Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Last Word on Nursery Rhyme Origins

In past months I discussed the origins of those irritating little ditties with which we attempt to amuse our children. The idea came to me when I inadvertently turned up at a local library on Tuesday morning, which just happened to be Tots Tuesday. The tots, who were mostly struck dumb, were subjected to a number of disagreeably jolly rhymes while being encouraged to wave and shake various parts of their anatomy. Many of these songs I’d never heard before, including the one which did more than any other to suggest this blog topic – where children were seemingly encouraged to follow a certain career when they grow up and be a pirate on the sea and have “lots of rummy in my tummy”.

Hopefully the following selection will enable parents to encourage their offspring to aspire to goals away from criminal activities and not fuelled by excessive amounts of alcohol.

Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross – a difficult rhyme to understand, principally because it suddenly bursts into print around the end of the eighteenth century but with seemingly different versions each time. This does suggest it is a traditional rhyme but one where the original meaning is long lost.

Rock a Bye Baby – another mystery, although two of the less dubious explanations are worthy of mention. That it was the first rhyme ever written on American soil and a reference to the Native American method of letting their children sleep in a cradle suspended from a branch is really interesting, until we remember the rhyme pre-dates the settling of the Americas by quite a time. We also find the cradle representative of the House of Stuart and the wind the Protestant wind of change in the shape of William of Orange.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub – first appears in the eighteenth century, when early versions differed. The problem of origin, and therefore meaning, is knowing which version is the original. One theory is this describes three respected and vital tradesmen – butcher, baker, candlestick-maker – who are said to be watching the events unfold at the local fair.

See-Saw Margery Daw – is another rhyme appearing in writing for the first time in the eighteenth century. Again the question as to origin depends upon the age. Some sources maintain it is one of the oldest and simplest games played by children and a song made up to ‘see-saw’ to. Alternatively this was created to keep time for those sawing logs. Either way there is no clue as to the identity of Margery Daw and seems to have been made up to fit the rhyme.

Simple Simon – has been seen in its present form for almost three hundred years. Yet that is taken from the initial verses of a much longer narrative, telling the tale of Simon as an adult as well as a boy.

Sing a Song of Sixpence – has many more suggestions as to the origins as there are lines. Indeed, the meaning depends on which part of the rhyme we examine. For example the title could be considered a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Sir Toby Belch requests “Here’s sixpence, sing us a song”. The mention of birds in a pie, clearly still alive, is true for it was once considered entertainment to cut open a pie and release birds at a feast. The cookbook telling how to achieve this culinary delight also offers a recipe for dessert, consisting of milk and honey.

Solomon Grundy – has not changed one iota since it appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. Likely there was no Solomon Grundy, simply his name fit nicely with the second line and the metre.

The Lion and the Unicorn – at last one which is understood clearly. The lion of England and the unicorn of Scotland are the two figures in the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I.

There Was an Old Woman – is clearly about someone who has a lot of children. Unfortunately this applies to many over the centuries. The favourite is Queen Caroline, consort of George II who did have eight children and the dates fit well. However her husband, George II, was sometimes referred to as ‘the old woman’ as it was suspected he was quite hen-pecked and the queen was the real power.

This is the House that Jack Built – features such a simple premise it is possible to link it to many events and individuals, including (of all things) an Aramaic hymn. Cherrington Manor in Shropshire is said to be the actual house built by Jack, although while some of the ‘facts’ fit the property there is no reason to believe this any more than any other suggestion.

This Little Piggy – while the ‘pigs’ or toes are never numbered it seems impossible this did not begin as a counting rhyme.

This Old Man – is certainly a counting rhyme with beginnings way back in time and is probably at least as old as the English language.

Three Blind Mice – it is often said that the ‘blindness’ was the Protestant faith of three bishops burned at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary. If this is so then the ‘mice’ are the Oxford martyrs of Ridley, Cranmer and Latimer. Nice story but one which is not supported by contemporary writings.

To Market, To Market – simply records the many times during a year when country folk would head to the market to buy and sell their wares.

Tom Tom the Piper’s Son – is generally held to be based on an earlier rhyme dealing with recruitment. Once soldiers were signed up for military service at inns and hostelries, easier to convince a man it’s a good idea when he’s had a few. In return he would be given the king’s shilling (payment) and to break such would be seen as an insult to the monarch. Many tricks are said to have been used to get men to take the shilling, including tossing it into his ale at a suitable moment. It was widely believed that as he quaffed his ale the shilling would be spotted and removed (or worse ended up in the mouth) and considered to be an agreement.

Two Little Dickie Birds – is still used to test a child’s observational skills. If you don’t know the test and are still confounded by it, then I’m guessing you’re even older than I was when I realized what Pater was doing!

Wee Willie Winkie – was penned by William Miller and published for the first time in 1841. While many have tried to associate it with most political and religious clashes of the day, in truth it is nothing more than a bedtime story.

What are Little Boys Made of – is part of a larger work where the origins of not only boys and girls are examined, but also young and old men and women, soldiers and sailors, nurses, fathers and mothers and all manner of people are examined. While never proven conclusively it seems this was penned by poet Robert Southey.

Wind the Bobbin Up – At the beginning of this and other looks at the origins of nursery rhymes, I stated the idea came to mind having inadvertently arrived at the library on the dreadful Tots Tuesday. Several of these ‘traditional’ rhymes I heard here for the first time including this little ditty which I had to Google as I misheard it as “Wind your Barbie up” and suspected to be a daughter’s first lesson on how to be bitchy. It is actually a coordination exercise, the movements being far more important than the words – which must be a great relief for Crystal Ken.

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.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Buckinghamshire Place Names

Recently published by Fineleaf , both as a paperback and now as an ebook, my look at the place names of Buckinghamshire includes the town of Beaconsfield. As a taster here is something from this new book.


An Old English place name from beacen feld which describes 'the open land by the beacon or signal fire'. The name appears in a document of 1184 as Bekenesfelds. Incidentally none of the early forms explain why the place name is pronounced 'beckon-' rather than the 'beacon-'.

Copshrews Court is a rather corrupted version of a name describing 'the coppice row of trees'; Hall Barn began life as 'Healla's mor or mashland'; from the thirteenth century the Gregory family were at Gregory's Farm; Hyde Farm, a reminder of the manor called Hide seen since the fourteenth century as a area usually described as equal to 120 acres but this depends largely on the quality of the soil; Butler's Court was home to John Botiler in 1443; Wilton Park was the manor of Thomas de Whelton by 1344; and Holloway's Farm was home to the family of Henry Holweye in 1370.

The most common pub name in the country is the Red Lion. As with the vast majority of 'coloured animal' names this is heraldic. Most Red Lions represent Scotland and date from the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England. Earlier examples point to John of Gaunt, the most powerful man in England during the fourteenth century. Such is the popularity of the name that many of the more recent names must be considered to have been chosen simply because the name of the Red Lion is synonymous with the public house.

Along similar lines is the Royal Standard of England, a name dating from the seventeenth century when Charles II visited the premises. Named after one of the most successful of British writers is the Charles Dickens. The Prince of Wales is a common name, most refer to the man who went on to become Edward VII who, until recently, had held the title for longer than anyone.

The Greyhound depicts the famous mail coach which ran between London and Birmingham. The addition of 'jolly' to a name is an early trick used by inn-keepers to suggest a good time was to be had within. In the case of the Jolly Cricketers the addition was to an existing name, one taken from it being the base for the local cricket team.

Former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was member of parliament for Beaconsfield. As a favourite of Queen Victoria he was made Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, when towns and cities across the land saw an explosion in residential development, Beaconsfield had been so much in the public eye it was an obvious choice for street names everywhere. Names which are still seen today.

Bekonscot is a created name, a phonetic spelling of the pronunciation of Beacon- and substituting -cot for -field as the originator came from Ascot, while also suggesting this place is smaller. For this is indeed smaller, a model village created from the 1920s by accountant Roland Callingham (1881-1961) in his large back garden. With the assistance of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur they designed the layout which is a virtual snapshot of English rural life in the decade leading up to the Second World War.

Together they adapted existing features to the landscape. The former swimming pool became a sea, a rockery readily took on the appearance of rolling hills, and the leading model railway designers Bassett-Lowke were called in for the railway. The latter is worthy of special mention as this gauge 1 layout would scale up to ten miles, and still features trains which have been running for some 50 years, each of the ten locomotives covering an average of 2,000 miles every year. Since 1978 the model has been owned by the Church Army, who have welcomed fifteen million visitors enabling them to donate around five million pounds to charity.

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.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Cheshire Place Names

Recently published by Fineleaf , both as a paperback and now as an ebook, my look at the place names of Cheshire includes the town of Nantwich. As a taster here is something from this new book.


Recorded as Wich in 1086 and as Nametwihc in 1194, this name unites Old English wic and Middle English named and tells of 'the famed or renowned salt works'.

