Wanderings – What’s in a name?

Having been given the name “Phillip” you can imagine that all sorts of colourful nicknames were bandied about by kids at school growing up. Every uncreative play on the name “Phil” was over used by the time I hit Grade 5.

I find names and nicknames interesting, not so much for the name itself, but how it was derived – the origin story. Names like “Ducky,” “Moose,” “Rowdy” and “Goose” all have stories that led to those nicknames being given. Some nicknames are earned: Others choose to live up to their nickname.

However nicknames aren’t always meant to be endearing or polite. Calling an overweight person “Slim” or a tall person “Tiny” are two examples had. Don’t get me started on the nickname “big guy.”

The origins of place names also interest me. In Eastern Ontario, there are a lot of places named after people. During the colonial times, when a new family moved to an area, a new village was named after them. It’s an easy naming formula when you think of it.

Take the last name of the prominent family/landlord/military guy, add “ville” or “burg” on the end and you have a place name. If the family was Scottish, “Glen” was placed in front of the name instead. Add a “more” on to the end if you were Irish. In some instances, place names were copied from landmarks in the old country. If locals were being really creative, descriptive location names were used. Salmon River – because the river had salmon in it; or Long Lake – because the lake was long; or “The Sixth” because it was the sixth concession.

Pioneers and colonists were not new-age thinkers and many had more important issues to worry about than what to name the patch of land they’d taken.

Names have been in the news a lot the last five years. Places named after past prominent figures have been renamed because that person had a past that was less than sanitary. Canadian historical figures like Sir John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson spring to mind. Many colonial names bear the baggage of having a mixed legacy. I live in a county where it is unclear if its namesake may, or may not, have helped delay the end of slavery in the British Empire. TBD

Some places and institutions have been, or are being, renamed to clean up the colonial attitudes. That isn’t a bad thing. Others have opted to re-identify where the namesake comes from. Russell County is one example where politicians decided not to have a name identified with a slave owner, but instead be named for all the Russells in its history, excluding the original Russell of course.

Recently one school board voted to change its naming policy. It will no longer name schools for people in case 25 years from now, the namesake is no longer in good standing. There are no plans to rename existing schools.

A bridge project across the Cataraqui River in Kingston adopted an Ojibwe name for when it opens – Waaban Crossing, which means dawn or morning light. It’s difficult to find fault with naming a bridge after sunshine. A sunburn can’t be blamed on a bridge: use sunscreen.

Last week an Indigenous lacrosse team, the Iroquois Nationals, opted to rename itself the Haudenosaunee Nationals. According to the team, Iroquois is a French variant on the Wendat word for “Snake”. There was a conflict between the Wendat and Haudenosaunee peoples in the 1600s. Warring sides usually develop unkind nicknames for each other.

There have been a lot of things renamed in the last five years, and I expect there will be more to come.

Change is often difficult – it’s not easy getting your head around new things. I struggle at times with it myself. It’s okay to be uncomfortable with change, but still have change occur. Change still is a good thing.