Sunday, 17 September 2017

Norse Gods

In my work on English place name, particularly in the north of the country, I often find names referring to Norse gods and thought it might prove interesting, especially with the new Thor film due out later this year, to see how and why they were named.

Should start with the home of the heavenly hall in which Odin receives the souls of those slain in battle. The name is from Old Norse valr 'those slain in battle' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wele 'to strike, wound'. This root has also given us Latin veles 'ghosts of the dead', Old Irish fuil 'blood', and Welsh gwel 'wound'.

Aegir - the Norse sea god has a name meaning 'sea' and related to Old English ieg 'island', Gothic ahua 'river, waters', Proto-Germanic akhwo 'river', Latin aqua 'water', and Proto-Indo-European akwa 'water'.

Balder - his name is related to Old English bealdor, baldor 'lord, prince, king'. This honorific likely comes from a Proto-Germanic term related to balpaz, Old English bald, and Old High German pald, all meaning 'bold, brave'.

Bragi - got his name from Old Norse bragr 'poetry'.

Buri - the first god of Norse mythology, has a name where the origin is unknown but (as always) has several suggestions. Some hold this to be from Old Norse burr meaning 'son' which, as he is the first Norse god, hardly fits. However his status as the founder of the gods does add weight to the idea this came from buri 'producer'. He came into being when the cow Authumbla released him from a salty block of ice by licking it - which is probably my favourite creation myth.

Eir - a goddess associated with medical knowledge has a name from Old Norse meaning 'help, mercy'.

Frey - a name derived from Proto-Norse frawjaz 'lord' given to a god associated with kingship, virility, prosperity, sunshine, and fair weather.

Freyja - a goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, war and death has a name from Old Norse freyja meaning 'the lady'.

Frigg - a goddess who gave her name to Friday seems to come from the same root as Freyja (above) and thus simply means 'the lady'.

Hel - a female figure associated with the place of the same name, both likely coming from Proto-Germanic xaljo or haljo meaning 'concealed place' or 'the underworld'. Hel had a horse named Sleipnir meaning 'the slipper'.

Hermothr - is Old Norse for 'war spirit', he often spoken of as the messenger of the gods.

Hlin - a goddess whose name means 'protectress' and thought to simply be an alternative name for Frigg.

Loki - this god's name has never really been understood but may be related to Old Norse luka meaning 'close, shut', which would fit with Loki's role in the Battle of Ragnarok.

Nanna - Balder's wife and another whose name has uncertain origins. This may be nanth 'the daring one' or, and this seems less likely, typical baby-babbly meaning 'mother'.

Od - sometimes given as Odr, is Old Norse for 'mind, soul' and related to Proto-Germanic words meaning 'madness, furious, vehement, eager'.

Odin - has exactly the same origins as Od or Odr (see above).

Ran - a Norse goddess associated with the sea whose name means 'runner'.

Sif - a goddess associated with the earth, her name is a plural form of Msifjar and understood as 'in-law-relative'.

Sigyn - is the goddess wife of Loki whose name means 'victorious girlfriend'.

Thor - the hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, protection of mankind, and fertility has a name associated with the Germanic thunraz 'thunder'.

Tyr - a god whose name means literally 'god'.

Vidar - a Norse god whose name means 'wide ruler'.

Wotan - has exactly the same origin as Odin (see above).

Saturday, 9 September 2017


Always been interested in heraldry, although I know very little. Hence I thought if I looked at the etymology of the terms it may help me to understand more and thus interpret what I see before me.

Abatements - marks showing some dishonourable act, not actual marks but seen as several pieces removed and all of different shapes. Mostly used in a legal sense to mean 'destruction or removal of a nuisance' - the two clearly connected.

Achievement - refers to the ranks and/or titles of the family. No surprise then to find it comes from Old French meaning 'to accomplish'.

Ambulant - describes the figure as 'walking', for obvious reasons.

Anchor - used to refer to 'hope' more often than any maritime connection, this a biblical quote where one's faith is said to be an anchor through life's storms.

Baton - in earlier generations it signifies illegitimacy of the first bearer.

Chevron - one of the simplest of images and one of the earliest, hence its original usage is unknown. What we do know is it comes from the French word for 'rafter' or 'roof'.

Courant - describes an animal - such as a horse, stag, dog - running at full speed.

Crescent - not a crescent as we would think, ie in a crescent moon, but one usually elongated and lying on its back with horns uppermost.

Dexter - heraldic terminology for the righthand side.

Escutcheon - a lovely word referring to the shield, and derived from the Latin scutum meaning 'shield' and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning 'hide, conceal'.

Gradient - a term meaning 'walking'.

Lampasse - refers to the tongue of any quadruped when of a different colour to the rest of the creature. No, neither have I.

Martlet - perhaps not an actual bird, although some sources say this is a blackbird or swallow, but is marked by its lack of legs, thighs yes, legs no.

