"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, April 23, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- What's in a name?

One of the themes running through my Nova Scotia Connections is “names”: of places, people, objects, events, activities. As I suggest in the previous installment, graveyards are places where we become keenly aware not only of relationships among people, but also of their names, which do tell us interesting things about them. Elizabeth Bishop had a life-long fascination with names and naming. Undoubtedly, she acquired some of that interest as a child in Great Village, a tiny community with a rather large name!

One of the questions I get asked most frequently about Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family is about the proper spelling of their name: Bulmer. Elizabeth Bishop’s Bulmer ancestors emigrated from Yorkshire to Nova Scotia in the 1770s. Their history in Yorkshire is long and notorious and I will write about it some other time. Even today, there is still evidence of that ancient family name there, in a community called Bulmer (with, I am sure, residents with that surname). Five brothers arrived in Nova Scotia during that late eighteenth century emigration and eventually spread out across North America.

When one visits the Bulmer family grave site in Great Village, what you see is the issue that puzzles many people. On some of the stones, the surname is spelled “Bulmer” and on others it is spelled “Boomer” — a colloquial phonetic pronunciation. Indeed, in early land grants, probate documents and even in the newspapers, I have come across other variants of the name: Bullmer, Bulmore and Bulmour. Curiously, in the same column of the “Newsy Notes of Great Village” in the Truro Daily News, it could be reported in tandem as both “Bulmer” and “Boomer.”

Today we must identify everyone specifically; bureaucracy and security demand that we are all accounted for (though name mix-ups happen fairly often, as people with the same name are mistaken for each other — and with the internet we can spend endless hours locating all sorts of other people who have our name — I wonder what Elizabeth Bishop would have thought of this new pastime of surfing the net for ourselves in/as others). At the turn of the twentieth century, such rigidity clearly did not exist. That these variants were used was a conscious choice and was talked about by Bishop’s family. Elizabeth Bishop had her own views on the subject, expressed late in life to her Aunt Grace, but clearly something that had been more than a passing thought throughout her life. In a 1962 letter she wrote: “I do wish everyone would go back to spelling the name BULMER. It is a good English name, that way — I HATE BOOMER, which could be Dutch or German, and I think it very ugly-looking anyway.”

This strong feeling and view did not keep Bishop from naming the hermit in “The Sea & Its Shore” Edwin Boomer, a cypher for Elizabeth Bishop!

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