Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Maine Coast Diary, 1: What's in a Name?

For the last week and a half I've been on vacation in a small village on the Maine coast, a couple of hours north of Portland. I've been coming here with my family most summers for 20 years, and one thing I like most about this place is that it is not a touristy town but an authentic working waterfront, with fishermen and women plying their trade daily. The local names aptly reflect this history.

Every year when I tell people I'm going to Maine, they ask me where I'm going. They look at me quizzically when I tell them the name of the town--Port Clyde. When they respond that that doesn't exactly sound like the name of a vacation town, I point out that the previous name of the town was even less tourist-like: Herring Gut. A bit direct, to be sure, but as I said, this has been a fishing village for over 200 years, and it was named thusly. The name change occurred a few decades ago when the town fathers decided that their harbor town could benefit from tourism, if only a more appealing title were chosen to put on signs and maps.

Other names in the area reflect the same disregard for puffery and euphemisms. A small but quite pleasant sandy beach a few miles up the road bears the unappealing name Mosquito Harbor. Sure, there are mosquitoes there, but no more than you'd find elsewhere along the coast on a warm August night. And a small island off the coast of Port Clyde is now marked on nautical maps as Blubber Island, but in my early years of coming here the locals called it by the less polite name of Blubber Butt.

While fishing in Port Clyde is today restricted to small operators pulling in lobster and fish, at one time the village was home to a large fish processing plant that shipped its products far and wide. In the Northeast U.S. (and maybe beyond) you can still find little tins of sardines bearing the brand "Port Clyde." Sadly, the name is the only connection with the village; when I looked at a package a few years back I noticed that the product was produced in Canada.

No comments: