You Name It, We’ve Got It

May 1, 2004 by Steve Pitt

Stare long enough at any map of Canada and strange things start to emerge. And I’m not talking about odd-shaped lakes or peninsulas. I’m referring to place names. For tucked among the dull and ordinary are hundreds of names for populated places and physical features that if strung together on a tourist map would make for one unforgettable road trip.I can only mention some of them, but imagine starting out from the prone position in Blow Me Down, Nfld., and finishing on a high note overlooking Grub Gulch, B.C. Along the way you may have stopped and chatted with the locals in or near such places as Malignant Cove, N.S., Dark Tickle, N.B., St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, Que., Swastika, Ont., Flin Flon, Man., Climax, Sask., and, of course, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alta.

While completing your circuitous journey through Newfoundland, you might wonder whether there was once a connection between Jerrys Nose and Joe Batt’s Arm. If there is a connection, it’s a long one because the former is located on the island’s west side near Stephenville while the latter is on Fogo Island in the Labrador Sea. Still, it’s nice to think there’s a connection.

Newfoundland is the best place to start your road trip because when it comes to variety and sheer volume of quirky place names, Canada’s youngest province is the clear winner. And it owes a lot of its success in this regard to the explorers and settlers who began arriving in “newe founde launde” in the late 1500s. Although it should also be noted that 10th century Viking explorers from Iceland and Greenland saw Labrador and settled briefly in the northern part of the island of Newfoundland.

The province is awash in “arms,” “heads,” “hahas” and “tickles.” An arm, for example, is a small bay or inlet off a main body of water. Arms were often named after local residents which is how communities with names like Joe Batt’s Arm, Robert’s Arm, Luke’s Arm, Snook’s Arm and Toogood Arm were created.

Looking shoreward from the sea, a large piece of land rising up on the shore looked like a head. The entire maritime coast is full of “heads,” including Newfoundland’s Cow Head and Red Head Cove. Horsechops, Nfld., was named because someone thought the headland resembled a horse’s head.

To a mariner, a tickle is a narrow, dangerous body of salt water where the current can often change direction without warning and unseen water hazards lurk just below the surface. To this day, people refer to a dangerous predicament as a ticklish situation. Newfoundland has more than 200 ticklish spots, while New Brunswick has at least seven, including Dark Tickle, Tickle Beach and Timble Tickle.

If you get through the tickle, you might encounter a haha. Newfoundland has more than a few hahas, including Ha Ha Bay, Ha Ha Mountain and The Ha Ha. The most famous haha though is in Quebec. The town of St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! has coined not a few colourful legends as to how it got its name. Some enterprising town boosters claim that haha is the exclamation of joy tourists make when they first see their beautiful little town. Others claim it was a noise made by disgruntled voyageurs when they discovered they had paddled all the way down the river to this point only to be confronted by an unexpected portage. In actual fact, the word haha is also an antiquated Anglo/French term to describe a place that appears to lead somewhere, but does not. No one quite knows why some haha locations in Quebec have exclamations points in their names. The best guess is that an unknown clerk added them and they stuck.

Before travelling too far from the Rock, you may want to take a gander at a few other odd, but wonderful place names. Witless Bay appears to be a victim of clerical error. In the late 1600s, the same location was listed on maps as Whittles and Whitely’s Bay. Over the centuries, the other names died out and so Witless seems to have won by default.

In 2001, a tiny town in Newfoundland was named one of the top 10 most beautiful communities in Canada by Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine. The town’s name, however, has caused many an awkward pause in polite conversation and even rated some sophomoric comments by late-night television talk show host Jay Leno. That town, of course, is called Dildo, a name that has been associated with the area for centuries.

