ABOITEAU, ARBATOE: A WORD MYSTERY (July 5/96)

The man you’re looking for lives a couple of houses north of the Canning aboiteau,’ I said to a friend when giving directions.

Like most long-time residents of the Minas Basin side of Kings County I said “arbatoe” for aboiteau and this brought a puzzled look from my friend. “Okay, I know where Canning is.” he said, “but what’s an arbatoe? Is that Valley slang?”

Fresh from the wilds of Ottawa, my friends wasn’t familiar with everyday Valley speech. “R-BA-TOE,” I said, emphasizing each syllable and then spelling the word. “It’s from Acadian French, I think, and it’s a Seagate that controls the flow of salt water.”

I added a weak “1 think it’s a seagate anyway,” since I wasn’t sure exactly to what the word referred. Seagate, sluiceway, or maybe the sea wall around the gate and sluice. I don’t know if aboiteau is one of these or all of them combined. I know that if I refer to the aboiteau and pronounce it ‘arbatoe’ when talking with locals, they not only know what I mean generally, but they know exactly where the aboiteau is located.

Few dictionaries have the word “aboiteau” in them; I found it in one, and one only, and the definition given was simple – seagate that controls tidal flow. Locally, however, most people think of the aboiteau as the wall around and beside the seagates. You often hear water fowlers mention hunting ducks “on the aboiteau,” for example. In this case they mean the wall running over and away from the seagate.

The word “aboiteau” is interesting since, besides place names, it is one of only a few Acadian words still in use in the colloquial language of Kings County. The Acadians began building dykes soon after they settled beside the Minas Basin. Into their dykes, usually on streams and rivers, they placed sluice gates with valves that permitted drainage of fresh water and shut out salt water. The Acadians called their sluice gate and valve arrangements by a name that has come down to us as “aboiteau,” which, as I said, over the generations has come to mean something more than a sluice with a valve that controls salt water.

The origin of the word aboiteau appears to be a mystery. In the 1935 blossom festival magazine, Berton E. Robinson mentions “aboiteau” in an article on dyke building by Acadians. Robinson says the word presents a mystery. “Aboiteau (is) a word whose origin is lost,” Robinson writes. “One spelling, ‘abateau’, suggests that is might come from ‘abbatre’, to beat back; but there is not standard spelling and no standard pronunciation. The word, however, is in daily use in the Valley.”

Even today, 61 years later, Robinson is right. While the spelling of ‘aboiteau” may now be standard, pronunciation isn’t. The most widely used pronunciation is “ar-ba- toe”, which is the way I pronounce the word – and which I am certain is incorrect. Some people, foreigners no doubt from outside Kings County, try to pronounce the word the way it is spelled – “a-boit-toe.” I’ve also heard “aba-toe,” and “arbor-toe,” the latter being the second most common pronunciation.

Native Valley people, it is said, know what dykes are. You can tell if someone is from Kings County, it is also said, by asking them to pronounce “aboiteau.”

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