Barker Street is an earlier name than one which could refer to a barker or market trader, this comes from barkere straet and describes 'the lane of the tanners'. Cart Lake is from kartr laec 'the bog or stream where carts are seen', the same watercourse crossed by Beam Street as it becomes Beam Bridge and tells us it was constructed from 'wooden beams'.

Castle Street was named after an old castle, not a trace of which remains, earlier it was known as Pudding Lane which tells us it was known for its 'entrails, offal' which littered the street. Hospital Street was the site of the Hospital of St Nicholas, founded in the 11th century. First Wood Street and Second Wood Street were both where supplies of cut wood were stored; Barony Road is the last surviving clue to the once extensive holdings of the Malbano family; and in 1621 Sir Roger Wilbraham founded the Wilbrahams Almshouses for six poor men of the town.

Public houses of Nantwich include the Boot & Shoe, a welcome to leather workers producing footwear in the area. The Swan With Two Necks makes a nice image, hence why it was used by the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Dyers' Company, and several others. Similarly the Leopard is an heraldic symbol representing the Weavers Company. The Frog and Ferret has no true etymology, it is a name which is quite suited for a pub name for it represents aliteration and two items which are otherwise unrelated.

The Wilbraham Arms features a family which have been associated with the place since Richard de Wilbraham was Sheriff of Cheshire by 1269. The Wickstead Arms remembers the family who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The Cotton Arms is named after the family who were resident at Combermere Abbey, the inn dates back to the sixteenth century and was built in part using ships timbers.

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.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Slang Terms for Body Parts

Recently author Jim Murdoch suggested it might be interesting to look at slang terms for body parts. Thanks for the suggestion, Jim. It has resulted in the following.

Initially I intended to provide an alphabetical list but soon discovered there are many more terms than I ever thought possible. Hence I opted for taking each body part and looking at the slang terms for each. It also seems logical to start with the top and work down and thus let’s start with the head.

Head has several slang terms used in English, some will be not only known and used. Noggin first came into common use around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Origins are disputed, some maintaining it is perfectly acceptable, if little used, English word. If this is so it would then share the same origin as Irish naigin and Scottish Gaelic noigean rather than be derived from same.

Loaf is much easier, it is simply the abbreviation for ‘loaf of bread’ and rhyming slang for ‘head’.

Nut is also fairly easy to see as likening the hard skull to the hard exterior of a nut, the head being the only reasonably sized part of the body to do so.

Noodle was an English synonym for a simpleton by the middle of the eighteenth century and predictably went on to become a slang term for the head.

Bonce, my particular favourite, can also be bonse and is first seen in the latter part of the nineteenth century when it was used to describe two very different things. It is easy to see how a large marble called a bonce will have soon been used to refer to the head. Similarly the bonce was also a term used by schoolboys to refer to the headmaster, again a short step to refer to the human head. It is difficult to know which came first as both appeared in writing at more or less the same time.

On the head we have a face incorporating the ears and eyes. Taking these in order the ears, seemingly forever objects of ridicule, are known as the lug or more often said as lughole. The lug is not true slang for it has been used in Scotland since at least the sixteenth century, the etymology remains obscure. Eyes are easier, either speaking of peepers, clearly derived from ‘peeping’, or mince pies, rhyming slang for eyes.

Noses are also found on the head and, with the exception of (as Monty Python described them) ‘the naughty bits’, the one part of the body which seems to have attracted more slang terms than any other. Some are easy to see as alluding to this body part resembling those located in a similar position on other animals. Examples of which include beak, snout, proboscis and trunk.

Conk probably shares its origin with ‘conch’, for it was originally used solely to refer to a particularly fleshy nose which resembled the shell.

Hooter can only describe the sound made when certain individuals blow their nose as if it’s a musical instrument, albeit often a badly tuned one.

Legs are also known as ‘pins’, for obvious reasons. Indeed the only slang term which wasn’t self-explanatory was ‘gam’ which we see as an American term. It must have come from gamb for this is the heraldic description for a leg.

Feet are known as ‘tootsies’, a variation on ‘toddle’ as in ‘walk’. The term ‘plates’ is short for ‘plates of meat’ and thus rhyming slang.

Then of course we come to those aforementioned ‘naughty bits’ (I stick with Python’s terminology as ‘private parts’ irritates me as I consider ALL my parts to be private). Predictably there are more names for these parts than everywhere else combined and I’m sure others are created very regularly. I consulted the Dictionary of Historical Slang and, merely flicking through the pages, it soon became evident there was a least one male and one female term on almost every one of its thousand plus pages.

In the light of the sheer numbers involved, and so as not to appear overly explicit, vulgar, demeaning, or politically incorrect I decided to omit any references to the male wedding tackle or the female equivalent (save for those) while all breasts will also be left out, be they male or female (and no mention of ‘moobs’ as I find this most offensive, they are ‘measts’ if you please).

However irrespective of gender we all have one ‘naughty bit’ in common and as the subject of bottoms will always illicit a laugh, I decided to end (pun intended) with slang terms for the rear. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, I have chosen a few samples but doubtless will return to the subject if I ever find myself at a loss for something to post.

Bum is, after the original Saxon arse, the most common term. It predates ‘bottom’ and is thought to have originated as ‘imitating the sound of an explosion’ – hence the bum was named from the fart which is roughly equal to Ford naming their new model the Carbon Monoxide. Incidentally the use of ‘bottom’ from the eighteenth century led to ‘bum’ being considered vulgar.

Fundament was in use by the thirteenth century, literally referring to the ‘foundation’ and an early forerunner of such easily recognized terms such as ‘sit upon’, ‘seat’, ‘backside’, ‘behind’, ‘posterior’ and even ‘derriere’.

Prat is in general use as a synonym for ‘foolish’ but began as slang for the good old bottom and is first seen in writing in 1610 with the line “And tip lower with thy prat”. The origin is unknown although I’m sure that prat has fallen out of favour is undoubtedly appreciated by those named Rear of the Year.

Two centuries later it became known as ‘the ultimatum’, easy to see as from the Latin meaning ‘the farthest point’. Incidentally Latin is also used for the anatomical name, the buttocks being ‘nates’ and, if you are unfortunate enough to only have one, the singular ‘natis’.

I have missed many expressions out because they are largely Americanisms and have only caught on in the UK owing to the vast number of broadcasting hours devoted to US imports. However usage of ‘fanny’ in the US to refer to the posterior is hardly likely to catch on to the west of the Atlantic owing to its use to describe another body part. It is used in the States as a diminutive for ‘Frances’, just why this nickname developed is a mystery although there are numerous (highly questionable) suggestions. I include this term here for its use in the Provence region of France. Here the game of petanque is played and when a player is beaten 13-0, the worst possible score, the phrase “Il est fanny” (he is fanny) is heard and the loser is expected to pay the standard forfeit. This involves kissing a woman by the name of Fanny on the bottom. Presumably there is a dearth of women of this name or, perhaps more likely, they are sick and tired of crap petanque players trying to kiss their derriere. Either way the French always bring to the game an image of a mademoiselle baring her posterior, which could be in the form of a picture, a carving, or piece of pottery. This certainly explains why petanque has never caught on in the UK.

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.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Etymology of the Major Rivers of the World

When it comes to place names the vast majority, especially those in the United Kingdom, have been coined in the last 1,500 years. But with river names the origins are invariably much older, indeed many are so old they are completely unknown.

Yet that these names are so old it does allow us to trace the evolution of modern languages and work back through time to perhaps glimpse something of the theoretical parent tongue, known as Proto-Indo-European, which is held to have given rise to the various language groups across not only Europe but also the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Middle East.

Looking at the major river systems of the world, starting with the longest and then that which holds the most water.

Nile - is not only the longest river in the world it is also one of the oldest proven geographical names still in existence. It is thought to be from a Semitic-Hamitic word nagal meaning (as is the case with so many river names) simply ‘river’. Note the Egyptians called it the Ar or the Aur meaning ‘black’ and a reference to its colour when heavy with sediment.

Amazon - is not named for its size, but from a Tepiguarani word amazunu meaning ‘big wave’. This is a reference to the famous bore which can wreak significant damage to the lower reaches.

Yangtze-Kiang – takes its name from the ancient city of Yangchow with the Chinese kiang meaning simply ‘river’.

Mississippi – is from an Algonquian word meaning ‘great river’. In 1542 the Spanish called this the Soto Rio Grande or ‘the big river of Soto’, he being Ferdinand de Soto who led the Spanish expedition here three years earlier.

Missouri – thought to be a Native American, probably Dakota, word meaning ‘muddy’ and aptly named considering the volume of silt carried by this tributary of the Mississippi.

Yenisei – a river in Siberia which is rarely heard of as it flows north into the Arctic Ocean and thus frozen solid for much of the year. Oddly it comes from a Turkish loan word iondessi and means ‘big rver’.

