Place Naming and the History of Toponomy in Nova Scotia

By J. A. Bland

© 2006

‘“Names of places form an important part of our history.  They stand as memorials of men and events in the past.  They throw light on the scenes and movements of former ages, and therefore cannot be neglected in our study of the development of our country.’

-An extract from an unpublished MS on Place-Names, by the late Rev. Dr. Patterson, of Pictou, N.S.” (Brown 3)

Introduction and Overview

There are two important defining characteristics of Nova Scotian toponomy.

First, the place names of the province are derived from numerous and distinct cultural roots. Major influences come not only from the French and English settlers who peopled the region over the course of several centuries, but also from the area’s original Native inhabitants, most of whom were of the Mi’kmaq people.  Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, Scottish, and American influences are also to be found, though in less significant degrees. 

Second, the development of the study of toponomy—that is, the branch of lexicology that draws on archaeology, sociology, geography, palaeography, philology, and history—has been, relative to other provinces in the region, extremely slow.  Only two significant studies dealing exclusively with Nova Scotia exist, and though some other work on the subject has appeared in academic contexts, much of Nova Scotia’s historical toponomy was and is best accessed by consulting various other sources.  Such work is worthwhile, however, for Nova Scotia’s toponomy, and the change it has undergone, offers a fascinating example of the linguistic development of the province, and one that demonstrates the implications of cultural shifts in the area.  In Nova Scotia, perhaps more than any other province in Canada, place names represent an essential site of the cultural mediation that both shaped our country’s past and defines its present.  As the above quotation suggests, place names are a window into the past, and a window with helps us grapple with our present.

The Major Players

Nova Scotia’s history is such that its settlement has come in waves, and those waves have more often than not been on cultural lines.  The original Native inhabitants gave way to French settlers who gave way to UE Loyalists and British immigrants; over the course of its history, the names of its places have changed, sometimes retaining qualities of their original designations, and sometimes being completely renamed by imperial acts of self-assertion.  To understand its toponomy, then, it is important to remember that the features and regions of Nova Scotia had Native names long before European settlers began their own assigning projects.  Most of these names would have been in the language of the Mi’kmaq people, and many are still used today, sometimes in near literal translations and sometimes in adaptations by other cultures. 

The examples that persist demonstrate the tendency of Native place-naming in the province to assign names based on geographical or substantive attributes of a given place.  Musquodoboit, for instance, takes its name from the Mi’kmaq Mooksudoboogwek meaning “flowing out square” or “rolling out in foam or suddenly widening out after a narrow entrance at its mouth” (Brown 100).  Musquodoboit is found in the name of a town, Musquodoboit Harbour, a river, the Musquodoboit, and the Musquodoboit valley; it is named precisely for that which it is: an area of land in which water widens and flows out. Similarly, Tancook Island, 11 miles from the coast by ferry, is a form of the Native k’tanook, meaning “out to sea” (Hamilton 406).

In many cases, French explorers and settlers adapted the Native terms for a given place into their own language, changing the spelling but retaining the general sound of the original word.  For instance, Main-a-Dieu in Cape Breton county is a French corruption, and a wonderfully ironic one; the originary term, the Mi’kmaq menadou means “evil spirit or the devil,” not, as the French would have it, ‘the hand of God’ (Hamilton 355).  Present day Pomquet is a clipping of Pomquette, itself the French spelling of the Mi’kmaq Popumkek. When they gave their own name to something, the French frequently named in the Native mold: places were called things that made sense, referring to a geographical attribute of the area or formation, to a specific aspect of it, or to a historical situation or occurrence related to the place.  For instance, Port Mouton, was named in 1604 by Du Gua de Monts because at that site, in his own words, “a sheep was drowned, recovered, and eaten by the company” (386). Much like Native place names that celebrate a place what it is or what has happened there, these names are associated more with the locations and their stories than with any historical antecedent; they are concerned less with the past and more with the present, less with previous French cultural experience and more with the new experience of the French in Nova Scotia.

If the French place-naming tradition enters into something of a dialogue, or perhaps a dialectic, with the Native tradition of place names in Nova Scotia, the English tradition is one of domination.  As toponomist Robert Dawson has suggested, patterns of English place naming in the province demonstrate “the desire to keep up tradition and to create a home away from home” (8). There are some instances of a more responsive naming tendency; for instance, Prince of Wales Landing Place in Cape Breton county, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, named as such because on 28 July 1860 the then Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) made a stop there on his way from St John’s to Halifax.  But most literal namings in English are derived from French, suggesting the gesture is not so much theirs as their predecessors.  Murder Island, for example, is so named because of the alarming quantity of human remains found there through history, but it’s also an Anglicization of the French Isle Massacre.  More common is an impulse to rename rather than adapt, to assert British historical and cultural figures and preoccupations onto a new land that already had its own rich history.  With the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the area now called Nova Scotia became a British colony, and names established thereafter reflect that affiliation: Halifax, Shelburne, Durham, Cumberland, Cornwallis and Dartmouth are all named after Dukes, Earls, or officers whose influence or ownership reached to the new settlements.

