Following a look at river names an examination of the names of still bodies of water. Oddly the word ‘lake’ comes from Old English lacu which meant ‘stream’. Unlike river names the larger bodies of water have at least as many originating in the Old English language as there are coming from earlier Celtic languages to which modern Welsh, Gaelic, Breton and Cornish are closely related.
The obvious place to start is the Lake District, home to England’s best-known bodies of water and with the largest example in the area. Lake Windermere is derived from a Norse personal name and Old English mere to speak of ‘the lake of a man called Vinandr’. Interestingly the lake was known as Winandermere until well into the nineteenth century. The same format is seen in Ullswater, although here the Norse personal name is followed by Old English waeter to give ‘the lake of a man called Ulfr’.
Bassenthwaite Lake takes its name from the land, this being seen since the twelfth century and meaning ‘the meadow of the Bastun family’, where the Middle English surname precedes Old Scandinavian thveit. Similarly Rutland Water was named from the county and describes ‘the cultivated land of a man called Rota’. Derwent Water is also a transferred name, it coming from the river which feeds it to describe ‘the river where oak trees grow’. Kielder Water is also originally from a stream name, this also having given its name to a castle, then the village, the forest, and finally the reservoir. The name is probably akin to Welsh called dwfr ‘the hard stream’, a reference to its strong current.
Pitsford Water takes the name of the village, itself from a river crossing of one of the streams to feed the reservoir. This is an Old English place name referring to ‘the ford of a man called Peoht’. Grafham Water is another transferred name, this beginning as ‘the homestead by a grove of trees’. Chew Valley Lake takes its name from the River Chew, itself traceable to Celtic origins speaking of ‘gushing water’. In the case of Haweswater it is from Old Scandinavian and describes ‘the lake of a man called Haefr’. Finally the last English example of Thirlmere which has defied explanation other than the suffix of Old English mere or ‘lake’.
Over the border to Scotland and lakes become lochs. One of the most famous is Lomond, but it also proves among the most difficult to define. Perhaps this can be traced to a Celtic word lumon ‘beacon’, hence the loch is named after the mountain Ben Lomond. Alternatively we have the very different leamhan, Scottish Gaelic for ‘elm’. Again this would be appropriate for this is certainly the origin of the River Leven, the river that flows out of the loch.
Perhaps the only Scottish loch more famous than Lomond is Loch Ness, a name which is even more unquestionable than Lomond. It most certainly is not from naess or nes meaning ‘headland’, for the name existed well before Saxon or Scandinavian influence. It is certainly named after the River Ness, itself thought to be from a Celtic nis, although the meaning of this word is unknown.
In the case of Loch Awe the name is known. This comes from Old Gaelic abh and is simply speaking of the ‘water’. Loch Morar is from the Scottish Gaelic to describe ‘the big water’. Loch Tay is certainly named after Scotland’s longest river, it flows both in and out of the loch, and comes froma root tau meaning ‘strong one’. It is easy to dismiss this as a description of the current, however there is also reason to believe this described the deity associated with the river. Loch Shin is another sharing its name with the river connected to it. Here the name is known to be from Scottish Gaelic and meaning ‘lasting river’, that is it flows throughout the year and does not dry in summer months. Again the river is described in the case of the Carron Valley, the river name meaning ‘rough river’
To the west the Welsh hills drain into a number of lakes and reservoirs. Lake Bala is the largest body of water, it already was before the level being raised to feed the Ellesmere Canal, and derives its name from ‘outlet’ or ‘isthmus of land between two wet areas’, depending upon your viewpoint as to whether the name describes dry land or the water. Llyn Trawsfynydd describes the village as being on a route ‘across the mountain’, llyn is Welsh for ‘lake’. Llyn Celyn takes its name from the river, itself derived from the origin of ‘place of holly’. On Anglesey is Llyn Alaw, which translates to ‘lily lake’.
Lough Neagh is an Irish name meaning Lake of Eatach, an Irish legendary figure. Officially there are two loughs named Erne, distinguished by the prefix Upper and Lower. They share a common origin in Lake of the Iverni, an early people of Ireland.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.