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Little or no Idea of the Origin of the Name ‘Acadia’

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Little or no Idea of the Origin of the Name ‘Acadia’

There are many theories as to the origin of the name ‘Acadia,’ but William F. Ganong could not verify any of them except to show that it must have descended from a European word. His paper was published in Vol. 3, No. 4 of The New Brunswick Magazine, edited by W.K. Reynolds in 1899. The earliest spelling variation of the name was apparently Larcadia. His paper follows.

Dispersion of the Acadians, from Painting at St. Joseph’s College

From the centre des études acadiennes, via the McCord Museum. About 1907


The Origin of the Name Acadia

In all our history there is no name of greater charm or sadder memory than Acadia. Naturally, then, the question of its origin is of considerable interest and many writers have discussed it. Yet I believe the true origin of the word has never yet been given, and the most widely-accepted origin is wholly erroneous. If the reader, divesting himself of all prejudice, will act as judge upon the evidence to follow, I think he too will come to the same opinion.

Let us notice first of all, merely as matter of curiosity, some of the more remarkable attempts to explain the name. The earliest of these that I have found is in a rare work, published at London in 1750, entitled A Genuine Account of Nova Scotia, which reads,—

“When the French got Possession of it, they called it L’Acaddie, in Allusion to Arcadia in the Grecian Peloponnesus, but with what Propriety I cannot pretend to determine.” This theory is also given in, Williamson’s History of Maine, Volume 1, page 188. A curious and absurd explanation is contained in an anonymous work published in London in 1863, A Peep at the Western World, which tells us that Acadia is derived from “a simple unobtrusive hardy little flower of that name which grows wild in the country.” Probably the author has mixed up the Mayflower, the floral emblem of Nova Scotia, with the ancient name of that Province.

A derivation which might be thought respectable from its source is that contained in a work by Vetromile, entitled The Abnakis, and which reads thus:—

“I was at one time led to resolve Acadie into the two Abnaki words aki-adie (land of dogs). Yet, after more recent investigation, I consider it more natural to trace it to the Micmac word academ (we dwell), or led-lacadem (where we dwell), that is our village.” Though this work by Vetromile is often quoted with approval, it is in my opinion a very shallow work, quite unworthy of confidence, at least so far as the parts relating to our Indians are concerned.

Another derivation formerly often cited is the following, contained in Potter’s History of Manchester, N.H.  “This word … is generally supposed to be derived from the French or Latin; but it is an Indian word corrupted by the French. The original word is Aquoddiauke, from aquoddi (a pollock) and auke (a place), and means a place for pollock. … The original word is still preserved in the neighborhood in Passamaquoddy … which is derived from Pos (great) aquam (water) aquoddie (pollock) and meaning great water for pollock.”

While this writer gives, in a general way, correctly the derivation of Passamaquoddy, he is entirely in error in the meaning he ascribes to the different roots, for the part of the word meaning Pollock is Pesatum (i.e. his Posaguam) while aquoddy is the Maliseet form of the Micmac Acadie, of which more will be said presently. Practically the same derivation of the word is given in a boundary blue book of 1840, is repeated by Hind in his Geological Report of 1865, (pages 20 and 260), and by several others.

The widely accepted view of the origin of the name, however, is that it is from the Micmac akadie an inseparable suffix of many place-names in the Maritime Provinces meaning place of occurrence of, as in Shubenacadie (place of ground nuts), etc. So far as known to me, this view was first proposed by Gesner in his Industrial resources of Nova Scotia (1849). It was adopted and elaborated fully in Dawson’s Acadian Geology. This work gives a list of place names in Acadia ending in acadie, and the authors view was that it originated in the following way:—

“The early settlers were desirous of information as to the localities of useful productions, and in giving such information the aborigines would require so often to use the term Cadie that it might very naturally come to be regarded as a general name for the country.”

This view has the advantage of the support Sir John Bourinot, who, in his Cape Breton (in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, IX, ii, 327), gives a list of 17 place-names, compiled from Rand’s Dictionary, ending in akade. Yet another list, including 22 such names, is given by Mr. James Vroom in the Educational Review, for June, 1892. The origin of the word is discussed also, and the above interpretation accepted, in the Otis-Slafter translation of Champlain, Vol. II, page 73, by Willis in Kohl’s Discovery of the East Coast of Maine (page 234), by Laverdière in his Champlain, and by many others.

In summary now, we find that the most widely accepted explanation of the word derives it from the Micmac termination akadie. As to the evidence for this, it rests exclusively upon a coincidence; and the argument is simply as follows:— The country has been, called Acadie from early times; in this country are many native place names ending in akadie; therefore they are one and the same. There is not one bit of historical, cartographical or any other sort of support for it.

Let us, however, examine the subject in the light of the history of the word as shown in early documents; and we may best trace it backwards. Passing back through the last century, and through the preceding one to the time of Champlain, we find that the very earliest known use of the word is in the Commission to the Sieur DeMonts of 1603, where it appears as La Cadie. In Champlain’s Narrative, however, of 1613 he has sometimes Acadie and sometimes Arcadie, with other forms, and here in going backwards we first find an r in the word. Yet more important and remarkable is the fact that Champlain in his narrative of his voyage of 1603 invariably spells it Arcadie, never failing to insert the r. Going still further backwards we next find the word in a Cosmographie by Thevet in 1570 where it again appears as Arcadie. In the sixteenth century there are numerous maps which place the word in its proper place and without any exception they have the forms Arcadia or Larcadia. Such a map for example may be seen in the Translations of the Royal Society of Canada, Volume III, section ii, page 345, and others are given in Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America, Volume IV. I could give, if such a list would have interest for the reader, the names of several good maps between 1548 and 1590 which thus mark Larcadia or Arcadia, and moreover these maps all belong to the Italian type which influenced more strongly than any other the place-nomenclature of this coast. But I need only say here that in all the cases of its occurrence on maps of the sixteenth century, the word never once appears without the r. Finally the very earliest map on which it is known to me to occur is one by the Italian Gastaldi of 1548 (given in Winsor’s America, IV, 88) where it is Larcadia.

Our Acadia then is the direct descendant of the old Larcadia of the sixteenth century maps. What then is its real origin? Can Larcadia be from the Indian? Three facts are against it; first the presence of an r in the word, which letter and sound do not occur at all in the Micmac Language; second, it appears on the maps long anterior (i.e. in 1548) to the date of any settlement, and at a time when the intercourse of the natives with Europeans had been of the very briefest and most superficial character, and hence before the abundance of native words ending in akadie could have been known; third, of the many other names on these early maps, all are obviously of European origin, and not a single one is of native origin, showing that up to that time only European names had been given in this region. We must then give up the idea that Larcadia can be of native origin, and admit that it is European. But why it was given originally I do riot know, nor have I any idea. The presence of the L is against its origin from a repetition of Arcadia in Greece. Further studies may yet give us the clue to its solution, but in the meantime it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the word is not of Micmac but of European origin.


Written by johnwood1946

February 24, 2021 at 8:16 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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