Potent - another name for a crutch or cane.

Saltire - as many will know is a cross, the most famous that of the cross of St Andrew, but heraldically it refers to a cross not in the usual vertical and horizontal form.

Sinister - lefthand side.

Tierce - refers to the shield being divided into three.

Vorant - is a term telling us one figure is swallowing or devouring another.

Does knowing the origins of thus the meaning of the terms help me understand more of heraldry? Only time will tell.

Sunday, 3 September 2017


I did look at some basic colours in July 2015 under COLOURFUL LANGUAGE. If you want to know the origins of colours such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black, white, gold, silver, purple, brown, beige, cerise, chartreuse, cyan, ecru, magenta, mauve, taupe, or puce, simply follow the link. For other colours, read on

Amber - the name of the colour comes from the substance ambergris, secreted in the intestines of sperm whales and used in perfumes, itself from the Arabic anbar referring to the product rather than its colour.

Amethesyt - from the same source as the gemstone, this representing Latin amethystus, itself from Greek amethustos translating as 'anti-intoxicant' as it was once believed to be a remedy for drunkeness.

Apricot - from the name of the fruit, which can be traced through Catalan aberoc, Portuguese albricoque, Arabic al-birquq, Byzantine Greek berikokkia, and ultimately from the Latin (malum) praecoquum telling us it was the 'early ripening fruit'.

Auburn - now this will confuse you, for the reddish-brown colour has only been associated with this word since the 16th century. Prior to that the English word meant 'whitish, yellowish-white' and comes from Old French auborne and Medieval Latin alburnus 'off-white' and ultimately derived from Latin albus 'white'.

Azure - a colour originally made from the stone lapis lazuli. This came from Latin lazuri and lost the initial letter when the French considered it to be the definite article. This comes from Greek lazour and ultimately the Turkestan place name Lajward. This was mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and was where the stone was originally collected.

Burgundy - named after the administartive region of France, itself taking the name of the Gothic tribe who lived there, The baurgjans taking their name as 'the dwellers of the fortified places'.

Cobalt - from the name of the metal, itself from the German kobold meaning 'household goblin'. This was down to the ore obtained from the Harz Mountains containing arsenic and sulphur, these making the miners ill but thought to be caused by the goblin of the mountain.

Copper - takes its name from the metal, itself from Latin cuprum and Greek Kyprios meaning 'Cyprus' for this was one of the original mining sites.

Cream - the colour of the dairy product, itself from Middle French creme'chrism, holy oil' and ultimately from the Latin chrisma 'ointment'.

Crimson - came to English from Old Spanish cremeson meaning 'belonging to the kermes'. These louse-like insects were the source of the red dye. However if we trace 'kermes' we find this comes from Arabic qirmiz and ultimately Sanskrit krmi-ja meaning 'that produced by a worm'. Hence the insect game the name to a colour which gave its name to an insect which gave its name to a colour.

Emerald - came to English from Old French, Latin, Greek, Semitic, Herbrew and ultimately Arabic barq or 'lightning'.

Fawn - takes its name from the colour of the young deer, although originally it meant 'young animal' and shares its root with 'foetus' which was originally used to mean 'offspring'.

Gentian - said to be named from the plant from which the colour is named, itself taken from the king of ancient Illyria named Gentius who is said to have discovered its properties.

Ginger - a long trail through Old English, Latin, Greek and Prakrit brings us to two possible origins. Here we either have Sanskrit srngam vera 'horn body' and a description of its shape; or Malayam spice names inchi-ver 'root'.

Hazel - named from the colour of the nut, itself almost unchanged since Proto-Indo-European was spoken.

Heliotrope - a Greek term literally translating as 'the plant turning its leaves and flowers to the sun'.

Jet - originates from Greek gagates lithos 'the stone of Gages' which is where it was collcted.

Khaki - a Persian word meaning 'dust'.

Lavender - comes from the Latin lividus 'bluish, livid' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leue 'to wash'.

Lemon - derived from the fruit, itself traceable through a line including Old French, Arabic, Persian, Balinese and Malay where limaw probably meant 'citrus fruit' - the same as is found for 'lime' below.

Lilac - not used as a colour until 1801, this is derived from the name of the shrub introduced to Europe through Turkey, where it was known as leylak and likely derived from its native Balkan name.

Lime - see 'lemon' above.

Maroon - coming to English from the French where marron meant 'chestnut'. Here the likely origin is Greek maraon 'sweet chestnut'.

Mauve - named from the French mauve meaning 'mallow' as the colour is close to that of the mallow plant. However the dye was not obtained from that plant but was the first dye not produced from animal or vegetable matter. This process was unique, actually creating a whole new technology which formed the basis of many other processes - the whole fascinating story is told by Simon Garfield in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World - a book I can certainly recommend.

