Vide Poche: A French North American Toponym

By Jean-Pierre Gendreau-Hétu

The French place-name “Vide Poche” (translated as ’empty pocket’) is well-known among the populace of St. Ignace, Michigan and St. Louis, Missouri (where the area known as Carondelet was once known as Vide Poche.) It’s unique quality, relative rarity as a name, long history, and documentation have attracted the attention of scholars of French North American history. Québécois researcher Jean-Pierre Gendreau-Hétu has offered the following English summaries of two papers on the topic (“Vide-Poche, un archipel toponymique inédit en Amérique du Nord” & “Vide-Poche, toponyme générique d’Amérique française?”) forthcoming in French in the journal Onomastica Canadiana. -ed

Locating and relating places named Vide-Poche brings out a yet unnoticed onomastic archipelago in North America. Nine places known as Vide-Poche span a wide geographic area and one is faced with the likelihood of a former generic function. The placename Vide-Poche expanded along waterways from the St. Lawrence to the Mississipi and Missouri rivers, but has only attracted local, narrow or anecdotal attention. The motivation behind each place named Vide-Poche finds partial explanation in its comparative study. The occurrence (ca 1650) of the same placename in Charente, France hints at an ancient phenomenon. In a forthcoming article  in Onomastica Canadiana, I look into the lexicographic context of this toponym and aims at extracting the conditions that determined its diffusion and/or repeated inception.

The distribution of Vide-Poche hints at its function as a former generic placename. Located in nine different places from Québec to the American Midwest, this toponym has shown resilience in Missouri, in stark contrast with its vanishing twins in the St. Lawrence Valley. Motivation for this placename has perplexed observers, yielding mostly unsatisfactory explanations for the pejorative meanings that have been rooted in several areas since the early 1800’s at least. The study of abundant sources from the last centuries documents and questions the negative load steadily attached to ‘vide-poche’ as a noun as well as a name. A former nickname for the mill provides a possible solution. Yet Vide-Poche also penetrated the fur trade to the extent that this phrase ended up referring to the mixed-blood culture in the St. Louis area. This French-language era enclave in Upper Louisiana left clues that can be used in return to analyze the Laurentian Vide-Poche’s. Far-fetched etymologies, such as the literary one imagined by Québec writer Jacques Ferron, are thus put in perspective and reveal a quest for motivation dating back centuries.

« Frenchman singing their songs of the Vide-Poche,

of the northern rivers, of a half-forgotten France. »

Robert Luther Duffus, The Santa Fe Trail

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