Huang He – means exactly what its English name suggests, the Yellow River being named for the volume of silt it carries.

Ob – as with the Yenisei, a Siberian river flowing north into the Arctic Ocean. This time the name most likely comes from the Iranian ab meaning ‘water’, although some sources give it as a local Komi word meaning ‘aunt’.

Irtysh – a tributary of the Ob, the name has three possible origins of which the most likely is Mongolian from ertis meaning ‘river’. While Kazakh ir tysh ‘to dig the land’ and possibly referring to irrigation seems more likely when it comes to spelling, that the Kazakhs were not here until well after the name was in use makes this unlikely. There is also Bashkir yrtysh meaning ‘rushing’, although this does not describe this slow-moving river at all.

Parana – not only the name of a river but a city and a state. However ultimately all are named from the river, which is named from a native word para meaning, once again, ‘water’.

Congo – a major river which does not have a name referring to water in any way, not does it refer to the country through which it flows. Both are named from the source of the river, the Bantu kong meaning ‘mountains’. In recent years the river has been known by its local name of the Zaire, za being the root and meaning ‘river’.

Mekong – should probably be understood as referring to ‘main water’ with the second element related to Sanskrit ganga meaning ‘river’.

Mackenzie – is named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie who sailed up here when voyaging to the Arctic Ocean in 1789.

Darling – is named after the governor of New South Wales from 1825 to 1831, Sir Ralph Darling, by Captain Charles Stewart who was deemed to be the first European to sight the river.

Niger – comes from a Tamashek word n-gheren meaning ‘river among rivers’.

Volga – the longest river in Europe may have a list almost as long of possible meanings. Among the suggestions are Slavonic vlaga ‘moisture’, Estonian valge ‘white’, Finnish valkea ‘bright’, and Russian veliki ‘great’.

Euphrates – is from the Greek spelling of the original name of Purattu, itself from the Assyrian ur at meaning ‘father of the rivers’ and understood as being the mightiest.

Yukon – a native word meaning, somewhat predictably now, ‘big river’.

Indus – comes from the Sanskrit sindhu meaning ‘river’ and losing its initial ‘s’ thanks to both the records of the Romans and the Greeks.

Brahmaputra – again possibly from Sanskrit, perhaps meaning ‘son of a brahmin’ but every chance there is an earlier unknown word or phrase.

Danube – that one of the longest rivers in Europe is named from a Sanskrit word shows the close relationship between these tongues derived from the Proto-Indo-European language. Here Sanskrit danus meaning ‘damp’ or Avestan danu ‘current’ are the most likely beginnings.

Zambesi – as with the Zaire za is the first element, here combining with another to give ‘big river’.

Ganges – from Sanskrit ganga meaning simply ‘river’.

Ural – named from the mountains where it rises, likely from Tatar ural meaning ‘girdle’ and used in the sense of a ‘belt’ separating Europe from Asia.

Dnieper – not named from the simplistic ‘river’ but a Latin version of the earlier Sarmartic don ipr and literally meaning ‘river river’.

Irrawaddy – is thought to be from Hindi airavati or ‘elephant river’.

Seine – an evolved name which pre-dates the Roman name of Sequana (but is the earliest recorded) and is thought to mean ‘calm, quiet’ and describes the nature of the river.

Orinoco – takes the Guarauno word meaning ‘the place to paddle’ and thus named from the upper reaches where it is navigable only be small boats.

Tigris – one of the oldest names in the world which can be explained. While the meaning is generally accepted to refer to its fast-flowing current, especially in comparison with the Euphrates, and speaking of ‘arrow, spear’, the language which provided the name has several candidates including Sumerian, Sanskrit, and Old Persian and most likely pointing to a common ancestor for them all.

Limpopo – if it is named from its upper reaches then this is Matabele ilimphopho or ‘the river of the waterfall’ or, if named from the lower reaches, the ‘crocodile river’ which is its alternative name.

Volta – is a late name given by Portuguese explorers and first seen in 1714 as Rio de volta. This is either seen as ‘river of return’, if describing a turning point, or ‘turning river’ if remarking on its winding course.

Rhine – from Old High German ri ‘to flow’ and Gaulish renos ‘water’.

Loire – a name which can be traced through the Roman name of Liger to the Indo-European lig meaning ‘to flow’.

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.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Desert Island Discs

First introduced to this long-running radio broadcast by my grandmother. In those days nearly every piece of music chosen was classical or from some musical or other – at least it seemed that way. In recent years the delights of the podcast, the ideal companion on a long walk, has reunited me with Desert Island Discs and started me thinking about my own particular choices and just how difficult it must be to select just eight tracks to represent one’s life thus far. When first listening, with my grandmother, as I was around seven years old and, with the Merseybeat dominating the UK charts, the decision would have been much easier than today, almost five decades later!

Never one to be able to resist a challenge, I began to jot down some favourite tracks but soon abandoned this method as I would have ended up with hundreds before long. Hence I tried to think of music which reminded me of significant moments in my life. Oddly this failed for the opposite reason, for I have no notion of what (if anything) was playing when I heard about 9/11 or Kennedy’s assassination, for example. So I tried eras and genres and eventually whittled the list down to the following. Unlike the programme I’ve not explained the reason for my choices, indeed I’d probably struggle to find explanations for most. Incidentally this list would probably change dramatically every single day.

She Loves You – The Beatles

Meditation de Thais – Jules Massenet

Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones

The Impossible Dream – Matt Monroe

Running Scared – Roy Orbison

Walk Hand In Hand – Gerry and the Pacemakers

I Shall Be Released – The Hollies

Imagine – John Lennon

When it came to a choice of books the decision was much easier. My favourite sci-fi author is, was and ever shall be Isaac Asimov. Mr Asimov was also famous for being the first (and maybe still the only) person to have a published work in every category of the Dewey Decimal System. As Kirsty is very flexible when it comes to book choices, I shall opt for the yet to be released The Complete Works of Isaac Asimov, it might even be able to tell me how to survive on this island. Incidentally the mandatory Shakespeare I can take or leave, and the Bible will only be ballast. I have no faith and if I accept it will teach me to be better inclined toward my fellow man it is doubly redundant as I am now alone on a desert island!

Luxury item was very difficult. It changes every time I make a decision. So before it changes again, I’ll opt for R Daneel Olivaw – I doubt if this will be allowed but I’m not giving her the chance to veto it. Oh, and if you don’t know who or what R Daneel Olivaw is, you haven’t read my book choice.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Little Known Body Parts

Perhaps that should be body parts with names one rarely hears?

This thought came to mind by way of a pub quiz when one of those standard trivia questions came out. The question was “What is the name of the groove between your nose and lips?” to which the answer is, of course, the ‘philtrum’. (Yes, of course I got it wrong.) However just in case someone asks similar questions in the future, I have put together the following selection.

The outside part of the ear is known as the ‘auricle’. That fleshy part which means we have two nostrils and not one is correctly called ‘columella nasi’. Up a bit higher and, unibrow wearers excepted, we find the ‘glabella’ between the eyebrows. Nearby is the point where the nose meets the forehead, or the ‘nasion’. David Bowie is an example of a ‘heterochromatic’ individual, for his eyes are different colours (one brown and one blue). Talking of eyes the white part should correctly be referred to as the ‘sclera’. Round the back is the nape of the neck, or rather the ‘niddick’. You don’t have warts you have kerotosas. Perhaps the beauticians among you (I’ve never met one, never needed to) are aware the half moons on your fingernails are correctly called ‘lunula’. While on the subjects of hands the fleshy part between thumb and index finger is your ‘thenar’…. ….. and the space between those two digits is the ‘purlicue’. And a little lower those creases around your wrist are not ‘creases around your wrist’ but ‘rasceta’

Before anyone writes to me I am well aware the following three do not qualify as parts of the body but I simply liked the words so much I could not leave them out. Pandiculating is the correct term for ‘yawning’. Borborygmus sufferers should be fed, it describes ‘tummy rumbling’. And ear wax sounds much better if said to be cerumen.

We would all do well to commit this list to memory. Especially a couple of individuals whose contribution to the annual holiday trek which features as many quiz nights as possible has been limited to ‘netball’ and ‘Iron Maiden’. You know who you are.

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.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Plural is Singular ….

….. but singulars is plural. I’m talking about the words ‘plural’ and ‘singular’, of course.

The question of odd plurals came to light when looking at the origins of place names and I discovered a dialect word ‘housen’, used until comparatively recently (at least as Old English goes) for the plural of ‘house’. I once overheard an animated debate concerning words ending in –ouse and their plurals. One pointed out that mouse became mice, and louse became lice, and therefore house should be ‘hice’ and not houses. After five minutes of this I, being distracted from the book I was supposed to be reading, suggested they settle their dispute by asking the ‘Scise’. Two blank stares and one “Humph!” and I was alone once more.

