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!  

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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