Toronto Urban Legends: Naming the City
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Toronto Urban Legends: Naming the City

No, Toronto does not mean "meeting place."

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

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Toronto Harbour, 1793. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Hogtown, TO, The T-dot, Muddy York, regular York. This city we live in has been called a lot of things. But where does its real name come from?

To this day the most commonly known theory is that Toronto is derived from a Huron word for meeting place. This seems reasonable on the face of it; after all, the Hurons used to live in these parts and they certainly could have met here.

For every question there’s an answer like that one: logical, obvious, and wrong. This particular error can be attributed to Victorian clergyman and historian Henry Scadding, who believed the name Toronto came from the Huron word “toronton,” meaning “abundance” or “plenty” (as in “plenty of people,” from which Scadding derived “meeting place”). Scadding’s grasp of native languages was limited at best, and there was no real evidence to support his assertion, but it became firmly rooted in popular culture and is widely believed today in spite of frequent debunkings.

In fact, it’s virtually certain that the name “Toronto” is rooted in the Mohawk language and in a location about 130 kilometres north of the present city. Historical evidence tells us that the term is from the Mohawk “Tkaranto,” meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.” It originally referred to the Narrows at Orillia, where Lake Simcoe empties into Lake Couchiching and where natives had for centuries placed saplings in the water to trap fish.

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Around 1680, Lake Simcoe appeared on a French map as “Lac de Taronto.” From there the name migrated southward, with the water route from Lake Simcoe to Ontario becoming the Passage de Toronto and the present Humber River, picking up the appellation Rivière Taronto. In the mid-18th century, the French updated the spelling and doubled down on their commitment to the word by changing the name of the fort at the foot of the Humber from Fort Rouillé to Fort Toronto (we may assume that had France not divested her North American holdings, everything from New Orleans to Acadia would eventually have been called Toronto).

In 1787, when British Governor General Lord Dorchester purchased most of what would become the GTA from the Mississauga nation for the equivalent of $200,000 and some dollar-store quality trade goods, he noted the name Toronto already in use and called the deal “the Toronto Purchase.”

There was a setback in 1793, when new Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, who supposedly had an aversion to aboriginal names (and apparently to original ones as well), changed the name of the growing town to York. However, as early as 1804, with Simcoe back in England, a petition was circulated to revert back to Toronto on the grounds that there were already a bunch of better places called York, and also people were adding “Muddy” to it and laughing.

The logic proved persuasive, and when the area was incorporated as a city in 1834, it was under the name “Toronto.” We would never go back.

Images from the Wikimedia Commons.