Navy - obviously the colour used by the Royal Navy, the dye obtained from what became known as the navy bean. Clearly it takes its name from the branch of the armed forces, all of which lead back to Latin navis a plural form based on Proto-Indo-European nau 'boat'.

Ochre - named from the clay soil from which the pigment was obtained. The etymological trail can be traced back to the Greek ochra but ends there and the original meaning unknown.

Olive - no surprise to find it comes from the fruit, itself named from the tree and ultimately seen in an Aegean language meaning simply 'oil'.

Peach - another named from the fruit, it is derived from Persis or 'Persia' and even once known as the Persian apple'.

Pearl - obviously from the gem, itself having two possible origins. If this refers to the pearl itself it could be likened to the shape of the fruit of the pear tree, itself referring to the tree. However it seems more likely to be derived from the oyster in which it grows, a creature known in Latin as pernula 'sea mussel', but also used to refer to 'ham' as it was seen as resembling the oyster shell.

Pink - named from the flower, itself from the Latin verb pungere and Proto-Indo-European peuk both meaning 'to prick, pierce'. The flower uses this name as the petals have a perforated appearance, and we still use the word in this sense, albeit only when cutting with pinking shears.

Ruby - from the colour of the gemstone, itself from the Latin rubeus or 'red'.

Ruddy - only used as a euphemism since 1914, a ruddy interesting fact and the start of a trail which ends with Proto-Indo-European reudh meaning both 'red' and 'ruddy' and the only word for a colour thus far known to have been used in Proto-Indo-European.

Sable - as a colour only seen in heraldry, where it is black. However the word comes from the animal, although the creatures coat is brown. It seems likely the use of this for 'black' comes from the custom where the coat of the sable was dyed black and worn when in mourning.

Sapphire - traceable to Sanskrit, where sanipriya meant 'sacred to the planet Saturn'.

Scarlet - first seen in English in the 13th century when used to mean 'rich cloth' which was often, but not always, red. This was likely from a Germanic term where scar 'sheared' joined with lachen 'cloth'.

Tan - the colour is derived from the Latin tannum 'crushed oak bark', this used as a dye. Interestingly Breton tann meaning 'oak tree' is related to German Tanne 'fir tree'. Clearly the two are quite different in shape and one deciduous the other evergreen, which almost certainly shows this colour is ultimately from a very early word, one possibly referring to 'a tree' or maybe even as simplistic as 'plant'.

Titian - named from a person, specifically the Venetian artist Tiziano Vecellio (1490-1576) and a reference to the light auburn hair colouring often found in his work.

Turquoise - as a colour first seen in 1853, this comes from Old French pierre turqueise 'Turkish stone'. Thus the name comes from the country, itself thought to come from Phrygian ank 'angled, crooked' and a reference to a gorge where these people were first identified.

Ultramarine - from Latin ultramarinus and ultimately Proto-Indo-European al mori literally 'beyond the water' and so called as the mineral was imported from Asia.

Vermilion - is from Old French vermeillon 'red lead, cinnabar', and derived from vermeil which comes from Latin vermiculus 'a little worm' and from here shares the same origins as found in 'crimson' above and began as Proto-Indo-European wer 'to turn, bend' which is the basis for the modern word 'worm'.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Cathedral Cities of England

It has been a couple of months since I looked at place names, even longer since I looked at the origins of English place names. Thus recently having popped in to look at some architecture - Pugin it was, not particularly uplifting unlike the majority I have seen - I thought it time to look at some of England's place names through the cathedral cities. This is also a thinly disguised way to remind everyone of my books on place names covering England.

Canterbury - this is 'the fortified place of the people of Kent'. Further information can be found in my book East Kent Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Bath - 'the place at the Roman baths'. Further information can be found in my book Somerset Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Wells - 'the springs'. Further information can be found in my book Somerset Place Names.

Birmingham - 'the homestead of the family or followers of a man called Boerma'. Further information can be found in my book Warwickshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Bristol - 'assembly place by the bridge'. Further information can be found in my book Somerset Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Chelmsford - 'the ford of a man named Ceolmaer'. Further information can be found in my book Essex Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Chichester - 'the former Roman strognhold of a man called Cissa'. Further information can be found in my book West Sussex Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Coventry - 'the tree of a man named Cofa'. Further information can be found in my book Warwickshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Derby - 'the farmstead where deer are seen'. Further information can be found in my book Derbyshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Ely - 'the district where eels can be found'. Further information can be found in my book Cambridgeshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Exeter - 'the former Roman stronghold on the river Exe', this a British river name meaning simply 'water'. Further information can be found in my book South Devon Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Gloucester - 'the former Roman stronghold known as Glevum', this a Romano-British place name meaning 'the bright place'. Further information can be found in my book Gloucestershire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Guildford - ''ford by the gold-coloured hill'. Further information can be found in my book Surrey Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Ipswich - 'the trading centre of a man named Gip'. Further information can be found in my book Suffolk Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Hereford - 'the ford capable of permitting an army to cross'. Further information can be found in my book Herefordshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Leicester - 'the former Roman stronghold of the Ligore'. Further information can be found in my book Leicestershire and Rutland Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Lichfield - 'the grey wood'. Further information can be found in my book Staffordshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Lincoln - 'the Romany colony by the pool'. Further information can be found in my book Lincolnshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

