Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!: a voyager’s gasp and a toponymist’s delight.
While driving in eastern Quebec near the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River, you might come across road signs directing you to a community whose name will make you exclaim or laugh – or both.
The small community of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, population of 1,318, was officially recognized in 2018 by Guinness World Records, for having “the most exclamation marks in a town name.” It has not one but two exclamation marks.
Not only is the use of that specific form of punctuation unusual in the spelling of a place name (unusual, yes, yet, interestingly, not as rare as you might think) but the words surrounding them also seem silly. After all, when someone says ‘Ha Ha’ today in most English- or French-speaking countries, this is recognized primarily as signifying laughter.
At first, it may seem that the name of the town refers to a saint – Louis – who is a saint of laughter or comedy. However, the exclamation, “Ha Ha,” actually has much deeper historical roots than the sound you make when someone slips on a banana peel.
Since the town was founded in the mid-1800s as a Roman Catholic mission, its name has some archaic French etymology. At the time, ‘Ha-Ha’ was an exclamation one might make when discovering an obstacle or a dead-end on a path.
In 1709, French writer and horticulturist Dezallier d’Argenville wrote that a trench “surprises the eye upon coming near it, and makes one laugh, Ha! Ha! from where it takes its name.” So in a sense it is an exclamation of laughter – but directed at an obstacle that has surprised or confounded the traveler.
The specific ha-ha refered to in the parish municipality of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! would be Lake Témiscouata which lies just outside the town. Historically, it would have been considered a significant obstruction for Voyageurs and explorers to the area, who would have had to portage for 80 km when coming and going around it.
As seemingly strange as the town name may seem today, Saint Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is not alone with its place name exclamations.
There is a Westward Ho! in Devon, England. This was named after a 19th century novel which had been set nearby.
Another European example is an Italian wine region – not a town – which has a whopping seven exclamation marks in its name. The Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone wine region is believed to be named after local folklore about a German bishop travelling to the Vatican around the 10th century.
According to the tale, he asked an assistant or wine scout to go first and write the word “Est,” meaning “there is,” on the doors of inns where he was impressed by the wine so that he could know the best places to stop. As the story goes, this wine scout was so blown away by this region’s wine that he wrote “Est! Est!! Est!!!,” or “There is! There is!! There is!!!,” on the door of the local inn.
Additionally, and a little bit closer to our Canadian town that must be exclaimed when read on a road sign or map, is Hamilton, Ohio, which had once changed its name to Hamilton! That punctuation mark was added back in 1986 but it just wouldn’t stick. The pesky line and dot received criticism and mapmakers simply would not oblige. At the time, the town actually referenced Canada’s Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in its arguments for the use of the exclamation mark. Eventually, they stopped forcing it and today Hamilton, Ohio’s own website doesn’t even bother to exclaim.
As for Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, today, the small town offers outdoors activities and wilderness to its tourists. Despite its small population, it has a golf course and an astronomical observatory, as well as a segment of the Trans Canada Trail and 134 km of paved bike paths devoted to walkers and cyclists, with campgrounds and casse-croutes along the way. The bike path route in Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! actually sits on an old railroad track – another important part of Canadian history.