For all intents and purposes, the British controlled the province until the time of Confederation, but many French names remained, frequently because of the lingering Acadian influence.  Lahave, for instance, remains as a variant of its original French name, Le Heve, given it by de Monts or Champlain centuries ago (Fergusson 336).  Similarly, Port Latour remains, named after St. Etienne Sieur de la Tour, “the French adventurer who established his fort [there] in the early 17th century” (550).  Perrau, Canard, and Debert all stand as similar testament to the rich toponomical tapestry that has evolved over Nova Scotia’s historical development.

A Scarcity of Sources

Aside from government publications such as census reports and gazetteers, most of which are issued by the Geographic Board of Canada, there is comparatively little in the way of published material on the place names of Nova Scotia and the toponomical development of the province.  While essential to researchers, government sources are not particularly helpful to those with a less professional interest in the topic; they are statistical, difficult to navigate, and often require an expert’s knowledge of the region in order to be intelligible.

            As the quote that begins this article suggests, toponomy is essential to an understanding of a region and its history.  As the quote implies, however, this essential work has not been undertaken to a satisfactory degree: it is from a manuscript that was, at the time it was quoted in 1922, unpublished and which remains so.  It is taken from the foreward to Thomas J. Brown’s Nova Scotia Place Names, the first and, for decades after it the only, study exclusively dedicated to Nova Scotian toponomy.

            In 1960, a special volume of Onomastica, a journal which has subsequently become associated with the Canadian Society for the Study of Names, was published on “Place Names in Nova Scotia” featuring an essay by Robert Dawson.  The Public Archives of Nova Scotia published Place-Names and Places of Nova Scotia in 1967, and it stands today as the most comprehensive toponomical document on the province, featuring pull-out maps, census information, and brief historical notes for most entries.  William B. Hamilton’s more recent Place Names of Atlantic Canada features an extensive chapter on Nova Scotia done in the style of an encyclopedia that is insightful, elegant, and eminently readable.  His introductory essay gives an excellent overview of historical context, and, like the book itself, also contains information on New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Labrador. 

            The relative lack of attention to Nova Scotian toponomy means that many of the primary and secondary sources employed by toponomists are still of use to the general public.  Histories documenting travel and exploration, as well the general development of the region, can give insight into the province and its toponomy.  Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s two-volume History of Nova Scotia, originally published in 1829, accounts for many of the culturally-influenced shifts in place names in the province’s early history.  Joseph Howe’s Western and Eastern Rambles: Travel Sketches of Nova Scotia is particularly useful as a guide through the province as it existed circa 1830, when its essays were published in Howe’s newspaper The Novascotian. More general resources on Canadian topography are useful too, and Alan Rayburn’s Naming Canada and William B. Hamilton’s Macmillan Book of Canadian Place Names are good places to start.

             Place names and the history of toponomy in Nova Scotia present a unique situation.  At once there is a rich history that has informed a cross-cultural matrix of place names across the Province, but scholarly disinterest has left that matrix relatively unexplored.


Brown, Thomas J.  Nova Scotia Place Names.  Anonymously Published, 1922.

Dawson, Robert.  “Place Names in Nova Scotia.”  Onomastica XIX.  Winnipeg: Ukrainian       Free Academy of Sciences, 1960. 

Hamilton, William B.  Place Names of Atlantic Canada.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

Place-Names and Places of Nova Scotia.  Ed. Charles Bruce Fergusson, Archivist of             Nova Scotia.  Belleville: Mika Publishing, 1982.


Clark, Andrew Hill.  Acadia: The Geography of Early Nova Scotia.  Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1968.

MacNeil, Neil.  The Highland Heart of Nova Scotia.  Wreck Cove, N.S.: Breton Books,       1998.


Haliburton, Thomas Chandler.  History of Nova Scotia in Two Volumes.  Belleville: Mika       Publishing, 1973.

Longworth, Israel.  History of Colchester County, Nova Scotia, circa 1886.  ed. Sandra       Creighton.  Truro, N.S.: The Book Nook, 1989.

MacLean, Raymond.  History of Antigonish in Two Volumes.  Antigonish, N.S.: Casket,        1976.

Rankin, Duncan Joseph.  A History of the County of Antogonish.  Belleville: Mika      Publishing, 1972.

Travel Accounts

Cook, Ramsay.  The Voyages of Jacques Cartier.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Denys, Nicholas.  The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America      by Nicholas Denys.  Ed. W.F. Ganong.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Howe, Joseph.  Western and Eastern Rambles: Travel Sketches of Nova Scotia.  Toronto, U of Toronto P, 1973.

Marsden, Joshua.  Narrative of a Mission to Nova Scotia.  New York: S.R. Publishers,         1966.

General Resources

Macmillian Book of Canadian Place Names.  Ed. William B. Hamilton.  Toronto:      Macmillan, 1983.

Rayburn, Alan.  Naming Canada.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.