London - an uncertain name but maybe 'the landing place of man named Londo'. Further information can be found in my book Middlesex Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Norwich - 'the northern trading centre'. Further information can be found in my book Norfolk Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Oxford - 'the ford used by oxen'. Further information can be found in my book Oxfordshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Peterborough - 'the borough of St Peter'. Further information can be found in my book Cambridgeshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Portsmouth - 'the mouth of the harbour'. Further information can be found in my book Hampshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Rochester - 'the former Roman stronghold known as Hrofi', the British place name meaning 'the walled town with bridges'. Further information can be found in my book East Kent Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

St Albans - 'the holy place of St Alban'. Further information can be found in my book Hertfordshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Salisbury - 'the fortified place known as Sorvio', the British place name of uncertain origins. Further information can be found in my book Wiltshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Truro - 'place of turbulent water'. Further information can be found in my book Cornwall Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Winchester - 'the former Roman stronghold known as Venta', the British place name meaning 'the chief place'. Further information can be found in my book Hampshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Worcester - 'the former Roman stronghold of the Weogora tribe', this British people taking their name from their home being at the 'winding river'. Further information can be found in my book Worcestershire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

York - ''the estate marked by yew trees'. Further information can be found in my book North Yorkshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Blackburn - 'the dark stream'. Further information can be found in my book Lancashire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Bradford - 'the broad ford'. Further information can be found in my book West Yorkshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Carlisle - 'fortified place of man named Luguvalos'. Further information can be found in my book Cumbria Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Chester - 'the former Roman stronghold'. Further information can be found in my book Cheshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Durham - 'the island with a hill'. Further information can be found in my book County Durham Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Liverpool - 'the dark-coloured pool'. Further information can be found in my book Lancashire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Manchester - 'the former Roman stronghold at the breast-shaped hill'. Further information can be found in my book Lancashire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Newcastle - 'the new castle'. Further information can be found in my book Northumberland Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Ripon - 'the territory of the Hrype tribe'. Further information can be found in my book North Yorkshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Sheffield - 'the open land on the river Sheaf', a river name meaning 'boundary stream'. Further information can be found in my book South Yorkshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Southwell - 'the southern spring'. Further information can be found in my book Nottinghamshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Wakefield - 'open land where wakes are held'. Further information can be found in my book West Yorkshire Place Names. Available both in print and as an ebook.

Sunday, 20 August 2017


I've gone back to school - well technically further education. One part involved studying a painting or three and I had to look deeper into it and explain ..... things. Anyway, I've never been a great fan of daubs on canvas, to me a picture is a picture and I'm certainly able to appreciate an artist's abilities - to call abstract or conceptual art 'art' is, to my mind, nothing short of a lie so we'll ignore it - but when it comes to reading hidden messages and ideas, it's not going to happen people. I sort of know what the Da Vinci Code is about and good bad or indifferent, I'm never going to read it as I won't be able to relate to it.

So I'm wandering through Birmingham Art Gallery and thinking of anything other than brushwork, colours, hues, and textures, thus getting nowhere fast. Concentrate Poulton-Smith, says I, and I did - I focused in on their names and, as always happens I begin to wonder where there names originated. Hieronymus Bosch, was he really named after a dishwasher? Let's see.....

Bosch, Hieronymus - is a Germanic name first seen as a Norse personal name in the 7th century and derived from buski meaning 'bush'.

Botticelli, Sandro - no surprise to find it is Italian and means 'little boot'.

Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley - has a hyphen, but I still didn't find his work overly captivating. His name, without the hyphen, has two elements with the first meaning 'the son of Bran' and the latter 'son of John'.

Canaletto - this wasn't actually his name, he was born Giovanni Antonio Canal and painted city views of Venice. His true surname means exactly what you would think it should.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi - we know it comes from Sicily, just outside Palermo, we also know it is a very localised name and is a variation of Caro from carus or 'beloved'.

Cezanne, Paul - his French ancestry can be traced to their long-held seat in Languedoc, their name is related to Czar, Caesar, Kaiser, and 'king'.

Constable, John - listen to old policemen, none of them will ever say the word as 'con'-stable but as 'cun'-stable. The latter is correct because it harks back to the Old French word conestable, which doesn't mean 'policeman' but refers to a 'steward' or 'governor', he the principal officer of the Frankish king's household. This is also the reason we don't say the suffix as if it were a place for horses but clip it to rhyme with 'stubble'. Yet taking the office back a stage further to the Roman Empire we find Latin comes stabuli, quite literally 'count of the stable'. John Constable's ancestors will have earned their name as one of them was chief groom of a household.