It does not follow that a word ending in –ouse always have a plural ending in –ice. Neither does –oo- always have to become –ee- simply because there is more than one as is the case with foot and feet, goose and geese, which is why moose becomes mooses. The same follows for the American idea that because the plural of locus is loci and radius is radii, this is not true of hippopotamuses, octopuses, and platypuses all the correct plurals.

On the other hand there are words which are both singular and plural – deer, offspring, series, species, and fish. Note there is a word ‘fishes’, but this is used when referring to the number of kinds of fish and not a number of individuals.

Finally I recall having a report read out loud to me some years ago. The passage which sticks in my mind contained the word read as ‘passerbys’. Later, knowing the person reading it was more than capable of making this mistake, I sneaked a look at the Daily Drivel (I shall refrain from naming and shaming) to discover they had indeed used ‘passerbys’ as the plural of ‘passerby’ and not ‘passersby’.

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.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Etymology of the Names of the World’s Airports

The bad weather of recent winters, coupled with the infamous dust cloud of the Icelandic volcano, has made the world's international airports headline news. Lists of the delayed and cancelled flights contained a list of perplexing names of unknown etymologies.

Hence the following explains those names, their meanings and origins. Although some require no explanation, such as John Lennon at Liverpool which is named after arguably the city's most famous son. Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, has its earliest surviving record from the early fifteen century, where it appears as La Hetherewe. These are from Old English haeth raew and 'the row of houses on or near a heath'. With equally inauspicious beginnings comes Gatwick 'the farm specialising in goats', with Stansted describing 'the stony place'.

European airports include Charles de Gaulle outside Paris is named after the general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II, founded the Fifth Republic in 1958 and became its first president the following year, a position he held for ten years. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the word order is Dutch, is named for the company which owns this, and several other, airports. Frankfurt takes the name of the city, original speaking of 'the ford of the Franks'. Munich takes its name from Old High German munih 'monk', reminding us the city was built on the site of a Benedictine monastery.

Madrid-Barajas Airport takes the Spanish capital together with the name of the adjacent district. Madrid takes its name from the Moorish fort of Marjit which is thought to refer to 'the place of abundant water'. Barajas may also refer to water, for although the meaning remains uncertain it may be from baiae 'watering place' or alternatively varalia 'a fenced area'. Zurich is a modern representation of its Latin name, Turicum coming from Celtic dur with a Latin suffix and describing its location on the shore of a large lake.

Copenhagen's airport takes the name of the Danish capital city, itself a reference to its important port. The name comes from the Danish kiopman 'the merchants' harbour'. The city of Vienna is synonymous with the River Danube, no surprise to find both names share a common origin. Danube comes from Celtic vedunia meaning 'trees', those which grow along the shores, while the city was influenced by the Roman name for the settlement Vindobona.

Barcelona is said to have been named after its founder in 230BC, the Carthiginian general Hamilcar Barca. From the Irish dubh linn 'the black lake' comes the name of its capital city of Dublin and its main airport. Brussels also has a 'watery' name, it was originally recorded as Bruoc-sella meaning 'the settlement in the marshes', that being on an island in the marshes of the River Senne, a tributary of the River Scheldt. Palma de Mallorca features the Spanish version of its old Roman name, itself speaking of 'the great island'. Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport takes the name of one of the most giften men of all time, his name chosen for him having designed a prototype helicopter and a winged flying machine, while the town of Fiumicino has a name meaning 'little river'.

Ataturk International Airport was named in 1980 to honour Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Antalya Airport serves the increasingly busy Turkish holiday resorts on the Mediterranean coastline. Its name is traditionally held to be a result of the Pergamum king Attalos II sending his men out to find 'heaven on earth', the Greek name for the place.

Dubai's airport gets its name from the place, itself of disputed origins. The confusion comes from the language of origin, not the word which is agreed is daba. If this be a Persian word it would be 'creep', a reference to the very slow movement of the tidal Dubai Creek, or if of Arabic beginnings it would mean 'locust'. It does occur that the name for the locust could easily have been borrowed from Persian, the swarms would appear to 'creep' across the land as a mass, if not individually. Hence while the word is not disupted the understanding requires examination.

Hong Kong comes from the Cantonese hiangkiang which translates to 'fragrant harbour'. Its airport is known locally as Chep Lap Kok, the name of the island which was extended with land reclaimed from the sea to house the new airport when its predecessor of Kai Tak closed. Chep Lap Kok is named after a local fish, the red tripletail perch, although whether it alludes to the shape of the island or that such were caught here is uncertain.

Singapore Changi Airport is operated by, and named after, the Changi Airport Group. The city's name is from Sanskrit singa pura or 'lion town', this is unusual for lions are not indigenous to this area and hence is probably used to convey a message of 'strength'. Thailand's Suavamabhumi Airport is from Sanskrit, with suvarna bhumi meaning 'the gold land'.

Japan's Narita International Airport is a place name with a very complex history, especially considering it is effectively not yet fifty years old. With the coming of the Olympic Games in 1964, the authorities felt the traditional naming of houses and streets would be far too confusing for the foreign influx and so instituted a very rigid system which proved none too popular. Two existing names, Narimune and Tabata, were combined to form the new district name of Narita. Narimune is held to come from the eldest of three brothers of the Nakano family who went away to become samurais, while Tabata dates from at least the sixteenth century and describes 'the edge of the paddy field'.

What was once named after the late president Chiang Kai-shek was renamed in 2006. Presently Taoyuan International Airport takes the name of the county, itself referring to the 'garden of peaches' for the many peach blossoms once found here. In Malaysia the Kuala Lumpur International Airport is named from the capital city and comes from Malay kuala lumpur 'the muddy estuary', a good description of its location at the mouth of the River Kelang.

Over to North America where the John F. Kennedy International Airport, previously unofficially known as Idlewild after the local golf course, was named to honour the fourth president of the USA to be assassinated. Miami takes the name of the city and resort, the original name of which was Mayaimi from the native Tequesta language for 'big water'. This may have referred to Lake Okeechobee, the largest in the southern USA, or to the marshes of the Everglades.

Chicago's O'Hare Airport was originally known as Orchard Depot Airport, hence the code ORD is still used for identification purposes. It was renamed in 1949 to honour the World War II flying ace Lieutenant Commander Edward 'Butch' O'Hare of the US Navy. He was awarded the Medal of Honor following his leading of the first ever fighter attack to be launched from an aircraft carrier during hours of darkness.

Washington DC's airport is named after Dulles, Virginia. Dulles is not the official name of the city, correctly known as Sterling, but is considered an acceptable alternative considering Dulles is known internationally while, by comparison, Sterling is almost unknown. The name was chosen for the airport to commemorate former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had died just a month before and who was known for voicing his like of flying. Toronto Pearson International Airport is both the largest and busiest in Canada. Toronto was the Native American Iroquois name from toron-to-hen meaning 'the timber in the water'. Lester B. Pearson (1897-1972) was the fourteenth Canadian prime minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in resolving the Suez Crisis

Note how many of the airports still bear the name of the city, although this is becoming less common as individuals are honoured and events commemorated.

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.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Etymology of the Names of the World's Ancient Kingdoms

An interest in etymology is fundamentally a walk back through the development of language. Theoretically tracing these tongues back we would arrive at an original language, such as the Proto-Indo-European held to be the ancestor of the many languages across Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

That journey can be followed in part through basic words. Water for example, although not in the words for water itself for they are often little more than a vowel sound and they are the most easily changed. Better to trace the names of rivers, for while they are often simplistic they change little over centuries. Tree names can also be a good trail to follow for most are named for the use of the wood. Through these it is possible to see links between the Germanic and Latin groups and even parallels with Sanskrit. For there to be a language there has to be people. Those people have their community and territory, their cultures and languages, all of which contribute to the names of the nation and people. Here we examine those ancient kingdoms and empires to see why they were so named and see what is revealed.

Among the earliest are those of the Near East. Sumer describes 'the land of the civilised lords'. In the Bible Shem's eldest son gave his own name to the country of Elam. Medes took the name of Medea, the sorceress daughter of the King of Colchis who features in the Greek mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts. The Achaemenid derives its name from the dynasty's founder Achaemenes, a name describing him as 'having a friend's mind', certainly a good start in any diplomatic negotiations.

Across to the African continent and the ancient name of Egypt has many suggestions, most often given as from the Greek for 'the land below the Aegean Sea'. Greece itself is named from the people, the Greeks were held by Aristotle to be the original people of Epirus, itself meaning simply 'mainland'. The modern capital of Athens and the ancient city state are named from the goddess Athena. It's great enemy of Sparta was the name of the daughter of Eurotas and wife of Lacedaemon, who bore him Amyclas, Eurydice and Asine - note the city is recorded as often by the name of the king as it is his wife, unlike the state which is always Sparta.

The Minoans was a term coined by a historian, named from the mythical King Minos, it is not known how the Minoans referred to themselves. The city of Mycenae gave its name to the civilization whose name in Greek was Mukanai and comes from one of the tongues formerly spoken in Greece but which are unknown.

