Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

From Dildo to Witless Bay: Where did N.L. get its unusual place names?

The first Europeans who arrived on our shores to fish and trap often took inspiration from the environment when assigning names to their new surroundings, writes Ainsley Hawthorn.

Joe Batt's Arm? Jerrys Nose? Where the heck did these names come from?

The new sign in Dildo, a gift from late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel, was unveiled on a hill above the community during a recent segment of Jimmy Kimmel Live. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

The international media attention that's been paid to the community of Dildo over the past few weeks has highlighted one of Newfoundland and Labrador's most appealing features: our colourful place names.

But where did offbeat names like Dildo come from?

Over the years, both part-time historians like Newfoundland Judge D.W. Prowse and archbishop of St. John's M.F. Howley, and full-time academics like E.R. Seary and William B. Hamilton have tried to answer that question.

In 2013, Byron A. Brooks — who, as it happens, is a resident of the infamous Dildo — compiled this research into a handbook called More Than Just a Name: A Traveller's Guide to the Origin of Place Names in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Despite its unusual name, archeological records show Dildo was home to four Indigenous groups, including the Beothuks. The community was also home to the world's first codfish hatchery, which opened back in 1889. (Submitted by Tara Wiseman Jarrett)

The first Europeans who arrived on our shores to fish and trap often took inspiration from the environment when assigning names to their new surroundings.

Landmarks, for instance, were a common source of place names. What started out as a description of a location became, over time, its proper name.

Some names instantly evoke an image of the local landscape, like River of Ponds, Steady Brook, and Square Islands.

Occasionally, the relationship between the name and the terrain is less obvious.

River of Ponds derives its name from the river that flows from a number of ponds in the area. (Submitted by Billie-Jo House)

Fleur-de-Lys takes its name from a hill overlooking the town whose three distinct peaks reminded early French fishermen of their national emblem, while La Scie, French for "the saw," describes the jagged hills that surround its harbour and resemble a serrated saw blade.

Some of the province's most extraordinary place names have equally fascinating origin stories.

Cow Head and Bell Island are both named after memorably shaped local rocks.

Red Head Cove wasn't inhabited by redheads; it's actually the legacy of a reddish headland located nearby.

A fiery sunset in La Scie, on the Baie Verte Peninsula. (Submitted by Madge Toms)

From birds to mosquitos

Local wildlife provided other naming opportunities.

Noddy Bay, on the Northern Peninsula, is named for the Atlantic fulmer, a seabird that residents call a "noddy" because it seems to nod its head while in flight. Similarly, Bay Bulls is named not after cattle but after the common dovekie, known in the area as a "bull-bird."

According to local legend, Nipper's Harbour on the Baie Verte Peninsula owes its name to a less pleasant flying animal, the mosquito, and to the swarms of the bloodsucking pest that infest the inlet every summer.

Fishing stages in Joe Batt's Arm, Fogo Island. (Submitted by Kathleen Andrews)

Permanent settlements were frequently named in honour of their founders. Tradition has it that Joe Batt's Arm was named for the area's first European settler, who may have been a deserter from Captain Cook's crew. A small hamlet grew up on the "arm," or inlet, where Batt made his home.

Likewise, Jerrys Nose is probably derived from the family name Jesso, which is common in the community, while the "nose" in question is a narrow point of grassland that juts out into the cove.

At one time, 'dildo' was a term for the oar pegs in a dory.

Herring Neck, like Joe Batt's Arm and Jerrys Nose, calls up an amusing (and improbable) mental image, but the "neck" here is also a reference to the landscape. Since treacherous waters made it dangerous to take a small boat laden with fish all the way into the inlet, settlers loaded their fresh catches of herring into carts and wheeled them across a narrow neck of land to town.

Some of the province's most extraordinary place names have equally fascinating origin stories. Take Witless Bay.

Supposedly, the bay's first inhabitants were a Captain Whittle of Dorsetshire and his family, and the outport was named Whittle's Bay in their honour.

Witless Bay, located on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, is home to many whales and an ecological reserve. (Submitted by Lulu Hamman Du Toit)

After the captain's death, however, his family returned to England, and residents of the community — tongues firmly in cheek, no doubt — took to calling it Whittle-Less Bay, which evolved into Witless Bay.

Then there's Happy Adventure.

Local folklore has it that the crew of a schooner that was being chased by a pirate ship sailed into this little cove, where they were able to hide from their pursuers. This is the "happy adventure" that's commemorated in the name.

Finally, we have Nameless Cove. This small town was at first called Flowers Cove.

When representatives of Newfoundland's Nomenclature Board visited in the early 20th century to officially record the community's name, though, residents were surprised to discover that the townsfolk of French Island Harbour, a mile away, had stolen it, telling the board Flowers Cove was the name of their town. With no alternative, the original Flowers Cove registered as Nameless Cove.

Nameless Cove is a community on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula. (Google Maps)

Leave something to the imagination

And what of the celebrated Dildo?

Historians have made a few educated guesses as to the origin of this suggestive name. At one time, "dildo" was a term for the oar pegs in a dory, the pivot points where the oars rest while rowing. There was also a type of short sword called a "dildo." The town could have been named after one of these objects.

Other researchers have guessed that the word might be a mispronunciation of "doldrums," referring to calm seas, or of the French name for nearby Dildo Island: De l'île de l'eau, pronounced "deh leel deh loh."

We may never know for sure, but in the end, perhaps it's better to leave some things to the imagination.

Happy Adventure, surely one of the loveliest place names in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Bill Perks)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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