Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Shrew in Shrewsbury

Last week I mentioned being invited to speak at the 14th Annual Wellington Literary Festival, which has now been confirmed for 20th October 2010, the venue to be announced. Of course I have already given some thought to this look at my book Shropshire Place Names and, as I throw it open to a Q&A session at the end, will try to anticipate the sort of questions I will be faced with.

Having spoken in Shropshire on the subject before, and been interviewed for a number of publications, I know exactly what the first question about Shropshire will be and it concerns the pronunciation of the county town. Shrewsbury - is it 'shrew' or 'shrow'? I have found if I give the answer directly those who disgree will continue to do so, hence I now answer the question with a question - How is the county pronounced?

Of course the answer is never in doubt that Shrop- rhymes with 'shop'. However this county name is, like so many others, taken from that of the county town. Warwickshire is from Warwick, Gloucestershire from Gloucester, Oxfordshire from Oxford, Worcestershire from Worcester and - which is less obvious - Shropshire from Shrewsbury. Examinging the first element of both we find Old English or Saxon scrobb meaning 'scrubland'. Note this is pronounced as in 'shrub' so as to be 'shrobe'. The town name is scrobb burh or 'the fortified place in scrubland', however sometime in the past the first element has been mistaken for a personal name, hence the addition of a seemingly possessive 's' and the loss of the soft consonant sound 'bb' - not surprising as it is very difficult to say 'shrobesberry' and thus it has become 'sh-rows-berry'. Pronunciation as 'shrew' is only because the name is spelled as 'shrew' and is a comparatively modern occurrence.

Hence the county is therefore Shrewsbury-shire or, with the dropping of burh, from scrobb scir with the latter meaning 'the meeting place'. To find 'p' instead of 'b' is perfectly reasonable and thus the first part of the county name should not rhyme with 'shop' but be 'shrope-shire'.

Will this put an end to any idea of the 'shrew' pronunciation of Shrewsbury? Not a chance.

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