Place Names of Atlantic Canada

by William B. Hamilton,
456 pages,
ISBN: 0802004717

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An East Coast Wealth
by Fraser Sutherland

Place names carry a lot of freight. They tell us something about what we did, who we are, even what we would like to be. They stake our claims on the land, exorcise historical ghosts, and erect hopeful signposts to the future. As the first point of European contact in what is now Canada, the Atlantic Provinces possess our richest trove of toponyms, and William B. Hamilton's new book is an indispensable guide to them. The compiler of the long-standard Macmillan Book of Canadian Place Names and the former chairman of the bureaucratically sonorous Toponymic Research Committee of the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names, Hamilton is an admirable guide to particulars.

That being said, there are a few errors here, less of fact than of conception. As a social scientist, Hamilton opens what he calls "windows" to history and culture. The missing element, though, is language. Place names pertain not just to places but to names, and Hamilton reminds us of the unfortunate gap between lexicography, the compiling of dictionaries, and onomastics, the study of names and naming. With a few exceptions-Webster's New World Dictionary gives the origin of U.S. place names-dictionaries seldom extend their etymologies to toponyms. That's not Hamilton's fault, but he might have borrowed features that dictionaries do have. Pronunciations, for example, would have been welcome, if only to keep outsiders from their annoying habit of mispronouncing Antigonish as "An-TIG-on-ish" instead of "ANT- ig-on-ish", and Pictou as "Pic-TOO" instead of "Pict-O".

As a dictionary does, Hamilton's place names should have been fully alphabetized rather than alphabetically arranged by provinces, thus forcing users to jump across provincial boundaries when they look up entries. As a supplement to the text, like Hamilton's useful maps and bibliographic essay, provincial divisions could been handled in an appended tabular list. The awkward structure also makes it harder for Hamilton to do simplified and systematic justice to generic terms like "anse", "barachois", and "blow-me-down", now treated as cross-references, or incidentally included in entries like Anse-Bleu, New Brunswick, or in Newfoundland, Barachois and Blow Me Down.

The social scientist's bias is evident in the abundant quantities of local history and biography, much of which could have been condensed. Omitting to mention the notorious prison in Dorchester, New Brunswick is a rare oversight-in the Maritimes "to spend time in Dorchester" does not imply a pleasure jaunt. Hamilton chooses his entries by the criteria of size, historical importance, and the more nebulous "human interest"-the last necessarily a judgement call. Besides the expected communities, hills, rivers, lakes, harbours, bays, and waterfalls, Hamilton's range commendably includes counties, national and provincial parks (and Prince Edward Island's Green Gables and Fixed Link), as well as undersea features like Banquereau Bank and Georges Bank. He also might have separately entered such political units as provincial and federal constituencies, like Nova Scotia's familial Cape Breton-The Sydneys, or Newfoundland's pregnant Bonavista-Trinity-Conception.

At first lured by the rich fisheries, then in the course of settlement, the French, Spanish, Basque, Portuguese, English, Irish, Scots, and New Englanders all marked Atlantic Provinces places as compulsively as dogs, but with more permanence. As in the United States-where they are a repetitious bane-toponyms deriving from saints, royalty, colonial officers, political notables, and overseas communities tend to be tedious, though bilingual hybrids, like New Brunswick's St. François-de-Kent, can be diverting. Newfoundland's place names fortunately set a high-water mark for pithiness (Come by Chance, Funk Island, Hearts Content, Jigger Tickle, Joe Batts Arm, Witless Bay, the wonderfully literal Newfoundland Dog Pond, and the immortal Dildo).

If such place names appeal to the mind, musical glory stems from the Mi'kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Mailseet. Just listing names of indigenous origin makes for a found poem: in Prince Edward Island Miscouche, in Nova Scotia Chebucto, Chedabucto, Chezzetcook, Malagash, Shubenacadie, Necum Teuch, and Ecum Secum, in New Brunswick Petitcodiac, Miramichi, Shediac, Richibucto, Restigouche, Shemogue, and Shepody.

The folkloric is another alluring point, and Hamilton takes due note of relevant popular songs like "The Killegrews Soiree" and "Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Marys" in Newfoundland, to which could be added Cape Breton's "Song of the Mira" ("Can you imagine a piece of the universe more fit for princes and kings?"). If such places give rise to extravagant praise, Bobacek, New Brunswick, has engendered a folk curse, "Woe unto you ye Bocacecers!", supposed to derive from a minister's diatribe against the non- attendance of family members at a funeral, but to my bad ear a corruption of "Woe unto you ye Woodpeckers!"

Politicians and bureaucrats generally can be counted on to act with deplorable shortsightedness when it comes to naming or renaming, as in Joey Smallwood's idiotic renaming of Hamilton River and its great falls in Labrador as a tribute to the recently departed Winston Churchill, thus duplicating the name of an important river in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It's more reassuring to turn to ambiguous toponyms that reflect the long complex course of history. If life becomes oppressive in Nova Scotia's Malignant Cove, named for the shipwreck of HMS Malignant in 1774, one can move to the neighbouring county's Garden of Eden, or to the more modest Marshy Hope. As Hamilton tells it, Marshy Hope's first settler frequently was advised "to leave that marshy place." The optimistic pioneer always rejoined, "I hope t'will improve." In Prince Edward Island, Skinners Pond, south of Nail Pond and also the boyhood home of Stompin' Tom Connors ("Bud the Spud from the Bright Red Mud"), may have been named for a shipwrecked Captain Skinner, or could be a corrupted translation of an early Acadian name, Étang des Peaux, "Skin Pond". The Nail in Nail Pond has nothing do with skin, but may be a corrupted version of "Neal", an early settler.

The origin of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, is another story. Pugwash derives from the Mi'kmaq Pagweak, "shallow water or shoal", unconnected with a sanitary service for large pugilists. There may be an association, though. This town on the Northumberland Strait was from 1957 the scene of the Pugwash Thinkers' Conference, sponsored by Cyrus Eaton, a local boy made good in Cleveland, Ohio, and dedicated to finding ways of thawing the Cold War. The conferences gave rise to the Pugwash Movement, which, with the physicist Joseph Rotblat, was the winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for its long campaign against nuclear weapons. All of which may show that big fish can breed in shallow waters.

But the most fascinating puzzle of a name's origin concerns Kejimkujik, applied to a national park and lake in central western Nova Scotia. Hamilton hedges and mildly bowdlerizes his bets by saying that Kejimkujik may derive from a Mi'kmaq word for "trying to escape", or to "swelled private parts" caused by the exertion required to paddle across the lake. While editing a Canadian dictionary I mulled over this Kejimkujikan testicular conundrum, wondering if there were at root any contradiction in the rival meanings. Finally, I tapped a Mi'kmaq informant. The last word on the subject may be left to her. "Kejimkujik," she told me, "is a real ball-buster." l

In Nova Scotia, Fraser Sutherland was born in Pictou, went to school in Heathbell, Cross Roads, and Lyons Brook, got his mail delivered to Scotsburn, and lived in Heathbell, Hardwood Hill, New Glasgow, Eureka, and Halifax.


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