What's in a name?

Upper Island Cove residents proudly wear nicknames

Burton K. Janes lsimmons@cbncompass.ca
Published on February 24, 2011
Sixty-two-year-old Harold (Brave) Mercer Sr. of Upper Island Cove is a "character" who takes keen delight in the phenomenon of family nicknames.
Photo by Burton K. Janes/Special to The Compass

Imagine this conversation unfolding in an Upper Island Cove neighbourhood.

Visitor: "I'm looking for Harold Mercer. Can you please help me?"

Resident: "Harold Mercer? Lemme see ... Don't think I can help you."

Visitor: "No? How about Harold Mercer Sr.?"

Resident: "Oh, now I know who you mean. Harold Brave. He lives next door."

It's generally accepted Upper Island Cove is a unique town. Its diverse and peculiar culture is well known. It has a reputation for producing jokesters known locally as "characters."

Much of the town's uniqueness stems from a long-held and time-honoured tradition of identifying surnames by nicknames. If you live in Upper Island Cove, chances are you have your very own nickname.

As the above example shows, it's almost useless for a visitor to ask for Harold Mercer. There are four or five people by that name in the town. The inquirer must know his nickname, in this case, Brave. Then and only then is the connection made with Mercer.

Sixty-two-year-old Harold Brave is a character who takes keen delight in this phenomenon. He effortlessly rhymes off a litany of nicknames, many of which tickle your funny bone. The tradition can be understood only with the assistance of such a willing and knowledgeable guide.

The origin of most of the nicknames has been lost in the mists of history. However, Brave knows a bit about his own nickname, which, he claims, originated with his grandfather. Strangely, the older man was the only one of several brothers to be called Brave.

"He didn't care for anybody," Brave adds. "There was an incident somewhere, and they called him Brave. That went on down through the family."

May as well ask about Brave's son, his father's namesake. How to distinguish the two? The younger Harold is known as Harley Brave.

When an outsider suddenly thinks he has the hang of it, the plot thickens. The fact is, Brave is not the only nickname for Mercers. Other family strands are known as the Toochs, Fessors, Nishes, Currans, Cuffs, Stinks, Griffins, Bee Eyes, Straws, Dudes, Scuffs and Codoils. It's enough to make you scratch your head in consternation.

Apparently, Upper Island Cove boasts only one family of Teats, an elderly couple who operated a shop. "She was very well endowed," Brave says with a chuckle. "A little boy went in there one day and said to the old man, 'Mudder sent me here to buy a teat.' The old fellow called out to his Missis. 'A little boy here wants to buy the two of us.'"

You gotta love this story.

Philip Hiscock of Memorial University refers to "the local folklore ... that the Island Cove nicknames were either invented or crystallized by a doctor who kept notes on patients by their nicknames."

There's much truth to this claim.

In his recent biography of Dr. Charles Cron (1886-1962), a well-known physician in Conception Bay North, Patrick J. Collins writes about his practice of attributing nicknames to patients.

"By giving them a name, other than their own, he was able to find out where they lived when he was on a sick call," Collins says. "One can rest assured that Dr. Cron had a hand in most of these 'christenings.'"

Once, while trying to track down Harrison Mercer, Cron joked that he might have to go all the way to Cashin Avenue in St. John's to find his patient. Hence, Harrison Mercer became known as Harrison Cashin.

In a town with so many people bearing the same last name, nicknames are a useful and, at times, an indispensable way of distinguishing one from the other.

Brave remembers a man asking him for directions to George Mercer's house.

"Now you got me fooled," Brave admitted. "Which George Mercer are you looking for?"

"I don't know, but he worked with the Department of Highways."

"You're standing in front of his house, George Tooch."

The nicknames are probably associated with what Brave calls "characteristics of certain people." Collins confirms this: "Names were associated with anything that would give (Cron) a connection."

For example, Crowbar is associated with a Crane who worked on Bell Island. His son's nickname was shortened to Crow. He has over his house door a plaque, which reads, Two Old Crows Live Here. Another man, who walked with a cane, became known as Stick. A cripple became known as Scuff.

Brave estimates between 80 and 90 percent of Upper Island Covers go by nicknames. Most wear them proudly.

The others may have dropped their nicknames along the way. Other "really foolish" nicknames went nowhere. Some of the individual nicknames simply don't last, Brave says.

The epitome of a distinctive Upper Island Cove humour, Brave tells people, "You can call me what you like as long as you don't call me late for supper. Most people got the same attitude. We had nothing to do with the nicknames; they came generations before."

Surnames and nicknames of Upper Island Cove

• Adams - Black Ass

• Coombs - Angels, Puddisters, Irish, Pigeons, Sods, Dudds

• Crane - Sticks, Crumps, Cripses, Clavers, Pops, Crowbars

• Drover - Trays, Bibs, Tads

• Hussey - Shaleys

• Jones - Blackbirds

• Lundrigan - Tens, Coakers

• Lynch - Fridays, Glens, Fairies, Tiny

• Mercer - Toochs, Braves, Fessors, Nishes, Currans, Cuffs, Stinks, Griffins, Bee Eyes, Straws, Dudes, Scuff, Codoils

• Osborne - Buttercods

• Parsons - Deedons

• Sharpe - Sheilas

• Young - Budgets, Maush

burtonj@nfld.net