What's in a Name?

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 09, 2022 8:48 AM

In researching for his latest book, Place Names of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dale Jarvis uncovered some interesting back stories on local community names.

In 2011, it was estimated that there were 30,000 official place names listed for Newfoundland and Labrador, with as many as 50,000 other names in the oral tradition that had never been recorded. As a storyteller and folklorist, I’m always drawn to the ones that are interesting or quirky, and we have a lot of those in this province!

When we delve into the history of these place names, some of them clearly relate to local geography. Cape Broyle, on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula, is one of these. Early spellings of Cape Broyle may give some clues as to how it got its name.

The spot appears as both Cape Broile and Cape Brolle in early documents, which are versions of two archaic words. Colonist John Guy, sailing past the spot on November 18, 1612, noted it as “Cape Broile” in his diary. In older forms of English, “broil” can mean to quarrel, or to mix up. We still use the word “embroil” today, meaning to involve someone deeply in a quarrel, and use the distantly related Italian loan word “imbroglio” to mean an extremely confused, complicated or embarrassing situation.

“Brolle” means to shout or roar. While today we think of the modern spelling “brawl” to mean a fight, originally it implied a quarrel or to shout loudly. “Brawling” was also a word associated with the sound of water rushing along; William Wordsworth uses it this way in his poem, “An Evening Walk - Addressed to a Young Lady,” composed circa 1787-90:

 When low-hung clouds each star of summer hide,

And fireless are the valleys far and wide,

Where the brook brawls along the public road

Dark with bat-haunted ashes stretching broad.


In Cape Broyle, it is believed this brawling and broiling refers to a ledge of sunken rock jutting out from the cape, which causes white water to form at the bay’s entrance.

Just up the road is the town of Aquaforte, which also has a water-themed name. Derived from the Portuguese agua forte (“strong water”), Aquaforte must win some kind of award for having the highest number of early variant spellings: Rio de aguea; Agafort; Aga-Forte; Agoforta; Agoforte; Ago forte; Agua Fuerte; Agua Fuerta; Aigueforte; Aquafort; and on a 1544 sketch map by the French navigator Jean Alfonse, la Baye de l’Islet. Alfonse didn’t get the memo, apparently.

The “strong water” name has nothing to do with some sort of potent alcoholic beverage. It is, instead, derived from the appearance of the local Aquaforte River, which “tumbles down in a series of furious and roaring cascades througha wild and rocky gorge.”

Spellings and histories are not always so easy to unravel, and you might be forgiven then for thinking that Flower’s Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula has something to do with springtime blossoms. It doesn’t.

This community was mapped by famous cartographer and explorer Captain James Cook in 1764, though Cook’s spelling was Flour Cove. This may come from the appearance of waves breaking on the area’s many coves, islets and ledges, making the water at times as white as flour.

In the fine tradition of Things Not Being What They Are Called, the Lord in Lord’s Cove on the Burin Peninsula may have nothing to do with The Man Upstairs. In Newfoundland and Labrador, harlequin ducks have a more royal-sounding name. Dr. Grenfell notes this when writing of Labrador birds: “The harlequin, far themost gorgeous of the lot, we call ‘lords and ladies.’” Lords Pond near Bay Bulls is named after the harlequin duck, and it is possible that Lord's Cove has a similar origin.

Bay Bulls, by the way, is also named after a bird, and has nothing to do with beef or cows or outport toreadors. The bulls might be a common winter resident, a small seabird known as the bull-bird, Little Auk, or Common Dovekie (Plautusalle alle).

Just to be contrary, Bird Cove, Great Northern Peninsula, might have nothing to do with birds at all. Historian Olaf Janzen suggests that the name of Bird Island may have had some connection to T.S. Bird, a merchant of Sturminster Newton and Poole, Dorset, who was commercially active in the region in the late 18th century.

There are a lot of towns in the province named after men: merchants, sailors, admirals and governors alike. There are relatively few official town names named after women, though we can boast of a few.

My favourite is Sally’s Cove, Great Northern Peninsula. At some point in the 1800s, Sally Short thought to herself, “enough is enough.” Wanting nothing more to do with her husband, she packed up her children and left, boarding a ship sailing to Woody Point. Along the way, the ship was wrecked in a nameless, unoccupied cove. Sally survived the disaster with her children. Finding no shelter, she gathered up her children and nestled them safely under a puncheon tub for the night. When they were eventually rescued, she left the cove for good, leaving only her name behind.

Others claim the eponymous Sally was Old Aunt Sally Mudge, but I like Puncheon Sally’s moxie, so my money is on her.

Not to be outdone by our heroine Sally, the legendary princess Azenor gave birth to her child while floating in a barrel somewhere in the Atlantic. A pregnant princess, Azenor had been thrown, in her barrel, off the cliffs of Brittany, probably for the early crime of being a Christian. There, bobbing up and down in the waves, she gave birth to a son, Maudez. They drifted in the barrel for five months before washing up on the coast of Ireland. Young Maudez grew up to be one of the most revered saints of Brittany. Stealing a miracle from the better-known St. Patrick, Maudez drove all the snakes off Ile Modez, an island just off the coast of France. Breton sailors, perhaps inspired by his nautical birth, gave his name to a favourite fishing spot on the Labrador Straits, which today we call West St. Modeste.


Do you know a local legend explaining your favourite Newfoundland and Labrador place name? Send it my way! dale@dalejarvis.ca