Sunday, 19 November 2017

Welsh place names in the USA

In an unashamedly blatant plug for my book English Place Names Transferred to the USA, I thought it might be nice to look at some of the Welsh examples. This is unknown territory for me as I neither speak nor read Welsh, so I'm grateful for the help from those who do.

Bala - is a place name from bala and 'a place where a river enters a lake'.

Berwyn - another which has not changed at all since berwyn means 'snowy summit'.

Bangor - a delightful name for it describes what could be found in the early days as it describes this as the place of 'the wattled fence'.

Bryn Mawr - is Welsh for 'the big hill'.

Caernarvon - as many will know this is Welsh for 'the fort near Mon', this the Welsh name for Angelesey.

Cardiff - is the 'fort on the (river) Taff'. Origins of the river name are disputed but may mean 'craggy' or 'rocks' and describe the nature of the youthful river.

Flint - is named for the 'gravel' of the stony area on which the castle was built.

Lampeter - an Anglicised version of Llanbedr or 'church of St Peter'.

Gwynedd - is the 'land of the Venedotae', this the name of the Celtic tribe.

Montgomery - took the name of Roger de Montgomery, himself named after the town of Montgomery in the Pays d'Auge region of Normandy. THe Welsh name os Trefaldwyn means 'the town of Baldwin'.

Pembrey - simple Welsh for 'the top of the hill'.

Pembroke - is the Anglicised version of Penfro or 'amd's end'.

Radnor - is the English version and means 'red bank', while the original Welsh name of Maesyfed means 'Hyfaidd's field'.

Swansea - this is not English but an Old Scandinavian name meaning 'Sveyn's island', the Welsh version is Abertawe mouth of 'the river Tawe'

Sunday, 12 November 2017


Some years ago I posted the appalling story of the treatment of old photographs by someone I refuse to admit I'm distantly related to. You can read the Criminal Waste of History here.

For me old imagery is extremely useful when illustrating books and articles. Thus recently, having shown an interested party some of the images I had discovered, an interesting conversation followed which got me thinking when the other said how it was "amazing these photographs have survived". Well in the case of those rescued from the bonfire, this is true. But is this really the case? Remember images in those days were precious, few images were taken and those that were successfully developed cherished as these represented a significant investment. Furthermore, these images were often 'captioned' in the sense the names of those pictured were given on the reverse, often including the date and even the place. Such was the case with Maitland Kempson pictured below - indeed without the note on the reverse I would have had no idea who the man was.

Yet will old images be so easy to find in future? Will we have any notion as to who, where and when? Today's technology makes photography commonplace - we have images from cameras, mobile phones, tablets, and the many video cameras dotted around everywhere. Now 'when' is easy to as the digital record puts both the date and the time - assuming the equipment is set correctly, of course. But does anyone ever bother to caption images, except for those on social media? And are they saved and easily retrievable? No. Usually when the equipment dies the images die with them, and even those saved online will never be found again once the photographer's copyright has started to countdown from 70 years - unless passwords are known.

So, it is not surprising to find old images have survived from a century ago, but try finding an image of Jack or Lindsey a hundred years from now and recognising them when you do. Best of British!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Health and Safety

On Tuesday 23rd November 1858, Eli Meakin had been working on his father's farm at Whitgreave. Employed as a waggoner's boy, whilst driving the horses he is thought to have stepped over the horizontal shaft between them and the threshing machine. His action caused him to slip and he fell between the cog wheels. Subsequently found by a passer-by who, seeing the horses stopped and unsupervised, investigated and found the lad held quite firmly. The man released him but his chest injuries were appalling and he died shortly afterwards. Eli Meakin was just twelve years of age.

At the subsequent inquest the threshing machine was deemed to be dangerous for any driver, for the rods were secured in an improper position and the wheels unprotected. The owner of the farm promised the equipment would not be used again until the improvements had been made. Too late for young Eli whose demise was recorded as Accidental Death.

It seems unlikely the same verdict would be reached today. Further stories like this can be found in my Bloody British Histories: Stafford.

Sunday, 29 October 2017


Trees are comprised of wood, yet a wood is made up of trees. A linguistic quirk? No. If we go back far enough we find Proto-Germanic widu and Proto-Indo-European widhu, each used to refer to the both the 'timber' and also 'tree'. Hence the anomaly is the word 'tree', itself odly derived from the root (no pun intended) drew-o meaning 'be firm, solid' and for obvious reasons.

But what about the different names given to various kinds of trees? Where do these originate?

Oak - a name which is Germanic but that is where the trail ends and the etymology is a mystery. However the Indo-European root of deru, which is also the Greek and Celtic word for 'oak', is also the source of the English word 'tree'. And if that isn't confusing enough, when the Vikings arrived in Iceland and brought with them the Norse word eik or 'oak', they discovered no oaks whatsoever and thus used eik to mean simply 'tree'.

