I don’t normally write about etymology. The origin of words and names is a fascinating subject in itself, mixing as it does linguistics and history with just about any sphere of knowledge. But mine is a blog about language and creativity, and there are plenty of excellent blogs on etymology (like this one) already out there. However, after a weekend road-trip from my home in the South East of England, to the Lake District in the North West, I was inspired to break the habit and write about the curious etymology of English geography.
England, like many countries, boasts a wonderfully creative assortment of place names – as Bill Bryson celebrates with the title of his recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling. Naming all of its various locations and geographical features, over the centuries, has surely taken a great deal of creativity. In many cases, place names are nouns (like Ham from the Old English hamm for enclosure), or adjectivally modified nouns (West Ham) acting as very simple descriptions. Many are noun compounds either with some kind of particle or suffix (Birm-ing-ham), or without (Cam-bridge). Some place names, like that of Pease Pottage (literally “pea soup”) in West Sussex, go beyond simple descriptions into the poetic realm of metaphor.
But what struck me on the trip is the degree of multilingual creativity (of sorts) that has been involved in naming the various villages, towns and cities, rivers, lakes and mountains, you find up and down the country. It’s not just that different languages have been used to name places by different people at different times – from the earliest Celtic languages and the Latin of the Romans, to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse of the Vikings, to the French of the Normans, and even some Italian. What struck me was how often, because of the way they have influenced each other over time, the various languages have been thrown together within English place names. It’s surely something of a paradox that in such a seemingly monolingual country, England’s multilingual past is etched into its very geography.
The best way to show you what I mean is to take you with me on my weekend road trip across the country. So jump in, fasten your seatbelt, and off we go.
Day One: St Albans to Carnforth
After breakfast, we set off from St Albans, an old Roman town a few miles north of London, and take the M1 north through Hertfordshire, then Northamptonshire – two of the many English counties taking a suffix from the Old English scīr meaning “district”. Then, it’s into Leicestershire, where the motorway passes a few miles from the burial place of Richard III and our first example of multilingual creativity: the word Leicester stems from the Anglo-Saxon Ligora-cæster: a neatly Romano-British mixture of the Celtic name of a tribe or river and an Old English word for Roman fort (from the Latin castrum). Incidentally, not far to the West is Ashby de la Zouche, probably one of the coolest sounding English towns, which provides our second example. Ashby derives from the Old English or Old Norse for “ash tree”, and the Old Norse bý for “farmstead”. “De la Zouche” is French and comes later, from the family name of a bunch of Norman aristocrats.
Then, it’s up through Nottinghamshire, my home county, and into Derbyshire where we turn off the motorway towards the market town of Chesterfield (open land by another Roman cæster). From there, it’s west over the Pennines, the range of hills that form the central spine of England, named at some point in the 18th century, probably to ape the Italian Appennini. Then, it’s on into the Derbyshire Dales (from the Old English dæl for “valley”), part of the wider Peak District, the country’s first national park. Here the road gets windier and things get generally wilder, and there are more sheep. We drive past Baslow (burial place hlāw of some Anglo Saxon bloke called Bassa). Then, it’s on to once plague-stricken Eyam (from the Old English ēg for island, in the dative plural, meaning something like “bits of land between streams”).
After a quick sandwich in the Miner’s Arms, it’s then back on the road. We drive on north-westward into Cheshire and the village of Disley, from the Old English leāh for clearing in a wood, for a quick visit to Lyme Park (location of another -ley, Pemberley, in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). From here it’s up the M6, past Greater Manchester and all its traffic, into Lancashire. Through the window to our left is a third Anglo-Saxoned Celtic-Latin hybrid, Lancaster (from cæster and the Celtic-named river Lune). Finally, we reach our overnight destination, where we are fed a hearty plate of roast lamb by our hosts, my aunt and uncle. The Lancashire town of Carnforth was once just a ford populated with cranes (from the Old English cran) until a gradual metathesis eventually switched the two phonemes around.
Day Two: The Lake District
On Saturday, it’s the main event. After breakfast, we drive a few miles on into the Lake District, the national park which is famously home to one only “lake”, but many equally beautiful “meres”, “tarns” (from the Old Norse), and “waters” (Old English) – it’s also abundant in “crags” (from Celtic), “gills” (Old Norse gil), “fells” (from the Old Norse fjall), and “edges”. We drive north along the touristed shores of Windermere (lake of a bloke called Vinandr), remembering that calling it “Lake Windermere” would be tautology (like River Avon and Lake Michigan). On the way to Ambleside we pass a sign for Troutbeck (from the Old Norse bekkr for stream). Then, it’s on to lovely Grasmere (grassy lake), once home and burial place of William Wordsworth, for a spot of lunch. Finally, a bit further on, we reach our least body of water, Thirlmere, in the shadow of Helvellyn – the third highest fell in the Lake District (and England for that matter), a hill with something of a question mark next to it, etymologically speaking.
From there, it’s back down to Windermere and a cross-country route home which takes us via Arnside, a small seaside town on the treacherous tidal “sands” where the river Kent flows into Morecambe bay, before cutting back to Carnforth for one final night. Incidentally, Morecambe is another example of multilingual naming: it comes to us from the Latin recording of an older Celtic name (Morikámbē) for the bay itself.
Day Three: Homeward bound
The next morning, it’s time for the long drive home. We take the less scenic route this time but it’s no less interesting, etymologically speaking.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A. D. Mills (1998).