Alexander the Great hailed from Macedon, from the Greek meaning 'highlander' or 'tall one', suggesting they were noticeably taller than their neighbours. One of Alexander's generals took control of the Seleucid Empire, that man being Seleucus. Similarly Ptolemy left his mark on Ptolemaic Egypt. Carthage takes its name from the city, established by those great seafarers the Phoenicians who simply referred to it as khadash 'new town'.

India had a succession of powerful empires and nations. Mahajanpadas is from Sanskrit maha janapanda 'the great foothold of the tribe'. Most of the others take the name of the ruling family, and include Nanda, Maurya, Sunga, Satavahana, Kushan, and Gupta. The Roman Empire covered the largest area of any, named after the place traditionally founded in 753BC by Romulus. The eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine and outlasted Rome itself by a thousand years, this coming from Byzantium, the city named after King Byzas, the mythological son of the god Poseidon. That was a part of modern Turkey, the Turks had their own empire and a name derived from the Turk's Head (or fez) cactus.

One of the invading forces which ravaged the Roman Empire were the Huns, whose own empire stretched from their homeland in the east where they took the name of the Hun River, itself meaning 'muddy'. China itself comes from a Sanskrit word for the tribe of Qin, a royal clan name of unknown etymology. The Franks, and of course France, are derived from the people whose name comes from a Proto-Germanic word frankon meaning 'javelin, spear'.

Three famous peoples dominated the Americas. Unfortunately the Mayan civilizations were named by Europeans and related to both Poseidon and Atlas. Some maintain this is evidence that European voyagers reached the Americans many years before either Columbus or the Vikings, however this does not stand up to scrutiny. The Mayans were connected by the family of languages which came under this banner, the original people are now referred to as the Olmecs, itself meaning 'rubber people', ie those who produced rubber.

Inca is different, Inka means 'lord, ruler' in the Quechua tongue. The natives referred to the empire as Tawantinsuyu meaning 'the four parts' and showing it consisted of four nations. Lastly the Aztecs, a Nahuatl word for 'the people from Aztlan', itself a mythological place in the early religion of the people.

To trace language family tree of the names of the people and places would take more room than we have here. When discussing the evolution of modern speech the length of time is often underestimated. Farming is about fifteen thousand years old, writing about half as old. With humanity spread across vast swathes of the planet differences in pronunciation would soon creep in and before long the language would be mutually unintelligible to two groups with a common ancestry.

If this comes as a surprise consider this. The north/south split in England which amounts to a length of some four hundred miles and yet there are a great deal of differences in regional accents and dialects. Furthermore listen to the generation before, or more so the younger generations - they use words and expressions which we have to learn before we understand what they are saying.

This is all during an age when language should be less susceptible to change as the vast majority today are literate and have the benefit of a good education.

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.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Etymology of the Most Famous Steam Locomotives in History

Flying Scotsman was named such for it was chosen to haul the non-stop London to Edinburgh run. Indeed the engine was at the head of the inaugural service on May 1st 1928.

Golden Arrow is the train as much as the engine. It refers to the express service between London and the ferry to Europe from Dover, where the engine pulling it would be emblazoned with a diagonal golden arrow on the front, which copies the symbol shown on advertising posters, effectively showing the southeast direction taken to reach the boats.

The London and North Eastern Railway Class A4 4-6-2 Pacific serial number 1870 was built at Doncaster in 1938 and, as any railway enthusiast will be aware, was named Mallard. It was in service until 1963 during which time the 165 ton locomotive covered almost two and a half million miles.

The distinctive shape and garter blue with red wjeels and rims mark Mallard out as a special engine. Sir Nigel Gresley designed and built this A4, which was later tested in a wind tunnel to prove its streamlining. Made to exceed a sustained speed of over 100mph on a regular basis, it was the night of 3rd July 1938 when this vehicle ensured a permanent place in the record books. On a slight downslope south of Grantham the engine reached a speed of 125.88mph, a world record speed for a steam engine which will undoubtedly never be broken.

Sir Nigel Gresley takes the name of arguably the most famous of steam locomotive engineers who worked for the London and North Eastern Railway. His designs were marked by their elegance, both aesthetically and mechanically and many of the best known engines in British history can be attributed to him.

City of Truro was built at Swindon in 1903 and most often cited as the first steam locomotive to exceed a speed of one hundred miles per hour. This happened in May 1904 when hauling the Ocean Mails special from Plymouth to London Paddington. This was one of ten City Class engines built at the Great Western Railway works at Swindon and named after cities on the GWR routes.

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.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Stories Behind the Names of the Most Famous Ships in History

Having felt as much as heard the blast from the horn of the Queen Mary when it berthed at Southampton while I was visiting one Saturday afternoon, the subject of name origins was soon raised.

Queen Mary is one of the most famous names in modern shipping. The original Queen Mary took the name of the consort of George V, Mary of Teck. Similarly the original Queen Elizabeth referred to the consort of George VI, while what became known as the QEII eventually referred to her daughter, the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

However while undoubtedly the most famous ocean-going vessel of the twentieth century it also had the shortest life. RMS Titanic was named for it being the largest vessel ever to sail the high seas. Its dimensions certainly were 'titanic' in every respect: displacement of 52,310 tons, length 882 feet, nine decks, 3,547 passengers and crew were propelled at a cruising speed of 21 knots by the combined 46,000 horsepower engines.

As everyone knows this vast vessel sank on its maiden voyage with great loss of life. However 705 survivors made it to the New World thanks to the efforts of the captain and crew of RMS Carpathia. This vessel was named from the Carpathian Mountain range, itself traceable back to an early Proto-Indo-European word related to Albanian karpe 'rock' and simply describing 'the rocky mountains'.

Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, was probably the best-named vessel ever. It is certainly the longest serving vessel ever for, even though it has been in dry dock in Portsmouth for many, many years, it is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. The honour of the oldest warship still afloat is claimed by USS Constitution, clearly named to mark the signing of the American constitution which it defended in the War of 1812 against the British.

Another famous ship is HMS Temeraire, a vessel which would probably have been forgotten were it not for the 1838 painting by J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire which showed her being tugged home to be broken up. This very un-English name is due to the British custom of naming vessels after old prizes, the original being a French ship taken at the Battle of Lagos in 1759. The name is derived from the Latin temerarius and means 'casual, rash, accidental', what seems to us a very odd name for a vessel.

HMS Hood has been used for several ships since the mid-nineteenth century, all named after the Hood family which produced generations of mariners. The most famous is the battlecruiser launched in 1918 and in service until 1941. This particular ship was named after the eighteenth century Admiral Samuel Hood, who saw action in the Armerican Independence and French Revolutionary Wars and was also a mentor of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The Hood was sunk in 1941 by the Bismarck. Launched in 1939, the German battleship Bismarck was named after the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and, at over fifty thousand tons, the then largest warship ever commissioned. The other famous German vessel of World War II was the Admiral Graf Spee, named after the World War I Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee who was killed, along with two of his sons, in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914.

It may only be a part of Greek mythology, but the Argo is certainly one of the most famous in ancient history. It is named after Argus, the one hundred-eyed monster who built it. Another potentially fictitious name is generally known as Noah's Ark, although nowhere in the Bible is it referred as such. The word 'Ark', if it is of Ancient Hebrew derviation, does not refer to a boat or ship, it simply means 'box'.

One of the lesser known vessels, yet one which was certainly played a pivotal in English history, is the so-called White Ship. On November 25th 1170, off the Normandy Coast near Barfleur, the most impressive ship of its day sank with just a single survivor, a butcher from Rouen. The drunken revelry of the passengers and even the crew resulted in the deaths of many of the youth of the English court, including the only legitimate son of King Henry I, William the Aethling. This resulted in a dispute on the subject of succession following Henry's death, a war between Matilda, the king's daughter whom he had attempted to guarantee would succeed him, and Stephen of Blois who did eventually accede to the throne. It was written at the time how "No ship ever brought such misery to England". Clearly the vessel was painted white in order to stand out wherever it was afloat.

Cunard's RMS Lusitania famously sank off Ireland in May 1915 having been torpedoed by a German U-Boat who claimed it was bringing munitions from the US to Britain. The name of Lusitania is derived from the Roman province on the Iberian peninsula, roughly corresponding to all of Portugal with the addition of the Spanish lands as far as the Douro. The name referred to a tribe, the Lusitani, who lived here and who may have taken their name from Lus Tanus 'the tribe of Lusus'.

In 1947 Norway's Thor Heyerdahl built a reed boat and attempted to show the ancients could have travelled across the Pacific Ocean from South American to the islands of Polynesia. The vessel he named Kon-Tiki an earlier name for the Inca sun god Viracocha. The creator god was also known as Apu Qun Tiqsi, Wiraqutra, and Con-Tici depending upon the period involved.

