We were driving back from Trois-Rivières on the weekend when I came across one of my favourite road signs. No, not the nudist compound sign, although the pictogram of the family with their adorable naked bums is certainly memorable. Proportionally, however, I suspect it is far from accurate.
Instead, it was the sign for L’Avenir, a place name that sounds even better in English: The Future.
Imagine that roadside greeting: “Welcome to… The Future!”
It’s hard to live up to a name like The Future. Unless post-gender citizens are commuting to their cooperative workpods in personal levitation devices and being served by robot monkeys, your town is bound to be a let-down. There may have been a six-week period in 1980 after the video arcade opened when L’Avenir felt pretty avant-garde, but that’s the thing with the future: it’s always getting ahead of you.
L’Avenir, I’ve since learned, was named after a newspaper founded in 1847 by Jean-Baptiste-Eric Dorion, known as l’enfant terrible, an epithet that does not sound even better in English (“the terrible child”). When a post office was established in the region in 1853, Dorion proposed it be named L’Avenirville (“Futureville!”), and so it was. Eventually that became the name of the municipality, later still just L’Avenir. And that, my friends, is the power of the press.
But what appeals to me most about this story is the prospect of that power in the first place. Imagine having an entire town to name. A village. A crossroads even. You can’t do that anymore. Every place in the world has already been named. Heck, these days we’re getting rid of place names through amalgamation and forgotten history; someday, all of Canada will be known simply as the Greater Toronto Area.
What gumption it must have taken to name your town The Future when all around were towns named after saints. My favourite of these is near the Ontario border, St-Zotique, which sounds like they finally ran out of saint names, alphabetically, right after St-You-Know-Who.
If not saints or the Virgin Mary, towns are named after obvious physical characteristics. Trois-Rivières, incidentally, is not three rivers but one river with two islands at the mouth that makes it look like three rivers, but I suppose “The-Illusion-of-Three-Rivers-If-You-Look-At-It-At-the-Right-Angle” was a bit of a mouthful.
Some towns are named for what they’re famous for, the most blunt being the Town of Asbestos. Motto: “You Got a Problem With That?” It’s like calling a lumber town “Trees.” You know what you’re getting in a town like Asbestos, which is why I stay away from the Town of Black Mould and the Village of ATM Fraud.
Who knows what pressure there was at the time to name these towns. Maybe there were many great option, and everyone had his or her favourite. (Who am I kidding; the “hers” wouldn’t have had a say in these matters, otherwise we would have a lot more towns named “Patronizingjerkville.”) Ultimately, with no consensus, people would settle for the one they hated the least, resulting in bland inoffensive names. This is also, incidentally, how countless couples end up watching Jennifer Aniston movies.
But that’s all over now. All the places have been named. You might be able to name your property (“Crestwood Manor,” “Hillcrest Paradise,” “Dog Poo Vista”) but your neighbours will talk about you behind your back.
If you’re a writer, though, you occasionally get to name an entire fictional town. That was the case in my upcoming, shamelessly promoted novel, A Hole in the Ground. In my scenario, the town was originally named Beverly after its founder’s mother, Prudence Pennock, nee Beverly. But due perhaps to a clerical error or to the abundance of tree-chewing rodents or quite possibly as an unkind reference to the somewhat toothy Prudence Beverly Pennock, the town eventually became known as “Beaverly.”
I also had to create neighbouring communities, one of which is named Cahoots for the sole purpose of allowing me to say that so-and-so was in Cahoots.
Talk about enfant terrible…
I thought of this driving down the highway, how some towns are named after the circumstances that resulted in a traveller stopping in that location, giving us names like Providence or Freshwater. And as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, I realize that if I pulled over to the side and established a town right here, I would have a name for it.
I would call it: Crampe-de-Fesse.
It does not sound better in English.