for tourism. If one should wish to plan a visit to this beautiful little village in Trinity Bay, one may want to plan it around their annual summer festival, from which the visitor can take home a souvenir t-shirt proudly proclaiming: "I survived Dildo Days".
Blow Me Down
Blow Me Down is a small fishing community located on the tip of the Port de Grave Peninsula. Like the other 20 plus localities in the Province also named Blow Me Down, the exact origin of the name is unknown. It is believed that the name, at least in this case, is derived from the susceptibility of ships to unusually high winds when entering this area.
Red Head Cove
It is easy to imagine in a place so heavily settled by the Irish that there could be a community filled with red haired, pale skinned, freckled faced inhabitants for which the place got its name. This, however, is not the case in Red Head Cove. Its name actually comes from the reddish colour of its northern headlands.
Come By Chance
Originally called Passage Harbour, the area was later referred to (in a 1706 dispatch by a Major Lloyd concerning a battle between the English and French) as Comby Chance. It appears that the Major had mistakenly referred to the place by the name of the river that flows through it, Come By Chance. In any event, the name stuck and the community has been know as Come By Chance ever since. It is not known exactly how the river originally got its name, but it would probably be safe to assume that it was because someone had come upon it by chance.
Nobody knows for sure where this picturesque Southern Shore community got its name, but there are a number of theories. The historian M.F. Howley believed that the place was named for the northern wild raisin known as the Wittle. This seems unlikely, however, as it would be very unusual to name a place based on something that isn't there, as is implied by the name Witless Bay. If this particular shrub was running rampant throughout the rest of the province, perhaps it would be notable for its absence in this area, but it is not.
Another historian, E.R. Seary, has put forth two theories. One idea suggests that it was named for the motion of the sea. His other theory proposes that the name was derived from a Dorsetshire family named Whittle that may have once lived there and left the area. This theory tends to agree with popular legend that says that the place was originally named Whittle's Bay after a Captain Whittled who had lived there. The story goes that following the captains death his wife packed up the family and returned to their home in Dorsetshire, hence the name change, and the innocent but amusing double entendre.
Cow Head is a small community, population 475, on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. It is one of those rare communities that knows definitively where its name originated. Originally dubbed Cape Pointe by the famous French explorer Jacques Cartier, it was later named Tete de Vache, which means head of a cow because of a large rock on the shoreline that, when viewed from the sea, looks like the head of a cow. When the English moved into the area the place became known simply as Cow Head.
Bonavista is a beautiful little town on the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula and was once the commercial and economic hub of Newfoundland. Legend has it that the name comes from the Venetian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) who, upon setting foot on the land that is now the site of the modern day Bonavista, declared "O buon vista", meaning "oh, happy sight".
It is not know for certain how Trinity got its name, but the topic is one of much speculation. Some believe that the name comes from the three "arms" that constitute Trinity's harbour. Others say that it is a reference to the Holy Trinity. The most romantic story from this school of thought is that the Portuguese explorer Gasper de Corte Real gave the place its name after sailing into the harbour on Trinity Sunday, 1501. This seems very unlikely however, as the town appears on early Portuguese maps as Bay de St. Cyria. Though it is probable that the name is of a religious origin it is more likely English than Portuguese.
Quidi Vidi is a quaint little fishing village located less than a five minute drive from downtown St. John's. It is not known for certain where Quidi Vidi got its name but there are three main theories. One theory suggests that it comes from the popular French surname Quidville. Another says that it is derived from the Latin que de vide, which means "that which divides". The third and most colourful theory purports that the name comes from a Madame named Kitty Vitty who operated a "house of ill repute" in the area. Whatever the origin of the name the place is a must go destination for any visitor to the city of St. John's. Should the visitor be fortunate enough to be in St. John's on the first Wednesday of August he or she could make their way to Quidi Vidi lake to take in North America's oldest continuous sporting event, the annual St. John's Regatta.
Other Colourful Place Names
These are just a few of the many interesting and colourful place names of Newfoundland. Some other noteworthy nomenclatures include: Angel's Cove, Bay Bulls, Bareneed, Butter Cove, Black Duck, Comfort Cove, Cupids, Deadman's Bay, Foxtrap, Gin Cove, Happy Adventure, the heart trinity of Heart's Delight, Heart's Content, and Heart's Desire, Indian Burying Place, Jerry's Nose, Lady Cove, Virgin's Cove, Tickle Cove, Random Island, Push Through, and Plum Point.
Places That Have Changed Their Name
There are also a number of great place names that people have, for one reason or another, elected to change. A few of these are: Hibb's Hole which became Hibb's Cove, Jack of Clubs Cove which is now Aquathuna, Nimrod became Triton, Ragged Harbour changed to Melrose, Maggoty Cove became Inglewood Forest, which has since been absorbed by Clarenville, Crab's is now Crabbes, Bumble Bee Bight became Pilly's Island, Clown's Cove is now Carbonear, Gayside was changed to Baytona, Cock n' Hen Cove is now St. Joseph's, and Damn the Bell Cove is St. Chad's.
The Captain Cook Connection
As previously mentioned these are but a few of the many colourful, interesting, and often amusing place names, both past and present, of Newfoundland communities. Most, if not all, Canadian Provinces, and American States (perhaps everyplace in the world) can boast of an odd place name or two but Newfoundland seems to have far more than its fair share. Many people believe that this is due in part to the explorer Captain James Cook, and his odd sense of humor.
In 1763 Captain Cook was appointed marine surveyor and sent to map the Newfoundland coastline. He had been to Newfoundland before and had surveyed the Carbonear and Harbour Grace areas of Conception Bay, as well as St. John's Harbour, Bay Bulls, and Placentia. Upon his return, after completing the survey of the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, he set about surveying the remaining Newfoundland coastline; spending the years from 1763 to 1767 in this endeavour.
It is believed that it was during this surveying expedition that Cook gave, for his own amusement and presumably that of his crew, Newfoundland some of its stranger and more amusing place names. It will most likely never be know for certain whether or not this story has any validity but it is fun to consider.
© 2016 Stephen Barnes