The first man to complete a circumnavigation of the globe was Sir Francis Drake. He left in 1577 aboard the Pelican, however by the time he returned in 1580 Drake had renamed his vessel the Golden Hind. Drake had good reason for the name change, it was to commemorate the role played by Sir Christopher Hatton as patron of his journey, and whose crest featured a female deer, known in heraldry as a 'golden hind'.

A century earlier Christopher Columbus set sail for the west to prove it was possible to reach the East Indies by what he considered would be the shorter route. What he found was the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. He had three vessels under his command, led by the Santa Maria, originally named La Gallega as it was built in the region of Galicia, with two smaller vessels alongside, the Pinta 'the painted' and Santa Clara, more often referred to by its nickname of Nina 'the girl' and based on the name of her owner Juan Nino of Moguer.

Another famous crossing of the Atlantic took place in 1620, when the English Separatists, better known as Pilgrims, left Plymouth and sailed for the New World. Just where the name Mayflower came from is uncertain, although it certainly spawned a number of later vessels named such.

An infamous name is that of HMS Bounty, originally commission as His Majesty's Armed Vessel the Bounty, and named for its first botanical mission. The principal target was the breadfruit plants of Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies, hoping they would flourish and become a cheap and bountiful source of food for the slaves.

Also famous for its voyages around the eastern Pacific is HMS Beagle, which took one Charles Darwin on a voyage which led to the eventual publication of On the Origin of Species. There is nothing recorded as to why the name of the dog was chosen, however we do know the origin of the name of the hound, it comes from the French beegueule meaning 'one who whines insistently'.

Finally the famous research vessel of Jacques Cousteau, Calypso was named after the figure from Greek mythology. She is best remembered for her role in Homer's Odyssey in which she held the eponymous her captive. Calypso is generally held to be the daughter of the Titan Atlas.

It seems any name chosen was never meant to last. Whatever the reasons behind the selection when the vessel was launched or renamed soon become insignificant which is surely the lesson to be learned here. Perhaps a little more thought into new and significant names and less examples of old names being reworked and passed off as 'traditional'.

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.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Lakes, Lochs and Reservoirs, Their Names Explained

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.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Origin and Meaning of River Names

An interest in place names of England takes most back to the Old English language spoken by the Saxons. However when it comes to river names these are often much older, from the Celtic culture of the pre-Roman era or even earlier tongues.

The very earliest languages prove a problem to define for they had no written form, at least nothing of which we are aware. Neither do we have the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone which enabled linguists to translate the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt. What we do have is related languages which are known, the surviving Celtic languages of Welsh, Gaelic, Breton and Cornish are closely related.

We also have a good understanding of Proto-Germanic - the mother tongue of English, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic languages - and Proto-Indo-European which, as the name suggests, is the hypothetical language which gave rise to all European languages, including those of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent. If those seem quite unrelated it will come as a surprise to find evidence of words in Sanskrit and Welsh being quite similar in form and identical in meaning, especially when those words are as basic as meaning 'water' or 'river'.

Working through the names it soon becomes apparent that many river names are highly simplistic. A lot are not recognised because we are unaware of the meaning in the ancient languages, however it is not unusual to find these meaning simply 'water', 'river', 'strong', etc. Before dismissing these definitions as overly-simplistic, consider those who coined the names of these rivers.

Most likely these names are around two thousand or more years old. Travel at that time was very slow compared to today. Theoretically it is possible to traverse the length of the country in a car from Land's End to John O'Groats in a single day without breaking the speed limits. Of course this does not take into account fatigue, traffic jams, hunger and comfort breaks! In earlier days it is unlikely if the vast majority ever travelled far enough to see more than one or two significant rivers in their entire lives.

Normally the local river was enough for all their uses, that and the many springs and rivulets, brooks and streams which fed it was more than enough. While the small tributaries were manyfold and probably had different descriptions, the main water course (even if it did have a river goddess or other great significance) was probably rarely spoken of as more then 'the river'. Even today anglers will speak of going to 'the river' to fish, or perhaps a sunny afternoon will see a family take a picnic down by 'the river'. Notice how rarely locals use the name of the river in conversation.

Major rivers are lengthy. Most are much longer than our ancestors would ever travel under normal circumstances. As rivers are often named for the land through which they flow or, related to that, the age of the river is spoken of - young rivers are fast and noisy as they descend steeply, old rivers are sluggish and meander through flatlands. It thus makes sense to assume they were known by different names at different points along their course.

As the population was sparse and communication difficult, it follows that a river known for the oak trees growing along its banks at one point, would be known for waterfalls, or perhaps the eels known to be caught elsewhere. The names which we know today are probably down to the earliest cartographers asking the name of a river at a certain point. When they enquired as to the name of a town it was different, they don't move and are not potentially hundreds of miles in length.

So bearing all that in mind what of the most famous rivers in the land, that of the Thames? It's name is thought to be identical in origin to Tame, Teme, Tyne, Tamar, Thame, Team, etc, all derived from a single ancient source probably meaning simply 'river' although some argue it refers to the lower courses of these rivers where they would be aptly describes as 'the dark one'.

At Oxford it is well known that the Thames is known as the Isis which, for many years, was said to refer to the river goddess. Actually it is simple anomaly, the name is recorded as Tamesis in a document from 51BC and in later years locals mapping Oxford misunderstood this name and thought the river was the Isis. It has never been its official name in the city, although none would argue it should not be used.

Avon is a common river name and many will be aware it represents Welsh meaning simply 'river', Taff is a corruption of afon or Avon. Ouse is again 'water', while Ure, a tributary of the Yorkshire Ouse, has identical origins in 'water'. Wear is another meaning 'water, river', Wey has a root war 'water', with Wye being identical.

Sometimes the name goes a little further and describes the river's appearance in more detail. Hence we find Afton, from Scottish Gaelic for 'brown stream'; the Dove comes from dufan 'the dark or black one'; both Lea and Lee are Celtic for 'the light river', used in the sense of 'clear water'; Lune tells us the waters were 'healthy, pure'

Other rivers refer to the flow, such as in the case of the Aire, an Old Celtic name meaning 'the strong one'; the Axe, Exe, Esk, Usk all share a common origin in 'to gush forth' and all were clearly first named in the upper courses where the flow most swiftly; Ayr is thought to be a very early name meaning 'smooth-running'; the Clyde is a Brythonic clat or 'the cleansing one'; the Forth is from fioerth meaning 'smooth running'; Liffey is an Irish name meaning 'fast or strong runner'; Taw is a very ancient name and related to the Sanskrit tavas 'powerful river', Tweed has identical beginnings.

Not only do names describe the water itself but also the course taken. The Cam is found in several places, most come from a word related to Welsh cam meaning 'crooked'. That of the Cherwell combines Celtic and Old English to describe 'the stream in the hollow gorge'. The River Irwell is Old English for 'winding stream'. Sid is an Old English name meaning 'broad', the name must be comparative for this is never a broad river anywhere along its course. Trent is a Celtic name meaning 'the wanderer' and describing it as likely to flood. Yeo is an ancient Celtic name describing 'the forked river'.

Then there are those which refer, not to the water but to the land through which it flows. Cole is a common river name, it may have more than one meaning, depending upon the example, but most often would describes 'the hazel trees' which grow nearby. Other trees are seen alongside the Dart, this time it is 'the oak tree river'. The Derwent, despite the obvious difference, also describes the 'oak trees' which grown along its banks. The Mersey is 'the boundary river'. Spey is probably 'hawthorn river', suggestions of 'gush, spew' seem somewhat contrived.

Water had great spiritual meaning to the ancients. Considered another world many offerings were placed beneath surface of the water right through to Saxon times. Hence we find reference to the deities in the names of rivers such as Annan, which is from Anu, the Gaelic goddess of prosperity; the Dee represents 'the goddess, the holy one' and is likely related to the Latin dei 'God'; the Don in Scotland has identical beginnings; and the Irish Sea and the Shannon is associated with the river goddess Sionna.

Many names are created by the process known as back-formation. That is where the river has name taken from a place associated with it. The best example is that of Cambridge, where the name appears to refer to 'the bridge over the Cam', yet the original river name here was Granta.

Sadly some are simply too old or corrupt to be understood. Examples include the Colne in Essex, the Fal in Cornwall, Humber in Yorkshire, Medway in Kent, Orwell in Suffolk. The Severn is an enigma, a puzzle which has baffled and frustrated toponymists for decades. For many years it was said to represent Sabrina, a goddess of the river. However we now know this was simply a Roman idea and the real origin is unknown.

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.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Come On You ............. Why? (the Nicknames of Football Clubs)

Listening to a commentary on a game involving Sunderland AFC, one pundit referred to them as the Black Cats. I recalled this 'nickname' was chosen when the club relocated at their new ground having left their traditional home of Roker Park. It was because of this move the club decided they could no longer keep the old nickname of Rokerites - at the time the I failed to see the logic behind this, no more than the reasoning behind the new name simply because a black cat was considered lucky in their FA Cup win and also a tenuous link to a Black Cat Gun defending the river.