Correggio, Antonio Allegri - an Italian chap who painted some nice images, but I can't help thinking how awkward the poses he paints these semi-naked (at best) figures. If anyone had to pose for these they'd need a few days applying embrocation (now there's a word you don't hear often). His name shares its first element with Caravaggio in caro 'beloved', this time the suffix is known and is derived from the personal name Bixio, this meaning 'grey'.

Degas, Edgar - a Frenchman who takes his name from gast meaning 'untilled'.

Delacroix, Eugene - another Frenchman, with a name meaning 'of the cross' from the Latin crucis.

Durer, Albrecht - a German painter who derives his name from 'to endure'.

El Greco - as we all know is Spanish for 'the Greek'. His real name is Domenikos Theotokopoulos, whose surname translates as 'god-bearing chick'.

Fra Angelico - his real name was Guido di Pietro, the surname coming from the personal name Peter.

Gainsborough, Thomas - comes from a Lincolnshire place name meaning 'the stronghold of a man called Gegn'.

Hals, Franz - a name from als meaning 'a high cliff'.

Hogarth, William - is a place name meaning 'lamb enclosure'.

Holbein, Hans - a Germanic surname literally meaning 'hollow leg'. Either this came from the earlier sense of 'hollow bone' (ie no leg) or might have evolved from Holzbein or 'wooden leg'.

Da Vinci, Leonardo - this Italian name means comes from Latin vincere 'conqueror'.

Manet, Edouard - is a Germanic name meaning 'fierce, strong man'.

Matisse, Henri - his surname comes from the Hebrew name 'Mattathiah' meaning 'gift of the Lord'.

Michelangelo - his full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, the latter from the personal name 'Simon' which comes from Hebrew name Shim'on and ultimately from the Hebrew verb sham'a 'to hearken'.

Monet, Claude - could be from one of two personal name, Hamon or Edmond. These are from the Germanic for 'home' and French for 'prosperous protector' respectively.

Munnings, Sir Alfred - a name of Scandinavian origins in maningi meaning 'valiant, strong' depending on the context.

Murillo, Oscar - a Latin origin, where murus meant 'wall'.

Picasso, Pablo - is a Spanish word, where picazo means 'magpie'.

Pollock, Jackson - a place name found in Strathclyde, Scotland which is derived from Gaelic poll 'pit', the name showing the diminutive and thus 'a small pit'. Clearly we need a larger pit to be dug to deposit his supposed art and for those who hail it as art.

Raphael - in full Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, the Italian name coming from Etruscan uruvo meaning 'limit, border'.

Rembrandt - again known by his given name, correctly this is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, a Dutch surname meaning 'the Rhine river' - the river name simply means 'to flow'.

Renoir, Pierre-Auguste - began as the French surname Renouard, originally a personal name of Germanic origins from ragin wald 'the ruling counsel'.

Reubens, Paul - his surname can be traced to Hebrew Reuben meaning 'behold, a son'.

Reynolds, Joshua - amazingly Mr Reynolds not only shares an artistic talent with Renoir but also shares the origin of his surname.

Sisley, Alfred - his surname comes from the female personal name Cecilia, this from the Latin caecus meaning 'blind'.

Stubbs, George - takes the name of a village near Pontefract in Yorkshire, a place name coming from stybb meaning 'tree stumps'.

Sutherland, Graham - comes from an Old Norse word suthroen and means 'the southern land'. It is a reference to the former county of Sutherland, itself as far north as it is possible to get in Britain. So why 'southern land', I hear you ask? Well it comes down to perspective, for it is southeast of those who named it, the Norsemen.

Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri - another with a hyphen, no wonder he was considered talented. The first elemeny, Toulouse, is a place name in the Haute-Garonne region of France and of unknown origins; while Lautrec is found in the Tarn department of southern France and, listed as among the most beautiful villages of France, is another of unknown origins.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William - his surname comes from one of two equally plausible origins. If this is Old English then it comes from a craftsman, a maker of objects in wood, metal or bone which had to be 'turned' during the production process. Or if Middle English then this could represent a title, one in charge of organising proceedings in a tournament.

Van Dyke, Sir Anthony - from a Germanic word meaning 'of the ditch or dyke'.

Van Eyck, Casper - a Dutch surname meaning 'of the oak tree'.

Van Gogh, Vincent - a Celtic term related to Welsh coch meaning 'red'.

Velasquez, Diego - either Portuguese or Spanish would give the origin as 'of the crow', a reference to features and this a nickname.

Vermeer, Johannes - this Dutch painter's surname is a contraction of 'Van der Meer' or 'from the lake'.

