what’s in a name?

I’m thinking about place names today, inspired, no doubt by some recent posts on the unique names in Newfoundland and Labrador … and so I’m wondering about the stories names tell, and those that we tell about ourselves when we call such places home.

As a child, I grew up along the banks of the North Saskatchewan, in a sleepy town called, perhaps fittingly, Fort Saskatchewan. When I was there, it was a town of 12,000 inhabitants (give or take a few depending on the local prison population), just far enough from Edmonton to make it seem remote and isolated (or at least, that’s what I thought as a teenager).

Fort Saskatchewan was small, but mighty, or so the town fathers would have us believe. In 1974, just a few years before we moved to town, Peter Ream published the second edition of his work, The Fort on the Saskatchewan, a hefty tome laying out the town’s origins, history and people. I remember seeing the volume on sale in town and on friends’ bookcases. Later, I began to see it at garage sales, (the fate of many, many books!). I pestered my parents to buy it, but they never did, and now, as I think back, I wonder how many bought the story but never read it.

The thing is, Peter Ream was influential in shaping the town’s history and its understanding of itself as a historical place; as a small town that nevertheless had an important story to tell. And he helped shape the narrative of the Fort on the Saskatchewan.

The town’s history is reflected in its name – it was established in 1875 as a North West Mounted Police post. And in that name, then, you can hear whispers of other ideas and ideals: settlement, expansion, nation building . And with them, law and order and civilization. Fort Saskatchewan arrived before Fort Edmonton (one of our few claims to fame), paving the way for the orderly settlement, claiming and civilizing of the wild west.

Newfoundland towns and villages, too, have their stories to tell. Before we moved here, a colleague who had married into a Newfoundland family went on at length about Goobies, a place that everyone driving onto the Avalon Peninsula passes through. And then, there are towns like Come-By-Chance and, of course, who could possibly forget Dildo? Driving along the coast of Trinity Bay, you’ll encounter this lovely quartet of villages: Cupids, Heart’s Content, Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight. Each of these town names has a story, a history, and these stories and histories shape, too, the way that their residents imagine themselves and their communities.

How would you imagine yourself if you were from Goobies rather than Fort Saskatchewan? Heart’s Desire rather than Edmonton? What changes? How does it change?

My personal favourites on this island that I call home? Joe Batt’s Arm (which, I realize, has to do with land formations, but which always makes me want to look for a leg) on Fogo Island is a clear contender. But my personal favourite is smaller still. Also on Fogo is the town of Seldom, and its baby sibling, Little Seldom. That’s what’s what’s on the map, anyway. It’s when you drive into Seldom that you see its full name: Seldom Come By. I wonder who named that place, and I wonder what they were thinking. I wonder what it means to live in Seldom today and if the residents think about the name and its history, or if these stories have just seeped into their pores…. And then I think to myself, who wouldn’t want to live in a place called Seldom Come By?

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