Sunday, 13 April 2014

A River By Any Other Name

On the Isle of Wight is the district name of Medina. Taken from the River Medina, which itself comes from Old English medune and refers to 'the middle one' and a name first found as Medine in 1196.

As a river the Medina looks quite unusual on a map, appearing almost to be splitting the island in two. Indeed today the wide mouth of the river is considered a ria, a valley flooded by the sea. Prior to the rise in sea levels at the end of the last ice age, when the Solent was not an arm of the ocean but a freshwater river, the Medina was one of its tributaries.

Yet it is its name which is even more intriguing for, from its source to the estuary, it has very different qualities. This is true of any river, where the rainwater run-off and natural springs join to form the small streams which grow to meander across the lowlands, before becoming tidal as the near the sea. In the case of the Medina there is no middle age to the river. Its tributaries, Luckley Brook and Merston Stream, are both examples of back-formation – ie named from the place names through which each flows – yet logically they cannot have been known as such before these places were settled by the Saxons and Jutes and thus cannot be their original names.

Earlier river names would be British or Celtic and always described the river. Names referring to the young river as ‘loud’ or ‘bright’ were common, as were names describing ‘the dark one’ or simply as ‘the river’ when it had grown. While the Medina is but ten miles long it would still have had more than one name. On the mainland of Britain, where it is highly unlikely whether alternative names for the same river elsewhere along its course were known, it is reasonable to assume the river in its different facets would be described differently and thus have several names.

This begs the question as to how any river ends up with just one name. To answer this we need look no further than the cartographer. When producing the map he would have labelled the river having asked the question in just one place. Hence the name of the river became fixed purely by chance, the name depending entirely upon where the question was asked.


  1. The Mund stream, our local tiny river was very recently named. Presumably from Mundesley, where it runs down the cliff. Since Mundesley has changed it's spelling from Mulesly, it seems unlikely that Mund was ever relevant.

  2. That should have been Muleslai (Domesday).