Broom - the tree gets its name from the Proto-Germanic braemaz 'thorny bush' and derived from Proto-Indo-European bherem 'to project, a point'. Such lumps and points characterise the broom tree, this also making them most suitable for being tied together to produce what we would call a besom but which is effectively still a broom for sweeping.

Elm - quite easy to trace this back to Proto-Indo-European el meaning 'red, brown'. It is also the origin of the word 'elk' and 'eland'.

Yew - a similar origin to that of the elm (see above), where Proto-Indo-European ei-wo also suggests 'reddish'.

Maple - a name of surprisingly recent origins, indeed it seems to have simply appeared in Germanic languages around 1,500 years ago. It is highly improbable to think all Germanci languages suddenly began using the name, hence there must be a common origin but that root is unknown.

Lime - or linden tree is derived from Proto-Indo-European lent-o meaning 'flexible', this a reference to the trees pliant bast, this the inner fibrous bark.

Beech - all forms across the Proto-Indo-European languages, these all from Proto-Indo-European bhago and all simply refer to the tree. The same word is also the source of the word 'book' and thus the smooth bark of the tree would be seen as being a black metaphorical page on which to make marks to send messages.

Pine - ultimately from Proto-Indo-European pi-nu and derived from peie 'be fat, to swell' and liely referring to the sap or resin pouring from the tree when it is damaged.

Alder - has exactly the same origins as the elm (see above) and simply means 'red, brown'.

Ash - a Germanic term and, while the origin is far from certain, seems to come from it being the preferred wood used in the making of spear shafts. Old English aesc plega may have been used to mean 'war' but it literally translates as 'spear play'.

Holly - easy to see why the Proto-Indo-European root here is kel meaning 'to prick'.

Willow - ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wel meaning 'to turn, revolve' and a reference to the young willow's usefulness as it is whippy and flexible.

Larch - thought to be a loanword from an Alpine Gaulish langauge which could be related to Old Celtic darik meaning 'oak' which may add to the information known for 'oak' (see above) to suggest the word 'oak' simply meant 'tree'.

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Never one to simply learn names, I have to know the origin, and having someone in the family who finds the skeleton the most fascinating part of everyone, I thought it might be interesting to see where the correct names originate. Whilst most of us would refer to it as the collarbone, I begin with the clavicle which not only comes first alphabetically but also happens to be the only bone I've broken to date which isn't in my hands or feet.

Clavicle - came to English from the French clavicule which not only meant 'collarbone' but also 'small key'. Tracing this back to the Latin clavicula, where the meaning was 'small key, bolt', it is from clavis or 'key' and shows this bone was seen as being that which fastened the shoulder together.

Coccyx - directly from the Greek kokkyx or 'cuckoo' as the Greek physician Galen believed this bone resembled the beak of a cuckoo.

Femur - a word derived from Latin, the etymology of which is completely unknown. Clearly this is an ancient term for the longest and strongest bone in the human body, for it is known as the femur in English, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Fibula - another taken directly from Latin, where fibula meant 'clasp, brooch, bolt, peg, pin' and taken from the root figere 'to drive in, insert, fasten' which is itself related to the modern 'fix'. The bone is seen as such because it resembles what we would today call a safety pin.

Humerus - this bone of the upper arm is again taken directly from the Latin, itself derived from umerus 'shoulder' and from the Proto-Indo-European root omeso which also meant 'shoulder'.

Mandible - again from Latin where mandibula meant 'jaw' and related to mandere 'chew' and derived from the Proto-Indo-European root mendh 'chew'.

Maxilla - another directly from the Latin where maxilla also meant 'upper jaw'. It is derived from mala meaning 'jaw, cheekbone'.

Metacarpus - is also Latin but here Modern Latin derived from the Greek metakarpion. Here meta 'between' or 'next after' and derived from Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle', together with Greek karpos 'wrist'.

Metatarsus - as above the meta element can be traced to Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle'. Here with Greek tarsos 'ankle, sole of the foot, rim of the eyelid' and originally used to refer to 'a flat surface for drying'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry'.

Patella - another Latin word with the same meaning of 'kneecap' but was also used to mean 'pan' as was the root patina. Ultimately both come from Proto-Indo-European pet-ano 'to spread', itself referring to the flattened or dished shape of the pan or kneecap.

Pelvis - easy to see by looking at the bones of the pelvic girdle as to why it comes from the Latin pelvis 'basin'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European pel 'container', which has also given us Greek pelex 'helmet', Sanskrit palavi 'vessel', Greek pelike 'goblet, bowl', and the word full common to both Old Scandinavian and Old English and meaning 'cup'.

Radius - has the same origin as the spoke of a wheel or that part of a circle, however just what that origin may be is unknown.

