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The town that refuses to be ashamed of its name

Dildo, Newfoundland - The bay is pretty enough, in a bleak kind of a way. White wood-frame dwellings jostle for space along the shore, while the sea is dotted with ice slabs that have drifted south from Labrador. There is a fish processing plant but, like most in Newfoundland, it stands idle. Everyone understands, though, that it is not the scenery nor even the cod crisis that has drawn us here.

"You've hit the spot, all right," exclaimed Diane George, apologising that she has no postcards for sale in her shop that we might remember our visit by. "It does rather stick out at you from the map, doesn't it?" Well, indeed.

This may be Newfoundland, where the coasts are crammed with rude-sounding place names, like Come By Chance, Pushthrough and Tickle Bay but for the folk who live here, their home goes beyond suggestive innuendo. For this is Dildo.

Exactly how it came to be called Dildo is a matter of local debate. Gerald Smith, a fisherman washed ashore by the three-year-old cod moratorium, ventures that the name was introduced by Spanish sailors fishing in the area as long as 500 years ago. If Dildo was not a town in Spain, it might, he suggested, have been the name of a visiting ship or even its captain. "I guess we are hoping that it's from Spain," he concluded uncertainly.

In the tiny Dildo Post Office, the assistant postmistress, Stella White, is sure it had nothing to do with the word's common modern usage, to wit - to quote Webster's - a "substitute for the male sexual organ". "I feel sure that we've been here a lot longer than artificial penises have been around," Mrs White declared without the slightest embarrassment, adding that the name has never worried her.

"There's a place in the United States called Intercourse and we don't tease them about that," said Mrs White. She conceded, however, that things did get awkward for her children when they, like so many of the young in Newfoundland, left the province to study and work elsewhere in the country.

After repeated embarrassment when he joined the Navy, her son eventually took the offensive. "He used to tell people: `Didn't you know, that's where they come from?' They never knew whether to believe him."

A brief effort was made about five years ago to collect signatures on a petition to have the name changed. The precedent had already been set by a community up the coast that used to be called Gayside, until the residents got sick of all the insinuations it provoked about their own sexuality.

With a nod to an altogether warmer beach locale on the Florida coast that is a favourite with Canadians, they renamed it Baytona.

The man behind the name-change campaign in Dildo was Robert Elford, a local electrician. He said that he, too, was only thinking about the young. "Things always got a bit sticky for my son when people asked him where he lived," he explained. But many of the older people in the community were offended by his crusade and after being harassed on the street and on the telephone, he gave up and simply changed his own address from Dildo to New Harbour, the neighbouring village. "It all got too personal," he says.

Today, the name seems, if anything, to be a source of pride. Each summer, the village celebrates "Dildo Day", featuring a flotilla of decorated boats that circles the bay. In the prow of the first boat stands an effigy of an old Newfoundland seadog called "Captain Dildo".

Baseball caps and T-shirts are printed. I have one with a picture of the captain sailing past a point called Dildo Head. I also have a Dildo Day '94 cap, but I doubt I will ever sport it in Manhattan. Sadly, the "I Survived Dildo Day" T-shirts are all gone.