Whistler, James - no not exactly 'one who whistles' but a reference to a player of a pipe or flute.

Sunday, 13 August 2017


Dogs last week and, for the many birds I saw on the same short break, our avian friends this. Of course no gull could ever be considered a friend, they always look very angry.

Albatross - interestingly an alteration of the Spanish or Portuguese alcatraz 'large web-footed sea bird', although originally referring to the pelican. This comes from the Arabic al-ghattas 'sea eagle' and related to Portuguese alcatruz 'the bucket of a water wheel'.

Auk - from the Old Norse alka originally imitative of its cry.

Bantam - a place name, a Dutch settlement on the island of Java.

Blackbird - it is well known the female is brown, however correctly the male is not actually black but a very dark brown.

Blue tit - again named for its colour.

Booby - the adjective referring to a person means 'stupid', this considered a reasonable description of these ungainly seabirds.

Budgerigar - a native of Australia named from budgeri 'good' and gar 'cockatoo'.

Bullfinch - a composite of 'bull', a description of its head and neck, with 'finch' a Germanic word imitative of its call.

Bunting - derived either from a Brythonic word for 'plump' or a Germanic bunt or 'speckled'.

Bustard - often said to come from Old French bistarde and itself from Latin avis tarda but this 'slow bird' does not accurately describe the creature.

Canary - named for it being found on Canary Island, itself named for the Island of Dogs.

Chaffinch - another finch, named for its call, this time the prefix points to its habit of eating the chaff from grain on farms.

Chicken - a Germanic name, the root imitative of its call.

Cockatoo - from a Malay or Austronesian word kakatua 'elder sibling' and tua 'old'.

Condor - from the Quechua cuntur, simply their name for this bird.

Cormorant - from Late Latin corvus marinus 'sea raven'.

Crane - from Proto-Indo-European gere 'to cry hoarsely'.

Crow - an Old English word, imitative of the bird's cry.

Cuckoo - again, imitative of the bird's cry.

Curlew - from Latin currere 'to run quickly', ultimately Proto-Indo-European kers 'to run'.

Cygnet - came to English from French cigne 'swan' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European keuk 'to be white', which a cygnet isn't.

Dipper - aptly named for its repeated action in fast-moving water.

Dodo - is from the Portuguese doudo 'fool, simpleton'.

Dove - a Germanic reference to its flight as it comes from the root for 'dive'.

Eagle - named as the 'dark-coloured' bird, as it is so often seen in silhouette.

Eider - a kind of duck named from the Old Norse aethar or 'duck'.

Falcon - from the Latin falcis 'curved blade, pruning hook, sickle, war scythe'.

Finch - again the name imitative of its call.

Flamingo - from the Greek phoinikopteros literally meaning 'red-feathered'.

Goose - is from the Proto-Indo-European ghans 'goose, swan'.

Grebe - some of the species of grebe are crested, hence the name from Breton krib 'a comb'.

Gull - effectively its name means 'one who will swallow anything'. Yes, that's the gull.

Hawk - ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kap 'to grasp'.

Hen - derived from Proto-Indo-European kan 'to sing'.

Heron - from an Indo-European root imitative of its cry.

Jackdaw - both elements are imitative of the bird's cry.

Jay - again named from its harsh cry.

Kestrel - again imitative of its cry, but this time related to the Latin crepitare 'to rattle'.

Kingfisher - self-explanatory.

Kite - once again imitative of its cry.

Kiwi - named by the Maoris as what they perceived as its cry.

Lapwing - has a Germanic root meaning 'leaper-winker'.

Lark - from Proto-Indo-European leig 'to play'.

Magpie - the two syllables describe the 'chattering bird'.

Mallard - it fundamentally means 'male'.

Merganser - from Latin mergus 'waterfowl, diver' and from mergere 'to dip, immerse'.

Merlin - simply means 'small hawk'.

Nightingale - is Germanic for 'night singer'.

Oriole - named from a Latin root meaning 'gold'.

Ostrich - effectively from the Greek strouthos megale 'big sparrow'.

Owl - a Germanic origin imitative of its call.

Parakeet - thought to be from the Italian parrocchetto literally 'little priest'.

Partridge - comes from the Greek perdesthai 'to break wind' and a reference to the whirring sound made by the bird's wings in flight.

Penguin - named from the Old Welsh for 'white head' and yet look at any penguin and you will see it has a black head. What the name first referred to was the great auk, which did have a white head.

Peregrine - comprised of per ager 'away from the land'.

Pheasant - from the Greek for 'Phasian bird', the birds were particularly numerous along the river Phasis leading to the Black Sea.

Pigeon - is an Old French word meaning 'young dove'.

Plover - from the Latin plovarius 'belonging to the rain'.

Ptarmigan - of uncertain origin but likely realted to the Greek pteron 'wing'.