Rib - a Germanic word which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European rebh meaning 'to roof, cover'. Hence if the curved bone is seen as a rafter supporting a roof, clearly the bone's shape has been likened to that and not vice versa as a certain book may suggest.

Scapula - the Latin scapula means 'shoulder'. It was also used to mean 'spades, shovels' and this suggests the bone being used as such, albeit these of animals. Such a scraping motion when using these tools can be seen in the Proto-Indo-European root skep 'to scrape'.

Sternum - comes from the Greek sternon 'chest, breast' as well as 'breastbone'. It is related to the Greek stornyai 'to spread out' which is also seen in the original Proto-Indo-European stere 'to spread'.

Tibia - the Latin tibia means not only the 'shinbone' but also used to mean 'pipe, flute'. The instrument would have been made from said bone, and the etymological trail stops here.

Ulna - Latin again where ulna meant 'elbow' and was also a measure of lenth. This cominge from Proto-Indo-European el-ina which also meant 'elbow, forearm'.

Vertebra - in Latin meant 'joint or articulation of the body' as much as it did 'backbone'. This comes from the Latin vertere 'to turn' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wer also 'to turn' and thus seeing the backbone as a virtual hinge for the body.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Australian Territories

To define the names of the eight territories of Australia seems a little pointless, for they are obvious. Of course, this is because they were named very recently, albeit from words often coined very much earlier. Yet these are worthwhile looking at for, unlike most names which simply developed, these were chosen.

Western Australia - obviously the westernmost part of Australia, but why 'west'? It transpires this an abbreviation of the Proto-Indo-European compound wes-pero meaning 'evening'. Australia is an abbreviation of the Latin Terra Australis meaning simply 'southern land'.

Southern Australia - from the Proto-Germanic sunthaz or quite literally 'sun side'. For the origins of Australia see Western Australia above.

Northern Territory - 'north' comes from Proto-Indo-European ner meaning 'left' as that is where north lies when facing the rising sun. Note the same word is the root of Sanskrit narakah 'hell'. Territory is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry' and orium a suffix denoting place. Together this produced the Latin territorium meaning 'a place from which people are warned off'.

Australian Capital Territory - Named as such for it is home to Canberra, itself a greatly Anglicised version of an indigenous name. Tales of this being named Canberry because of the number of native Australian Cranberry bushes growing around here seems fanciful, at best. Possibly this represents an old Ngunnawal word meaning 'meeting place', although other sources point to the two mountains which dominate the skyline and thus the river running between them is the nganbira or 'hollow between a woman's breasts'. For the origins of Territory see Northern Territory above and for the origins of Australia see Western Australia, also above.

New South Wales - a word seen since Proto-Indo-European newo and thus has hardly changed in form or meaning for thousands of years. For the origins of south see South Australia above, while Wales is an Old English word, where wahl meant 'foreigner' or, more correctly, 'not Saxon'.

Queensland - named in 1859 after former monarch Queen Victoria.

Victoria - exactly as for Queensland above.

Tasmania - is named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European to sight the island, doing so on November 24th 1642, although he called it Van Diemen's Land after the then Dutch governor-general of the East Indies. Abel's surname comes from a Germanic term meaning 'of great faith'.

What do we know of the names of regional names used by those living here for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans? Nothing, as while they had names for places they did not name vast areas as they simply did not need to.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Colonial Slang

Dialect terms vary greatly across England, words used in the north and east would be completely unknown in the south and west. What is more the English spoken in Scotland and Ireland has even more variations. Hence I wondered what terms had crept in English among the former British colonies, in particular the slang terms. There were hundreds, but having removed those referring to body parts, sex and those of more obvious meaning, I ended up with the following list.

Australian: Back of Bourke (a very long way away)

Australian: Bush oyster (nasal mucus)

Australian: Franger (condom)

Australian: Mystery bag (a sausage)

Australian: Zack (sixpence - actually 5 cents)

Canadian: Toque (a warm knitted cap)

Canadian: Cowtown (how the locals know Calgary, Alberta)

Canadian: Pablum (vitamin deficiencies) and named from a propietary baby food.

Canadian: Gastown (a region of Vancouver) named after Gassy Jack Deighton and refers to the area devoted to the arts, media, technology and tourism.

Canadian: Skookum (excellent)

New Zealand: Carked (death, not necessarily a person)

New Zealand: Choice (thanks a lot)

New Zealand: Hungus (someone who likes food a lot)

New Zealand: Squizz (a glace)

New Zealand: Dairy (expensive)

South African: Babbelas (a hangover) comes from the Zulu word ibhabhalazi.

South African: Braai (barbecue)

South African: Fundi (expert) comes from the Nguni tribe's language.

South African: Jislaaik (an expression of surprise)

South African: Shongololo (a millipede) and from the Zulu word ukushonga which means 'to roll up'.

If anyone wants to drop me a line and suggest others, feel free.