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David Clarke: What’s in a name?

Fogo Island Inn is organizing a community quilt hang out on May 5.
file photo

Newfoundland and Labrador is renowned for its unique and varied nomenclature. From Aquaforte on the Southern Shore – perhaps named for a type of liquor – to the resettled community of Zoar, Labrador, we rightly celebrate our ancestors’ creativity in naming their beloved homes. In this respect, central Newfoundland is no different than any other area of the province.

In my book, “A History of the Isles”, I touched on the toponym (place name) origins of a number of communities in the area I call The Isles. Located in central Notre Dame Bay, and for a number of years forming a Provincial Electoral District, The Isles includes well-known communities such as Twillingate, Fogo, Moreton’s Harbour, Change Islands, Tilting and Herring Neck. In discussing these communities’ early years, I took a brief look at the origins of their names, and it might be interesting to discuss a few of them here.

Some of our province’s singular toponyms reflect the long years of involvement in the migratory cod fishery by nations like France, Portugal, and Spain. The French are believed to have visited Notre Dame Bay as early as the sixteenth century, though the Bay has few place names of French origin. One notable exception is Notre Dame Bay itself – “Bay of Our Lady,” to those early Breton fishers.

Likewise, one of the best-known toponyms in the area is Twillingate. Settled by the English in the 1730s, if not earlier, Newfoundland’s onetime Capital of the North, was previously the home base for a French fishery.

Like many of the province’s community names, Twillingate’s roots are a little obscure. While it is known to have derived from the word, Toulinguet, the exact origin of the term is debated.

In the early 1900s Archbishop Michael Howley conducted extensive research into Newfoundland’s place names, and gave his own explanation as to where Twillingate derived. He discounted an old theory that the term meant “all tongued,” in reference to many points of land sticking out into its harbour.

Instead, Howley proposed that Toulinguet was a well-known Breton, or Basque, surname.

According to legend, Joseph Batt deserted Cook’s ship in the 1760s while the famed navigator was mapping parts of Newfoundland. As the story goes, Batt later settled on Fogo Island before going on to become a trapper at Gander Bay. Another candidate to be the Joe Batt may be one Joseph Batt of Bonavista, punished there in 1754 for stealing a pair of shoes.

A third possibility is that the island community was christened based on its seaward resemblance to an island group off the coast of Brittany. Named Toulinguet, the area was once home to a fort of the same name.

Another long-settled community in the area – also visited by the French – is Herring Neck, on New World Island, just south of Twillingate. English settlement began there as early as the 1760s, and by the late-1800s Herring Neck was a service centre with a population of about 1,000.

The communities which make up Herring Neck have changed over the years, and in the nineteenth century the modern town of Herring Neck was called “Goshen’s Arm,” with Herring Neck then referring to today’s Pike’s Arm and Green Cove.

The toponym had very pragmatic origins, based on the fisheries which sustained all Newfoundland outports. As unique as it sounds today, Herring Neck was simply a descriptor, referring to the fishers’ practice of carrying their heavy loads of herring over a narrow neck of land in Pike’s Arm. It is believed that this allowed these fishers to avoid the arm’s treacherous headwaters.

If time and space permitted, I could go on. Tilting, Durrell, Moreton’s Harbour, Change Islands, etc., all have interesting, mysterious, and unique stories behind their toponyms, something we Newfoundlanders should always bear in mind when we hear the question, what’s in a name?

Another of the Isles’ unique and charming names, and one of the most well-known in all the province, is Joe Batt’s Arm, on Fogo Island. Even in the 1800s, “Jobets,” as it was often pronounced, was the subject of good-natured jests, with the British humour magazine Punch printing an ad reading, “Wanted: a Nurse for Joe Batt’s Arm.”

Despite its fame, the name’s origin is as mysterious as Twillingate’s. Howley could find no good explanation for the toponym, though it may originate with a crewman serving with explorer James Cook.

According to legend, Joseph Batt deserted Cook’s ship in the 1760s while the famed navigator was mapping parts of Newfoundland. As the story goes, Batt later settled on Fogo Island before going on to become a trapper at Gander Bay. Another candidate to be the Joe Batt may be one Joseph Batt of Bonavista, punished there in 1754 for stealing a pair of shoes.

This element of mystery is common to many Isles towns, including Fogo Island and its namesake community. The Portuguese term y del fuego, or “island of fire,” became associated with the locale sometime after 1500. Later corrupted to “Fogo,” the name may derive from a settlement in the Cape Verde Islands, or to major forest fires recorded on Fogo Island as late as 1896. Other theories give the campfires of Indigenous peoples observed by the early explorers, or even the dense fogs that beset the area, as the source of the name. Perhaps the most interesting, if least appealing, idea is that Fogo may have the same root as “funk,” referring to the foul odour from the droppings of the thousands of seabirds which called Fogo Island home.

If time and space permitted, I could go on. Tilting, Durrell, Moreton’s Harbour, Change Islands, etc., all have interesting, mysterious, and unique stories behind their toponyms, something we Newfoundlanders should always bear in mind when we hear the question, what’s in a name?

David J. Clarke is a graduate of Memorial University's Doctoral program in history, and he is the author of eight books focusing on central Newfoundland. He can be reached at baymandave16@gmail.com

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