Raven - another Germanic name imitative of the bird's cry.

Redstart - basically means 'red tail'.

Rook - from roots such as Gaelic roc 'croak' and Sanskrit kruc 'to cry out'.

Rooster - literally 'the roosting bird'.

Shrike - from Old Norse referring to 'the bird with a shrill call'.

Sparrow - from the Greek spergoulos 'small field bird'.

Swan - from Proto-Indo-European swen 'to sing, make sound'.

Tercel - the male falcon, thought to be named from Latin tertius 'a third' as the male is a third smaller than the female.

Tit - an old word for any small animal, be a bird, rodent or anything else.

Vulture - from the Latin vellere 'to pluck, tear'.

Whippoorwill - imitative of its call.

Woodpecker - of obvious derivation as indeed is the dialect name in the East Midlands of 'nicker'.

And before anyone asks, no I didn't see all these birds.

Sunday, 6 August 2017


Never been a dog person myself, that doesn't mean I'm a cat person either. I'm not against animals, just never could relate to the idea of a pet. Anthropomorphising creatures never amused me as a child either - probably the reason I loathed Disney. Anyway I digress, back to dogs.

On a short break last week I overheard a conversation between a person with a dog and another who asked what breed it was, the answer given is it was a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Poodle - this apparently gives a Shih-poo. Now thoroughly irked by this awful creation - wouldn't Tzu-dle have been a better idea? - I thought I'd look at where other dog breeds originated. Dog people will probably enjoy this, too.

Afghan - a breed of hunting dog named in 1895, it is taken from the name of the country. I defined Afghanistan in an earlier post.

Airedale - named after a Yorkshire valley in which the River Aire flows, this discussed in an earlier post.

Alsatian - adopted as the name for the German Shepherd in 1917, well there was a war on, you know. The name comes from Alsace, itself giving a name to an undesirable area of London in the 1690s. Alsace was a region between Frrance and Germany, the place name from Old High German Ali-sazzo meaning 'inhabitant of the other (bank of the Rhine). Note in the 1690s 'Alsatian' was a term referring to 'a London criminal'.

Basenji - bred around the northeastern Congo and known in Swahili as mbwa shenzi this name means 'wild dog'.

Basset - a diminutive form of Old French bas meaning 'low'.

Beagle - Snoopy will be delighted to learn this comes from the French becguele 'noisy person' and derived from bayer 'open wide' and guele 'mouth'.

Bedlington - a weird looking thing named after the town of Bedlington in Northumberland, itself from Old English and referring to 'the farmstead associated with a man called Bedla or Betla'.

Bloodhound - of obvious origins considering its famous tracking abilities, what may be of more interest is the origin of the constituent parts in 'to swell' and 'dog' respectively.

Border terrier - known as such because of its association with the Border Hunt in Northumberland.

Borzoi - from the Russian borzoy meaning 'swift, quick'.

Boston - originally a Lincolnshire place name but better known as the capital of the state of Massachussetts and discussed in that earlier blog post.

Boxer - a dog known for its pugnaciousness, the word 'boxer' is the agent noun of 'box', itself taken to mean 'blow'.

Bulldog - unknown as to whether this was a reference to its bull-like stance or it may have been used to bait bulls. Now 'bull' itself comes from Proto-Indo-European bhel which is exactly the same root as found for 'blood' (above) in 'to swell'.

Cairn - named as it was bred specifically to hunt down quarry between the cairns of the Scottish Highlands. Incidentally 'cairn' shares a root with 'horn' in meaning 'the highest part of the body'.

Chihuahua - named after the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, a name often disputed but the majority tend to favour a Nahuatl origin meaning 'the place where the water of the rivers meet', a rather long definition when 'confluence' will suffice.

Clumber - named from Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, which seems to be a combination of an old British river name Clun (never understood) and bre 'hill'.

Clydesdale - another from a place name, or rather a river name and discussed under an earlier post.

Chow - known in China as songshi quan or 'puffy lion dog', which will undoubtedly please owners of this, one of the ancient breeds, more than the meaning of the name chow 'food'.

Cocker spaniel - comes from its original use to hunt woodcock.

Collie - shares an origin with the sheep term colley 'sheep with black face and legs'. Middle English referred to this as a colfox 'coal fox', while colley is a Somerset dialect term for the blackbird.

Corgi - is from the Welsh 'dwarf' and ci 'dog'.

Dachschund - is German for 'badger dog'.

Dalmatian - said to be named from the Croatian area of Dalmatia, itself from Proto-Indo-European dhal 'to bloom' and used to refer to the young animals seen on the mountain pastures.

Dandy dinmont - named after a character in Sir Walter Scott's novel Guy Mannering, one James Davidson.

Deerhound - of obvious meaning but of interest is the origin of 'deer' in Proto-Indo-European dheu 'cloud, breath' and ultimately simply referring to something that was alive but not human.