As this 'nickname' having no real link to the history of the club, do any of the nicknames by which the clubs are known have any true link to the history? Of course many names are highly simplistic, the Blues of Chelsea and Birmingham city, the Reds of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, are simply the predominant colour of the respective kits. But what of the others? Are these born of another bright idea, as is the case with Sunderland, or do they have a story to tell? Ignoring the predominant colours, a little research found some interesting facts.

A number were named for the colour of the strip, although not always directly. For example the birds in the names of the Canaries of Norwich City, the Robins of Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers, the Bantams of Bradford City, Magpies of both Newcastle United and Notts County. Animal colours are seen in the Badgers of Fulham's black and white strip, the Bees of Barnet, and Hornets of Watford. Other 'strip related names' include the Cardinals of Woking who wear cardinal red; the Clarets of Burnley; the Hoops of Queens Park Rangers; the Lilywhites of Preston North End; the Mighty Whites of Leeds United; and Coventry City the Sky Blues.

Clearly some are simply pet names for the club, such as Stevenage and Middlesbrough both being Boro; Dagenham are the Daggers; Rochdale and Dale; Rushden & Diamonds are the Diamonds; Milton Keynes Dons were Wimbledon, hence the Dons; Gillingham are the Gills; Kettering the Kettles; Oldham Athletic the Latics; Leyton Orient the O's; while Oxford United, Cambridge United and Colchester United are all known as the U's; Shrewsbury Town are the Shrews; Wolverhampton Wanderers are the Wolves; Aston Villa are the Villains; and Tottenham Hotspur are Spurs.

Much as pub names reflect the local industry, some clubs were founded by workers in the traditional factories associated with the area. Sheffield is still known for its steel and particularly cutlery, hence Sheffield United being the Blades. The Brewers can only be the beer capital of England and Burton Albion. Furniture industries have led to Wycombe Wanderers being the Chairboys. Northampton Town's shoe making is reflected in the name of the Cobblers.

Arsenal probably have one of the most sensible nicknames, the Gunners being founded by workers at Woolwich Arsenal. The employees of the Thames Ironworks founded West Ham United, hence the Hammers from the use of the image on the club's crest, although the association with 'Ham' cannot be entirely unrelated.

Grimsby is synonymous with fishing, hence the Mariners. Yeovil was a town of glove makers, hence the Glovers. Luton Town is famous for its Hatters, as were the Hatters of Stockport County. The pottery industry of Stoke-on-Trent made Stoke City the Potters. Morecambe is famous for its shrimping, hence they are the Shrimps, while Southend United prefer the nickname Shrimpers.

Macclesfield Town is known for its silk mills, the team are the Silkmen. Suffolk is known for its agriculture, hence Ipswich Town are the Tractor Boys. Southampton were founded by St Mary Church Young Men's Association, hence they are known as the Saints. The Yorkshire terrier was the inspiration for Huddersfield Town's name of the Terriers.

The Bulls of Hereford United is from the image of the Hereford Bull, although they no longer walk one around the pitch before home games. The Cumbrians are Carlisle United, the biggest club in that county. Leicester City are the Foxes, the fox featuring on the county emblem. The Imps of Lincoln City are named after the famous imp found in the local cathedral. Lions are seen on the badge of Millwall. York Minster gave York City the name of the Minstermen. The famous bent spire of Chesterfield made the local team the Spireites.

Chelsea are the Pensioners, after those based at the nearby Royal Hospital Chelsea. History provided the inspiration of the Pilgrims who left Boston United's town and travelled to the New World via the city which is home to Plymouth Argyle. Shipping is also seen in the name of the Pirates of Bristol Rovers. Pompey is the nickname of the city of Portsmouth as well as the football team.

Quakers were dominant in Darlington, hence the team are the Quakers. Crew is synonymous with railways, hence Crewe Alexandra are the Railwaymen. The Derby Ram is a popular song, hence Derby County are the Rams. Leatherworking was prominent in Walsall, home of the Saddlers.

Another name said to have been acquired from the kit is the Baggies, said to have been because West Bromwich Albion's shorts were once exceptionally 'baggy'. However this is disputed by the club who claim the name actually began as a derogatory term by opposition supporters. In truth the official nickname for many years was the Throstles, itself from the bird on the club badge.

Crystal Palace are nicknamed the Eagles, a name said to have been copied from Portuguese giants Benfica, although why is a mystery. Exeter City are the Grecians, the ground is at the parish of St Sidwell where the people were also known as Grecians, no explanation of why makes any sense! Similarly the Red Devils of Manchester United 'borrowed' their nickname from nearby Salford Rugby League team, for reasons unknown.

Bournemouth are the Cherries because their ground occupies land formerly used as a cherry orchard. Torquay is a famous resort and the ground is still overflown by the Gulls which gave them their name, Brighton & Hove Albion are similarly known as the Seagulls. Blackpool leave the birds alone and refer to themselves as simply the Seasiders.

Millers play at Millmoor, home of Rotherham United. Sheffield Wednesday's ground is in the city's district of Owlerton, hence the name of Owls. Blackburn Rovers are the Riversiders, their ground is adjacent to the local river. The Royals of Reading are in the Royal County of Berkshire. Barnsley are the Tykes, a more general nickname for a Yorkshireman,

There are also some names which could only ever be found in Britain. For example the Addicks of Charlton Athletic is the local pronunciation of 'haddocks', a reference to the local fish and chip shop. Similarly the Bees of Brentford is a misinterpretation of a chant from the early days which was actually "Buck up B's" (not bees).

On the subject of local shops Everton, also known as the Blues, acquired the name Toffees because of a local toffee shop. A recent revival of an old custom where a woman in blue and white would toss toffees to the crowd before a game probably cemented that nickname. Posh is a very football related name for Peterborough United, which is held to be from former manager Pat Tirrel demanding "Posh football from a posh team".

Bolton Wanderers are the Trotters, so named because one of their early grounds was next to a piggery where the ball invariably ended up at least once in every match. Hence players had to 'trot' through the 'trotters' to retrieve the ball.

However surely the best is that of a club and a region which can laugh at itself. During the Napoleonic Wars it is alleged that residents of Hartlepool hung a monkey which they mistakenly believed to be a French spy. Hence those of Hartlepool United are referred to as the Monkey Hangers. When Hartlepool reach the Premier League and sign players from abroad, I wonder how that will be viewed by French imports?

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.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Butterflies and Moths – the viewpoint of an etymologist, not an entomologist

In Britain there are some three thousand species of lepidoptera, eighty-five per cent of which are moths. For many years the mere mention of a fritillary or skipper has piqued my interest, just why were such unusual names chosen to describe moths and butterflies?

Clearly with such a vast array of these insects the etymologies of all of them cannot be covered in a single article. Hence we shall look at the most common and the families or groups. Indeed the vast majority of the names include a colour or shape, which require little or no explanation. Examples include the swallowtails, however the hairstreaks are also quite easy to explain, the fine stripes beneath the wings giving them their collective name.

Argus was a character in Greek mythology with a hundred eyes, the argus butterflies are typically brown and have wings with very eye-like spots. Fritillary is derived from a word in Modern Latin referring to 'dice box', this is most likely a reference to the wing spots, said to resemble the spots on dice. Brimstones are named for their colour, they are predominantly yellow.

Peacocks are butterflies named for the four eye-like spots on the wings which very much resemble those 'eyes' on the splendid tale of the male bird with which it shares its name. With a shape underneath the hind wings, the comma butterfly takes its name from the spots said to resemble such punctuation. Ghost Moths get their name from the display flight of the male, hovering in a display area with other males and sometimes slowly rising and falling in what is seen as typical ghostly behaviour. These are also referred to as part of the Swift group of moths, rather obviously speaking of their comparatively speedy flight.

Leopard moths take their name from the wing spots, although none resemble those of the big cat. Festoon moths have patterns which resemble a festoon, a string or chain of flowers, ribbons, leaves, etc. Hornet moths are named for their yellow stripes. Clearwings have just that, although faintly patterned would be a more accurate description.`

Another group are the foresters, which generally speaking enjoy a woodland habitat. However these were categorised when first identified and some either were mistakenly classified as such or simply have had to find alternative habitats. The lappet group have wings having a shape resembling the distinctive fold in headgear and clothing of Victorian times, also known as lappets. Hook-tips, as the name suggests, have a distinct hook on the tip of the wing.

Those named from their flight include the skippers, a group which includes the smaller skipperlings, which are characterised by their tendency for short flights with exaggerated jerking movements. No surprise to find the December moth is seen flying in that month, however it is more commonly spotted in the previous two months.

