One source of entertainment on a long road trip like this is noticing the interesting place names along the way. You can often get a tiny glimpse of the history of a place based on its name. A few years back I was traveling in New England with a friend from southeast Asia and she was surprised that nearly all of the towns we drove through were named after towns in England. “Well, it isn’t called New England for nothing,” I reminded her.
Driving across Quebec the past couple of days has added a degree of difficulty to the endeavor in that all the names are in French. Fortunately, many towns have the French word for city (ville) or lake (lac) or river (rivers), so we could sort of figure them out. And since the province is predominantly Catholic, many are named after patron saints — Saint-Hyacinthe, Saint-Dominque, Saint-Bernard-de-Michaudville, to name a few.
But the best name we came across today, and maybe the best name ever, is the delightfully named town of Saint Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
Yes, you are reading that correctly — there are not one, but two (!) exclamation points in that name, and here’s a picture of the sign to prove it:
My sister, ever the photographer, had her camera ready to snap the road sign as we drove by. We of course scampered over to The Google to find the story behind the name. Might he be the patron saint of comedians?
In 2012, Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) wrote an article for Conde Naste Traveler about this humorously named town. Here’s what he has to say:
- Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! is a small community of 1,300 souls located on the Trans-Canada Highway in eastern Quebec, just 20 miles north of the Maine border. Toponymists—collectors of funny place names—have long prized Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! as the world’s only town to boast not one but two exclamation points in its name.
- Today, Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! celebrates its unique appellation with a monument in front of the town church, and many visitors stop to take photos of its unusually jovial road signs. But locals tell different stories about the origins of town’s overachieving name. In the most common version, “Ha! Ha!” is what French trappers said when they founded the town, an exclamation of joy and awe at its beautiful surroundings. By other accounts, it’s a corruption of the Huron word ahaha, meaning “road.”
- The truth seems to be simpler: In the 17th century, a “ha-ha” was a word for an unexpected obstacle, like a hidden trench in a garden. French writer and horticulturist Dezallier d’Argenville wrote in 1709 that a trench like this “surprises the eye upon coming near it, and makes one laugh, Ha! Ha! from where it takes its name.” (Well, I’m not sure I get the joke, monsieur, but I also don’t find Jerry Lewis as funny as your people do.) The “ha-ha” in the case of Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! is nearby Lake Témiscouata, apparently a deep and formidable obstacle for early travelers in the region, who had to portage around it.
Apparently Jennings is somewhat of a geography nerd (or wonk) and has written a book for and about such people, titled Maphead, Charting the Wild, Weird World of Geography Wonks. I’ve already added it to my wish list!
And if you find yourself driving across Quebec and in need of a good laugh, be sure to stop in Saint Louis du Ha! Ha!