Listening to Test Match Special on the final day of the 2nd Test of the current Ashes tour, I decided to listen on my old radio rather than tuning in to the digital broadcast. This turned out to be a mistake as when the inevitable victory arrived, the final wicket fell while Radio 4 were broadcasting the Shipping Forecast!
This only detracted marginally from the win, however it did get me thinking about the etymology of these oddly named sea areas used in the Shipping Forecast. The following list is given in the accepted order in which every report is broadcast:
Viking - while there is no doubt the term refers to the Norse lands off which this sea area is found, the origin of the word has always been disputed. The most likely meaning is from vikingr, a noun referring to those who went on expeditions and voyages across and beyond this sea area.
North Utsire - Utsira is a region of Norway, its name comes from Old Norse Sira, the name of the river found here which means 'the strong stream', with the addition of ut giving 'out of Sira'.
South Utsire - as above.
Forties - is an area of the North Sea where the depth is shown on nautical maps as very level and results in a series of depth of forty-something fathoms. It was known as such well before shipping forecast areas were ever devised.
Cromarty - is a Scottish place name, from Gaelic crom bati 'the crooked bay'.
Forth - is one of several areas named from the river estuary found there. The River Forth is not known before the twelfth century, this may be from Old Gaelic foirthe, itself derived from Brythonic voritia meaning 'slow running'. Suggestions that this is related to the Norse fjordr 'fjord' are unlikely.
Tyne - another river name, the northeast Tyne is related to other English river names (Tame, Teme, Tamar, Thames, etc), all of which are thought to mean 'river'. If this seems overly simplistic, remember these people were not as widely travelled as we are today, many would never have seen another river of any reasonable size in their lives. Even today residents of a town rarely refer to the river by name when speaking to one another, merely calling it 'the river'.
Dogger - gets its name from dogge, an old Dutch word for a fishing boat and transferred here for this has been one of the most productive fishing areas in the North Sea. As the name suggests it is a large sandbank and its 6,800 square miles reaches a maximum depth of just 66 feet. The North Sea was once dry land, before the thaw at the end of the last ice age Britain was attached to Europe. This dry region was named Doggerland, named for the sandbank and must be unique in being an area of dry land being named after a fishing boat.
Fisher - as with the previous name is also named for its heavy catch for fishing boats.
German Bight - is used for the western North Sea, 'bight' being used for an indentiation of the coastline from the fifteenth century. The word is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bheug 'to bend', the word also gave us the name of the early weapon, the bow.
Humber - another area named for the river, in this case more an estuary, is from the Humber which is another ancient name but considered to describe 'the dark river'.
Thames - as discussed under the Tyne, England's greatest river is an ancient name and thus would be most simplistic in describing itself as 'the river'. Effectively this would be describing 'flowing water' as opposed to stagnant pools and thus probably good for drinking.
Dover - as a sea area derives its name from the Straits of Dover, which in turn came from the famous port. The place name comes from Celtic dubras which gave a name to the River Dour and described 'the waters'.
Wight - is clearly named from the Isle of Wight, although the island takes its name from the Solent which is forms two arms to the northeast and northwest and separates it from the mainland. The name is Celtic or earlier and tells of 'the division'.
Portland - from the so-called Isle of Portland, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip, this name is recorded since at least the tenth century and is from old English port land 'the estate of the harbour'
Plymouth - arguably England's most famous port has a name which is easy enough to define, it comes from Old English to describe 'the mouth of the River Plym'. Of course the next question concerns the origin of the river name, which is derived, the process being known as back formation, from another place name. Plympton also stands on the river and tells us it was 'the farmstead of the plum trees'.
Biscay - is clearly the region of the Bay of Biscay. The name is from Basque bizkar meaning 'hill, slope' and referring to a section of the Pyrenees which gave a name to the Vizcaya province around Bilbao.
Trafalgar - a name well known to the British because of the famous battle of 1805, although few are aware of its location. It is named after Cape Trafalgar in southwest of Spain. Indeed the name means 'the western point' and comes from Arabic tarf-el-garb. Stories that the name is Arabic taraf-al-aghar and describing 'the pillar cave' of one of the Pillars of Hercules in Greek mythology are little more than creative etymology.
FitzRoy - was formerly known as Finisterre, an Old French name meaning 'the end of the earth' but was changed in 2002 to avoid confusion with a Spanish forecast area. The modern name comes from Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1805-65), who is best known for captaining HMS Beagle on Charles Darwin's famous voyage but who was chosen for to honour the man who founded the UK Meteorogical Office.
Sole - named for the Sole Bank, another of the areas named for its fishing, although whether it was named for the great quantities of sole caught seems unlikely.
Lundy - named for the island of Lundy of the coast of Devon, it is named from the Old Scandinavian lundi ey and describes itself as 'puffin island'.
Fastnet - is another with an Old Scandinavian name, this is after the Fastnet Rock, itself from hvasstann ait 'the sharp tooth islet'.
Irish Sea - one of the most obvious names of all the sea areas.
Shannon - another named after a river, here Ireland's largest river is thought to be from Celtic sen amhan telling of 'the big river'.
Rockall - is a small rocky island in the North Atlantic which was unheard of outside maritime circles until the creation of the sea areas. Its origin is possibly from Gaelic sgeir rocail 'the roaring sea rock', although rocail may also be translated as 'tearing, ripping', either would be a good description of this exposed rock.
Malin - is named from one the northernmost point of the Irish mainland, although it is not a part of Northern Ireland. Malin Head is named for it being 'the headland head'
Hebrides - a name which undoubtedly is of great age, the Greek Pliny gives them as Hebudae in the first century and around AD150 Ptolemy records these as Eboudai. Unfortunately the meaning of this name is unknown, not surprising since they will have been named at some time since they were first occupied, archaeology shows this to be at least 6500BC.
Bailey - is named after the Bailey Bank, another shallow much prized by fishermen.
Fair Isle - is an island known for two reasons, for the knitwear which bears its name, and also as the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom. It is not named for its beauty but comes from Old Norse faer and describes 'the sheep island'.
Faeroes - this group of islands shares an origin with Fair Isle, it comes from Old Danish faar oe 'the sheep island'.
Southeast Iceland - the last sea area has one of the most obvious origins, the name of the island is quite literal and named such in 960 when the Viking explorer Floki landed here. Note this was not their first venture here, they had arrived over a century earlier on the opposite coast and had known this place as Snjoland 'snowland'.
Incidentally, these names are always read out in this same order to make it easier for listeners to know when their particular sea area is coming up, clearly quite important for mariners. Perhaps Sally Traffic should take note for few drivers can have avoided trouble spots ahead as a result of her warnings. Inevitably these garbled radio reports are strung together in a single sentence (apparently without any punctuation), while the location is often hidden so well within the report as to make the announcement meaningless and hence a complete waste of air time.