||July/August 1997 issue||
Our Home and Native Tongue
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.
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,
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
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