What's in a name? In Newfoundland, maybe not what it seems

January 06, 1994|By Boston Globe

CUPIDS, Newfoundland -- It was barrel-makers, not the cherubic shooter of love's barbed arrow, that gave this Conception Bay settlement its name. The doughty Englishmen who first waded ashore in 1610, or those soon to follow, included coopers -- makers of wooden casks to contain rum and salt cod.

And so the place came to be called Coopers.

But Newfoundlanders' pronunciation of the mother language always has been as rough and rugged as the wind-scoured, sea-battered island they inhabit. And Newfies haven't traditionally reverenced precise spelling. So Coopers became Cupids.

That, at least, is the best guess of historians.

"In fact, the origin of many Newfoundland place names has been lost to time," said Philip Hiscock, archivist of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's.

Probably no other place in North America can match the sheer number of colorful, peculiar and occasionally downright obscene place names as those boasted by this isolated North Atlantic province, the first part of the New World to be settled by Europeans. Little Seldom. Blow Me Down. Quidi Vidi. Joe Batt's Arm. Goobies. Old Perlican. Cuckhold Cove. Butter Pot. Cape Mutton. Witless Bay. Rantem. St. Jones Without. Plus a fistful of localities whose official tags might be printed on the provincial map but would never pass in a family newspaper.

"Coarse-tongued sailors named coves, bays and landings in a way that they would be sure to remember," Mr. Hiscock said. "Some places are corruptions of older Portuguese, French and Basque names. Many are derived from nautical terms and slang. Some may look weird but really are just taken from the names of the first settlers."

For instance, while denizens of Maggoty Cove might insist the name reflects the vermin spawned in mounds of fish wastes discarded on the beach in a less environmentally conscious era, the more likely explanation is that the founding clan bore the then not-uncommon English name of Maggot.

Along Trinity Bay, a string of pretty fishing towns and hamlets wear their hearts on the signs announcing municipal limits. Welcome to: Heart's Desire, Heart's Content, Heart's Delight, Little Heart's Ease.

"It is thought there was a ship named 'The Heart's Desire' shipwrecked off the coast here," offered Joanne Lahey, an elderly lifelong resident of Heart's Desire.

Said Mr. Hiscock: "No one has nailed down the exact historic origins, but all the 'Heart' communities carry names commonly carried by 16th-century ships."

Historians maintain that Witless Bay is merely the misspelling of the family name Whittles. But Ned Sullivan, a fisherman, doesn't buy it: "The bay is exposed to southeast gales and the people who took anchorage here had to be completely witless."

Then there is St. Shotts, carried by no church's canon of saints.

"Newfoundland's apocryphal saint," wrote the late historian E. R. Seary in "Place Names of the Avalon Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland," is almost surely the creation of a sloppy cartographer who used the abbreviation "St" to denote "South." Shotts may be the name of the family that first fished off the southern tip of nearby Cape Freels.

The little outport of Rantem was not named at random. It seems that early colonists were given to "rants," or bouts of boisterous intoxication, and were also infamous for "lunatic, randy" behavior, according to Mr. Seary. Today's residents are reputed to be models of decorum.

Across the cove from Cupids lies Bareneed. Possibly because inhabitants were once so impoverished that they could only meet their barest needs. Or perhaps first-comers splashed ashore with their trousers rolled up -- bare-kneed.

Turk's Gut and Turk's Cove doubtless pay remembrance to the Barbary pirates who savaged coastal villages in the 16th century.

And Quidi Vidi, whose narrow harbor runs between towering escarpments may, as some residents insist, be abbreviated Latin for "here the land is divided." Or may, as others maintain, be derived from a founding mother named Kathy Witty -- Kitty Witty, Quidi Vidi.

"A better explanation is that it is a corruption of the name of the original French family, Quedville," Mr. Hiscock said.

Indeed, French has never rested easily on the English tongue. So, the old settlement of Rencontre, or "Meeting Place," is now rendered "Round Country," while Bay D'Espoir -- Bay of the Spirit, signifying hope -- is pronounced Bay Despair.

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