Random Facts About … Marvelous and Misused Names of Eastern Shore Towns

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By David Martin —

We were excited when our internet tubes revealed that the name of our hometown was used prominently in a major motion picture. In “The Man From Toronto,” starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, Hart’s character decides to take his wife on a weekend vacation to … yes … Onancock! When they arrive in “Onancock” (you’ll see the reason for the quote marks shortly), the name of the town fills the entire screen. Unfortunately, except for spelling Onancock correctly, this movie gets everything wrong about the town.

The characters mispronounce the name as “Own-an-cock” instead of “O-nan-cock.” When a piece of paper showing an Onancock address is flashed on screen, it shows the ZIP code for Chesapeake, not Onancock. And second worst insult of all, when the couple arrive in “Onancock,” the movie town doesn’t resemble the real town. The “Onancock” scene was filmed at the Heart Lake Conservation Area in Brampton, Canada, where a set was built lakeside. Hey, Hollywood, Onancock is not on a lake!

Early in the film, going to Onancock is a big deal and it is in Onancock where an identity mix-up occurs that sets up the movie’s entire premise. With all this focus on Onancock, you’d think the producers could’ve at least sprung for a drone aerial shot of the real town, regardless of where the scene with actors was shot.

Which leads us to the worst insult: the adolescent, potty-mouth, snickering reason Onancock was chosen. According to one reviewer: “Fate puts both men in Onancock, Virginia, a real-life location obviously chosen for its name, because it’s ‘funny.’” Another reviewer agrees, saying that Hart’s character takes his wife “ … on a relaxing vacation to Onancock, Virginia, no doubt chosen for the bathroom humor possibilities inherent in its name.”

Really? We wonder if the producers were considering other “hilarious” location names such as Pee Pee Island, which at least has the advantage of being in Canada where the film was shot.

Onancock comes from an Algonquin word, “auwannaku,” for foggy place. Originally called Port Scarborough, the town, founded in 1680, is one of the nation’s oldest communities settled by Europeans.

The Shore is blessed with many fascinating town names. Ryan Webb, from Machipongo, has a master’s degree in applied linguistics and a website explaining some of those names:

“The Matchipungoes were one of the larger native tribes on the Eastern Shore and established several villages here. One village was near Wachapreague and another was near Brownsville in Northampton. The word now spelled as Machipongo means fine dust and flies and was the Algonquin name for Hog Island. … The name Pungoteague comes from an Algonquin word meaning sand fly river. … In 1668, Saxis was originally called Sikes’ Island. It was so named after Robert Sikes, the first person to own the island entirely.”

Reaction to “The Man From Toronto” has ranged from lukewarm to downright hostile. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 45% audience score and only 26% based on reviews. In the words of one reviewer, the movie is “stale, annoyingly busy, and altogether unfunny.” Regarding the movie’s handling of Onancock, we echo the sentiment: boo, hiss, boo.

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