Dingo - is from the language Dharruk, this spoken by those found resident in the area around modern Sydney when Europeans first arrived, where din-go simply means 'tame dog'.

Dobermann - German for 'fox terrier'.

Elkhound - another of obvious derivation, with the name 'elk' derived from the root el 'red, brown'.

Foxhound - another of obvious origin, the word 'fox' derived from Proto-Indo-European puk 'tail'.

Fox terrier - (see above)

Golden retriever - another obvious name, although we could add 'golden' comes from a root meaning 'shine' and 'retriever', for its ability to return game undamaged, from a root meaning 'to turn'.

Great dane - comes from Denmark, where the people of the mark 'border' were the Danes, themselves named for the den or 'low ground'. Ironic considering the size of the dog.

Greyhound - as many will realise, a greyhound is not grey (well very rarely), and colour is not the origin. Here the origin is grig 'bitch', it is common to find a creature named for the female.

Griffon - an alternative spelling of 'griffin', likely used to mean 'hybrid' as the mythological griffin had features of the eagle and the lion.

Harrier - uncertain but this hunting dog could be from the Middle French errier 'wanderer' or from the verb 'harry' (which is the origin of the bird known by the same name) and thus derived from a root meaning 'war, army'.

Husky - was known as the hoskey until the early 19th century, a word also used to mean 'eskimo', itself from the Proto-Algonquian language where ask 'raw' and imo 'eat' described their diet.

Irish setter - clearly named from its associated with Ireland, a place name meaning 'the land of the Irish' and the people taking their name from the root peie 'to be fat' - not a reference to their waistline but the productivity of the land. The word 'setter' is the agent noun of 'set', a reference to being 'set' on the game when hunting.

Kelpie - little is understood of this name but it may come from Gaelic colpach 'heifer, steer, colt', possibly as it was used much as a sheepdog would be.

King Charles spaniel - obviously named after the monarch, his Christian name meaning 'man, husband' while the term 'spaniel' comes from its assocation with Spain, a country thought to speak of itself as 'the land of the rabbits'.

Labrador - named after the Canadian province, itself from the Portuguese explorer Jaoa Fernandes Lavrador, whose family name was Fernandes, the term lavrador meaning 'farmer' or 'plougher'.

Maltese - clearly named from the island of Malta, itself possibly from the Greek name for the place Melita 'honey-sweet' for the islands native bees produced a unique honey.

Mastiff - from the Old French mastin 'great cur', itself from Latin mansuetus 'tae, gentle' and probably showing this was bred to be a house dog.

Mongrel - from the Old English gemong 'mingling' and ultimately Proto-Indo-European mag 'to knead, fashion, fit'. Hence the original idea of a mongrel was to interbreed other creatures to produce a new breed, exactly the opposite of the negative ideas of the modern era.

Otterhound - well no need to explain anything but the origin of 'otter', this began as Proto-Indo-European udros 'water creature'.

Pekinese - named after the city, now known as Beijing, and itself simply meaning 'north capital'.

Pointer - from its posture when used in hunting.

Pomeranian - named after the former province of Prussia, inhabited by a Slavic tribe who were known in Polish as po morze 'by the sea'.

Pug - named for its pug nose appearance, the word was earlier seen in a negative light and is derived from 'puck' 'devil, evil spirit, sprite'.

Rottweiler - named after the town of Rottweil in Germany, itself has the suffix for 'village' and the first element likely a personal name.

Saluki - two Sumerian words combine here to mean 'pluge earth', although what that ever denotes is a complete mystery.

Schnauzer - the literal translation is 'snout' but colloquially used to mean 'moustache'.

Sealyham - bred at and named after Sealyham House in Permbokeshire, this place name comes from the River Sealy, a name of unknown origin.

Sheepdog - no need for any comment here at all.

Skye terrier - takes its name from the Scottish island of Skye, this thought to be an early Celtic word skitis meaning 'winged', a resaonable description of the peninsulas radiating from the mountainous centre.

Staffordshire - taken from the name of the county and ultimately the county town, I looked at this a couple of years ago with looking at English Place Names and my books.

St Bernard - named after two hospices offering aid to travellers in the Alps, they coming from the name of the Great St Bernard Pass and Little St Bernard Pass, itself named from a saint whose name means 'bold as a bear'.

Terrier - comes from the Old French chien terrier 'earth dog', derived from the Latin terra 'earth' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry'.

Whippet - a diminutive of 'whip' as in 'to move quickly'. The term 'whip' comes from Proto-Indo-European weip meaning 'to turn, vacillate'.

I wonder if any of these derivations will give any dog owners ideas as to potential names for their pet? Oddly the subject of names for a dog came up in a recent episode of my favourite podcast, episode number 175 of No Such Thing as a Fish, entitled No Such Thing As A Rice Krispie With Feelings. Enjoy!