No one can say with any firmness when and why Dildo acquired its name, but there are plenty of theories to choose from. Some say Dildo was named after a Spanish sailor of the same name who sailed the waters of the area. Others claim Dildo Bay was named after a ship’s part, a long metal cylinder. Still, others assert that Dildo, Nfld., is named for a certain species of cactus, the Dildo-Pear Tree, found only in the Caribbean. Still others hold to the theory that Dildo was named after an archaic term for a song’s chorus. The word is used that way by Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Scene 4: “…with such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings.”

This enchanting vision—of the voices of singing sailors rolling over a remote bay—has a near irresistible charm. Unfortunately, the last inescapable definition for Dildo is that of a phallus. This meaning has been in English usage since at least the 17th century. For example, in 1673, the infamous Earl of Rochester wrote a bawdy ballad called Signor Dildo. And believe me, the text for it could make most Rap singers blush.

Dildonians have long put up with snickers and comments from outsiders. In the 1980s there was even a half-hearted proposal by some residents to change the community’s name. Fortunately, tradition and good old-fashion Newfoundland tenacity won out.

Todd Warren is glad. He runs The Inn On The Bay, a century-old hotel in Dildo. His family has lived in the area for several generations and he says he does not mind the controversy one bit. “It is great for business. People are intrigued by our name and so they look us up. When they find out what a beautiful place Dildo is, they come here to visit.”

Tourism in the town has picked up so much that every first week of August, Dildo celebrates its own uniqueness with a festival called Dildo Days. “People come here to sightsee,” adds Warren. “They buy T-shirts and mail postcards to their friends stamped with the Dildo postmark.”

All this is very nice, but which Dildo theory does Warren believe in? “After hundreds of years, it doesn’t really matter.”

Travelling through Nova Scotia, you may want to snap photos of a beautiful little bay that has borne the dubious name of Malignant Cove. It gets its name from a British warship that ran aground and sank in the cove in 1774. While in P.E.I., you may pass Seacow Head near Summerside or visit Alaska along the Percival River.

Far away from Seacow Head, Malignant Cove and Dildo are examples of towns that have certainly felt the pressure to change their names. Kitchener, Ont., was once known as Berlin, but the residents voted for a name change when all things German became unpopular during World War I. But in other communities, residents have clung to traditional place names, even if the name can be awkward.

In 1906, entrepreneur Bill Dusty established mining operations in northern Ontario, near Kirkland Lake. He named his company the Swastika Mining Company after he saw a swastika charm on a woman’s necklace. For thousands of years the swastika had been an Indo-European symbol for good luck and by the early 20th century it appeared everywhere across North America and Europe. Many of Rudyard Kipling’s books bore swastikas on their spine. In the 1930s, Newfoundland issued postage stamps with swastikas. The village that grew up around the Swastika Mine took on the same name. Businesses proudly displayed the “crooked cross” on their buildings and even the sweaters of their local hockey team.

But as the storms of war began to gather over Europe in the late 1930s, anti-German and anti-swastika sentiments ran high. In 1939, a local person named Charles Smythe asked the village council to abandon this “diabolical symbol.” His request was politely refused. In 1940, after Hitler’s armies had smashed their way across Europe, the Ontario government decided to change Swastika’s name to Winston without consulting the locals.

The village post office was ordered to list itself as Winston, not Swastika and a few road signs went up. What the government had not counted on was the deep pride Swastika residents took in their name.

Carolyn O’Neil is a lifelong resident of Swastika and a historian. She says The Swastika Women’s Institute told government officials “Our husbands and sons are overseas fighting for Canada. Swastika was here when they left and it will be here where they get back.”

Residents pointed out that they had adopted the crooked cross long before the Nazis had even heard of it and besides, their swastika faced the opposite direction to Hitler’s. The few Winston road signs that were erected were removed by the feisty Swastika residents, and a few posted their own signs saying, “To hell with Hitler. We had the swastika first.”

Although the name Swastika survived, the symbol has disappeared from public buildings to avoid offending visitors. “Even though, I’ve been to Ottawa and have seen it on public buildings there,” O’Neil notes with irony.

