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magazine / ja97

July/August 1997 issue


Our Home and Native Tongue

Cabot fever
By Bill Casselman

THE SEA FOG OF HISTORY, with a damp guffaw at human fact-mongering, has shrouded in conjecture the birth and death of explorer John Cabot. He was probably born near Naples around 1455 as Giovanni Caboto and may have perished at sea off the coast of Newfoundland in 1499.

But his name festoons Canadian mappery. Cabot Head, Ont., a place name bestowed by John Graves Simcoe to honour the explorer, bears Cabot Head lighthouse, built in 1896 to warn ships entering and leaving Lake Huron. Cabot Head is a promontory of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula thrusting forth into the now scuba-bubbling waters of Georgian Bay. Cabot Strait separates southwest Newfoundland from Cape Breton Island. Cabot Lake in Labrador is drained by the Kogaluk River. The capital of Newfoundland, St. John’s, was apparently so named to celebrate the discovery of its harbour by John Cabot on the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1497.


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The explorer is obliquely responsible for the early racist term "redskins." The notion that all North American native peoples had red skin began in published reports concerning explorer John Cabot’s encounters with the Beothuk tribes on the island that was later called Newfoundland. Beothuks ornamented their skin with red ochre for ceremonial and spiritual purposes, hence appearing red-skinned to Europeans. The Beothuks were victims of systematic genocide by whites and other native peoples and were extinct by the early 19th century.

Also inşuenced by Cabot’s name is caboteur, a French then English term for a Canadian boat or its captain. A caboteur is a wooden coastal vessel ranging from 50 to 500 tonnes that plies the coast and does not often venture into open sea. Couch potatoes will not forget Cabot Cove, the fictional fishing village in Maine where Jessica Fletcher cogitated weekly on the TV mystery Murder, She Wrote.

The origin of the surname Caboto is disputed. Cabo appears in a 13th-century copy of a much older Proto-Italian glossary meaning ’ship, boat.’ But caboto also looks like an early Northern Italian version of the Latin word caput, capitis ’the human head’ and then with expanded meanings like ’the headland of a peninsula or any other point of land jutting out into the sea.’ Early Northern French has cabot, chabot ’a small vessel that slowly sails along a coast.’ This could be a French diminutive form with a sense like ’little caper,’ referring to a boat that hugs the shore by sailing from cape to cape, never losing sight of land, with the implication that it was so cautious because it was carrying valuable cargo or was too small to sail open ocean. Italian might have borrowed this French term. Modern English, French and Italian now have cabotage, cabotage, and cabotaggio for ’sailing along a coast in a trading vessel’ and ’coastal trade’ to which senses have been added a 20th-century meaning: the permission, granted by a country to an airline, to pick up or drop off passengers and merchandise during a stopover.

Latin caput is also the ultimate source of our English word cape as in The Cape of Good Hope and our little head covering, a cap. Up it pops in Spanish place names all over the world, for example, Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. As a cape with a hood for the head, it gives French capote and thus the surname of American novelist Truman Capote. Mafia movies and American newspapers ring with an Italian derivative, capo di tutti capi ’boss of all the bosses.’

But, a fig for all those cinematic stereotypes that rightly annoy Canadians of Italian descent. Even if novelist Mario Puzo is responsible for some of them. I say we have here a Caboto di tutti Caboti to celebrate. Here is the man who was sent from Bristol in 1497 with Letters Patent from Henry VII which commanded him to "seeke out, discover, and finde whatsoever isles, countreys, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoever they be." That he did. Let’s remember Giovanni Caboto as Italian. So, on this, your glorious 500th, Gio (pronounced ’Joe’), here’s a goblet of Brunello raised to you, and — alla salute!

Bill Casselman is the author of Casselmania and Casselman’s Canadian Words.

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What is the Franklin Expedition’s most significant contribution to Canada?

Mapping Canada’s North and establishing our claim to the Arctic.
Educating Canadians on Canada’s exploration history.
Scientific research in the Arctic.
Solving one of Canada’s greatest historical mysteries.

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