Origins of 8 of the Strangest Place Names in Canada

iStock / Chris Babcock
iStock / Chris Babcock

Every country has place names that make you scratch your head and say, "What were they thinking?" So I looked up what they may have been thinking when these places in Canada got their names. (One name further down the page is NSFW.) 

1. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The very weird name makes perfect sense if you know the history of the area. That it was named for what happened there long ago is not so unusual, but that they use the English translation instead of the original Blackfoot name (estipah-skikikini-kots) makes it stand out today. For thousands of years, bison hunting in western Canada was done in a very efficient way -by causing herds of buffalo to stampede over a cliff, falling to their death. The meat was fresh and plentiful, and the danger to Blackfoot hunters was minimal compared to other methods. But it was still dangerous. The legend about the name is that a young warrior wanted to witness the kill from below, but when more buffalo came over the cliff than he calculated, he died in the stampede. His fellow hunters found him with his head smashed in. No one is sure how old the story is, but the Blackfoot place name translates to "where we got our heads smashed."

2. Swastika

Swastika, Ontario was named in the first decade of the 20th century, when the swastika symbol meant little to Canadians outside of "good luck." Prospectors named the Swastika Gold Mine in 1907, and another nearby mine was named the Lucky Cross Mine. The town was incorporated in 1908. Then the rise of Hitler caused the word "swastika" to fall out of favor quickly, as it was used as a symbol of his Third Reich. In 1935, the government of Ontario decided the name of Swastika should be changed, just as Berlin, Ontario had changed its name to Kitchener during World War I. The residents of Swastika took offense to the name change, and resisted the new name of Winston. The town removed the Winston sign and replaced it with the original name Swastika, but they added a new sign as well: one that said "To hell with Hitler, we came up with our name first"!  

3. Witless Bay


The Tedster, Flickr // CC BY SA 2.0

Witless Bay, Newfoundland, came by its name honestly, if you believe the legend. It was originally named Whittle's Bay after an early settler named Captain Whittle, but when the captain died, his widow packed up the family and went back to Dorsetshire, England. With no one left named Whittle, the Bay became Whittle-less and then Wit-less. Those who called it this were probably well aware of the joke. 

4. Vulcan


Falashad, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The town of Vulcan, Alberta did not originally have a strange name. It was named in 1915 by a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway after the Roman god of fire (and volcanoes). The town was just a rural stop on the railroad until 1966, when residents were delighted that the most popular character on the new TV show Star Trek called the planet Vulcan his home. Since then, Vulcan has gone all out to live up to the name. The citizens opened a tourist museum, erected a Federation Starship, and play host to the VulCON: Spock Days/Galaxyfest the second week of June every year. This will be the festival's twentieth year. 

5. Blow Me Down

Blow Me Down Provincial Park is on the island of Newfoundland. The legend is that Captain James Cook named the nearby village of Blow Me Down, as he had named several places in Newfoundland. So was the park named after the town? No, it was named after Blow-me-down Mountain. Blow-me-down Mountain was found on maps drawn by Joseph Gilbert, who surveyed the area before Cook. Climbers who have been to the top will tell you there's no mystery in the name, as the winds are pretty high up there. Now the name is attached a range of mountains.

6. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!


John Marino, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The municipality of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec has a name that makes perfect sense -in French. Sort of. The Ha! Ha! is officially traced back to an archaic French term, "The haha," which means an unexpected obstacle or dead end. This would refer to Lake Témiscouata, which came into view suddenly for early French explorers. The citizens of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! are proud to say that it is the only city name in the world that features two exclamation points.

7. Lower Economy


Robber Esq, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The rural area of Lower Economy, Nova Scotia only takes an unfortunate turn when seen through the language of modern finance. The source of the name is the unincorporated Colchester County community of Economy. From this name sprung both Upper Economy and Lower Economy. It's just a map division, and there is no concrete evidence that the economy of either area is better than the other -neither place has an official website. However, the Lower Economy area includes a popular coastal tourist and science stop, Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy. This harbor is the home of the highest tides ever measured worldwide, which you can see in this video.

8. Dildo, Newfoundland


Joanna Poe, Flickr // CC BY SA 2.0

Any list of strange place names in Canada would be incomplete without at least a cursory look at Dildo, Newfoundland. However, the origin of the name is still a riddle. The name was first associated with the area in 1711, and was spelled with an "e" when referring to Dildoe Island in its early days. It may have been someone's name, or it may have been a deliberate joke by early explorers who did not foresee how residents would deal with the connotation hundreds of years later. There have been several campaigns to change the name, but the residents always vote them down. After all, it brings them publicity and tourists!  

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

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15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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