Further west—on the Manitoba–Saskatchewan border—is arguably the most literary community in Canada. True, the post office in Cavendish, P.E.I., was designated Green Gables to honour the works of Lucy Maud Montgomery and the village of Shakespeare, Ont., was named after the Bard himself, but the city of Flin Flon, Man., is the only place in the world named after a science fiction hero.

Flin Flon is short for Professor Josiah Flinabbatey Flonatin, a fictional character created by J.E. Preston Muddock, a prolific writer of Victorian/Edwardian pulp fiction who published more than 50 horror, adventure and science fiction books.

One of his biggest fans was Tom Creighton, a Canadian gold prospector. On one of his many prospecting expeditions through northwestern Manitoba, Creighton came across a discarded copy of Muddock’s book, The Sunless City. The hero of the book was Professor Flinabbatey Flonatin, a gentleman explorer who built a homemade submarine and explored a bottomless lake in the Rocky Mountains. There, Flonatin discovered some gold and a submerged city run by Amazon women.

Despite the fact that the last dozen or so pages of the book were missing, Creighton was quite taken with Flinabbatey’s adventure. When he and a few hunting buddies discovered gold during a 1915 hunting trip, he suggested they name the discovery Flin Flon. His companions raised no objections and eventually a city of more than 7,000 people called themselves Flin Floners.

When American cartoonist Al Capp, of Lil’ Abner fame, heard how Flin Flon got its name, he offered to draw a likeness of Professor J.F. Flonatin. In 1962, an eight-metre high statue based on that drawing was erected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of permanent borders for Manitoba.

While driving through Saskatchewan, you might want to include stops in Love, located east of Prince Albert, or Climax, located about 75 kilometres southwest of Swift Current. If you don’t remember to stop, you might want to visit Forget, which is situated approximately 70 kilometres east of Weyburn.

Climax owes its name to a homesteader named Annie Fuglestad who arrived in the area from Climax, Minnesota, in the early 1900s. Located on the rolling prairie countryside, Climax is known for its fantastic sunsets. Today, the farming community’s population is just over 200. The village’s Web site says “local residents are community oriented and friendly…always ready to extend a welcome to visitors, tourists and newcomers.” Oh, and by the way, as you’re leaving the village you may notice the sign that reads, “Thank you. Please come again.”

Alberta, meanwhile, is home to a World Heritage Site known as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. To shed light on the origins of that name I visited the Natural Resources Canada Web site at gen_e.php. The site describes a buffalo jump as a “vertical side of a coulee, hill or river bank” or a place where Plains Indians killed herds of bison by driving them over steep cliffs. The interpretative centre for the historic site is about a 30-minute drive northwest of the town of Brocket in southwestern Alberta.

The same Web site also offers an explanation for other curious generic terms which have found their way into place names. Blow Me Down, Nfld., and Bay of Islands Blow-Me-Down, Nfld., are good examples. The generic term blow me down refers to an abrupt or isolated hill or headland rising steeply from the water and subject to sudden down-drafts of wind. Related terms are hill, bluff, cliff, head and cape.

While continuing on your westward journey, you may want to take note that in 1858, naturalist/geologist Dr. James Hector paused to refresh himself by a stream in an unnamed pass in the Rocky Mountains when he was knocked out cold by a kick from a rambunctious horse. Since then, the 80-kilometre long pass extending from Lake Louise, Alta., to Golden, B.C., has been known as Kicking Horse Pass. This one is easy to get to because it is located along the Trans-Canada Highway.

British Columbia is home to many interesting place names, but if you decide to finish your cross-Canada trek at Grub Gulch you may be interested to know that the word gulch is a generic term that has different meanings. It can be a deep, steeply graded, V-shaped valley, which sometimes contains a stream or it can be also be smaller than a ravine, but larger than a gully. Other examples are Gold Bottom Gulch in the Yukon, Bears Paw Gulch, Man., and Arch Gulch, N.S.

Happy touring.

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