Away back in 1996 I devoted this column to investigation of a word most Kings County natives are familiar with – aboiteau and its plural, aboiteaux. After pointing out that many people, myself included, often pronounce it with an “R” sound in the first syllable – ar-ba-toe – I went on to note that it was one of the few words of Acadian origin still in use here.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this statement appears in one sense to be incorrect. Aboiteau isn’t of Acadian origin; that is, it wasn’t original coinage by the Acadians as I kind of implied. The word comes from a region in France where most of the Acadian settlers apparently originated.
If you live in the Valley and in particular in areas around here where there is dyked land, aboiteau is probably part of your vocabulary and is in common usage. However, while natives are familiar with the word, outsiders are puzzled by it. When giving directions to visitors, for example, you’ll get strange looks when you tell them to take the “road by the aboiteau to reach Aunt Maude and Uncle Jake.”
As well as putting an “R” in the word when pronouncing it, we often incorrectly use the word to refer to the dyke walls associated with aboiteaux. Correctly speaking, an aboiteau is the sluiceway containing clapper valves that lets fresh water flow out but closes from the pressure of tide waters. However, we have a tendency here to refer to the dyke walls around a sluiceway as the aboiteau. At Wellington Dyke, for example, waterfowlers hunt “on the aboiteau” when actually they’re shooting on the sea walls well away from it. People who hike on the Wellington Dyke often say that they went for a walk on the aboiteau when they really mean the dyke connected to it.
Confusing dykes with aboiteaux isn’t new, by the way. Take for example the Sieur de Diereville who visited the colony of Port Royal, lived there about a year, and wrote a book about his experiences when he returned to France. Diereville is quoted by numerous historians since he gave some first-hand descriptions of the Acadians and their lifestyle. In 1933 his book was translated into English and published by the Champlain Society; a 1968 reprint can be found at Acadia University.
One interesting aspect of the book is Diereville’s description of dyke building in which he confused aboiteaux with dykes. In his book on the early geography of Nova Scotia, Andrew Hill Clark quotes this description, noting that Diereville was “confused as to terminology” when describing dykes and aboiteaux. “The ebb & flow of the Sea cannot easily be stopped, but the Acadians succeeded in doing so by means of great Dykes, called Aboteaux,” Diereville wrote.
The editors of the 1968 reprint of Diereville’s book inserted a footnote regarding the origin of the word aboiteau. “There has been considerable difference of opinion as to the meaning of this word and its derivation. By some, it has been thought to be of Acadian origin, but Dr. Ganong has proved that it was in use in France long before the settlement of Acadia. The Aboiteau was especially associated with the province of Saintonge, from which so many early settlers came to Acadia.”
The footnote included various spellings of aboiteau, for example, “aboteau,” which is French, and “aboideau,” which is an English (Planter) spelling.