The delightfully named Gatekeeper Butterfly is a species which is found in hedges and meadow margins. For this reason it is often seen sunning itself on posts and gates of fields. Presumably it also did so when tollgates littered the country and butterflies where much more numerous than today. The Puss moth is named because of its rather hairy appearance, the Kitten moth is named because they appear a smaller version of the Puss moth. Tussock moths are very hairy, so much so the hairs often disguise the fact they are moths.

Processionary moths are known as such for they wander around in single file as caterpillars when searching for food sources. Footmen are named for having bright colours likened to the uniforms of those from the royal courts. Similarly the tigers, handmaid and muslin species are all said to resemble such.

Doubtless there are many more species of butterfly and moth to be discovered, assuming scientists identify them before man's need for land destroy these habitats. It is highly likely these new species will be named for their discoverers, as is the norm today, rather than the delightfully creative names of yesteryear.

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.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Eleven Consecutive Days of No Births or Deaths

For the first time in recorded history, there was not a birth nor death after September 2nd 1752 until September 14th of that year. An astonishing statistic until we realise the 3rd to the 13th did not exist in that year of 1752.

Those missing days could not be blamed on a badly printed calendar. Two years earlier an Act of Parliament had decreed three major changes. Firstly the old Julian calendar was abandoned and the Gregorian calendar adopted. This had the knock-on effect of changing the date of the new year which, up to that time, had been March 25th and was now January 1st. Thus 1751 began on March 25th and ended on December 31st, a rather short year of just 282 days.

Next year the first Wednesday in September was the 2nd. The following day, a Thursday, was the 14th. This seemingly odd decision was necessary to bring the two calendars into line, while also providing the opportunity for legislation and making the necessary adjustments for leap years and clarifying the dates for the movable feast of Easter.

When I was at school we were taught the country was up in arms at the loss of eleven days. It seems the populace thought the politicians had deprived them of eleven days from their personal allocation, effectively shortening their lives. Talk of rioting and mass hysteria was quite ludicrous, no such panic existed. However it does raise the question as to why such was ever suggested.

Most critics point to two sources for this myth: the satirical journal called The World from Lord Chesterfield and, most often, a painting by William Hogarth entitled An Election Entertainment which features a character holding a placard with the slogan “Give us our Eleven Days”. Clearly both sources are satirical and the talk of riots or even the smallest complaint is quite fanciful.

Some of the gibberish written about these events include the ‘history’ of the life of William Hogarth written by Ronald Paulson. He speaks of the riots of people in Oxfordshire and of the Londoners who had done the same earlier. All other references to the ‘riot’ seem to stem from this one written reference and that is based on a misunderstanding of what Hogarth had painted. The painting dates from 1754 and represents a lengthy political election battle between Whigs and Tories who threw every issue imaginable into the ring. This, of course, included the calendar reform.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

British Football Club Name Terminology Explained

Writing innumerable pieces on the origins of place names, the meanings often come to my mind at the strangest moments. The exit boards at the side of the motorway are an obvious reminder, surnames are another. However the reading of the football results on a Saturday afternoon brought to mind not so much place names as the other half of the team name.

Some require no explanation, Town tells us their home is just that, City too, as indeed does the less common County. Teams known as United show they were formed by the union of two (or more) earlier football clubs. Both Wanderers and Rovers share an origin in informing all that, at least in the earliest days, they had no permanent venue for home games. Athletic, too, is indicative of the sport which was the original reason for the formation of the club.

Less obvious, but still recognisable, are the team from Nottingham known as Forest, clearly a reference to the home of the legendary outlaw in Sherwood Forest. Similarly in Scotland the Thistle is adopted by teams wishing to show pride in their nation and leaving no doubt as to which nation that is in the form of the national emblem.

Albion has been adopted by teams as it is the archaic name for Britain. However in the case of West Bromwich Albion, the first to adopt the suffix, it was a district of West Bromwich where the earliest players and founders of the team lived and worked for the the George Salter's Spring Works. Leyton Orient were formed in 1881, although known by several other names until 1888. The club's historians insist this unusual name came from a suggestion made by a team member, one Jack Dearing, whose day job was with the Orient Shipping Company, later a part of P&O.

The addition in the case of the team from Plymouth has always been debated. Founded as Argyle in 1886 there have been at least three suggestions of the origin. There is a local street called Argyle Terrace and an Argyle Tavern, both of which have been suggested as the original meeting place for the club's founders. However the most popular, and indeed the most likely, is it was named to honour the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment who had had a strong amateur football team for many years, probably in the hope it would inspire such success in Plymouth.

A similar story is found behind the name of Crewe Alexandra. Founded in 1877, it is said the club were named after the meeting took place in a pub named after Princess Alexandra, later to be queen consort to Edward VII. Unfortunately no official record was kept of this momentous occasion, thus this origin cannot be certain. Crewe can also claim to be one of the most often mispronounced names in British football, more often mistakenly referred to as Crewe Alexander.

Aston Villa were formed in 1874 and based in the Aston area of Birmingham. The four founders were members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel Cricket Team looking for something to occupy them during the winter months, hence they were thereafter known as 'the Villa'. Arsenal are also known for the latter part of their name, however in their case the first part of the name has been lost completely. Formerly known as Woolwich Arsenal, the team comprised workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, hence the nickname of 'the Gunners'.

Arsenal's North London rivals are Tottenham Hotspur. Another club with a unique suffix, which again dates back to its founding. As with Aston Villa, the grammar school boys from All Hallows Church bible class decided to find themselves something to do during the winter months when they could not play cricket. They were members of the Hotspur Cricket Club, hence the name, although how the cricket club got its name is uncertain. It could be there was some supposed link with Sir Henry Percy, known as 'Harry Hotspur' in Shakespeare's plays, who certainly lived near here during the fourteenth century.

Rochdale Hornets were formed by a local rugby team, the name of 'Hornets' an alternative to 'Wasps' which, somewhat predictably, remarked on the horizontal stripes of the shirts. Sheffield Wednesday were so named for they were formed by a cricket club of that name, a reminder that this was the day of the week on which they played all their matches. The very young will be unaware that Milton Keynes based M K Dons were formerly Wimbledon and known as 'the Dons'. Unfortunately they were forced out of their home of Plough Lane by the local council and, with no local alternative stadium, shared grounds until settling in their present home.

While Tottenham were founded by schoolboys, it was as members of the cricket team that they clubbed together. This leaves just one professional club in Britain to be founded directly from a school football team. North of the border the name of Hamilton Academical tells of its beginning. Founded by Hamilton Academy in 1874, the 'Accies' are one of the world's oldest surviving football clubs.

As founder members of the Football League, Accrington Stanley were mourned when they went into liquidation in 1966. This original club took the addition when they began playing in Stanley Street, the former home of Stanley Villa. The present club, winning promotion to League 2 in 2006, were founded in 1968 and played their first competitive match in August 1970 and named to honour the original.

Rangers are the most successful club in the history of Scottish football. It is known their name was chosen by the four founders in 1872. The inspiration came from, of all things, a book on English rugby. It seems any other 'Rangers' simply took this from the Scotland club.

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.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Waterfowl Names Examined

As children waterbirds were probably our first introduction to wildlife. Few of us were not taken down to the local pond or park armed with bread for the ducks, swans and perhaps even geese.

Several times in our history these birds were highly prized, maybe for their meat and/or as the goal for some forgotten sport. Obviously in the earliest days these were hunted solely for their meat and it would have been then that hunters would have differentiated between the various waterfowl in order for them to be quite aware of what they hoped to bring back to the table. It will be noted that some of the species discussed below are not strictly waterfowl but simply birds associated with water. No apologies are made for include these species with which we are all so familiar.

Of course the ducks are probably the most populous of all waterbirds. They derive their name from the characteristic dabbling or diving underwater for food, and it comes from Old English duce meaning 'to duck, dive'. Oddly this was not the original Old English word for the duck, that was ened which is largely unchanged since the earliest known aneti of Proto-Indo-European beginnings.

It has always been debated as to why the Saxons stopped using ened in favour of duce, most likely that the act of 'ducking' was a different word to the noun 'duck' but eventually the former fell out of general use. Duckling is simply 'the small duck' and quite recent, while the mallard is simply an early corruption of 'male duck'.

While geese is simply a mispronunciation of goose, the singular form can be traced virtually unchanged through many ancient European languages. The very earliest form is the Proto-Indo-European ghans which has filtered down to modern English as 'gander', ie the male goose. Both the goose and ghans can only be an imiation of the bird's cry, most often said today to be a 'honk'. Gosling is clearly a 'small goose' and a rather recent development.

All herons share the basic body shape of a wading bird, long legs and a long neck. However they are unique in being the only birds with a long neck which do not fly with the neck extended but drawn right back against the body, a characteristic which makes them easily identifiable in flight. The name can me traced back to Proto-Indo-European griq or 'shriek, cry' and imitative of the cry of these birds. The crane is a similar bird and easily confused with the heron, indeed the name in Old English referred to both creatures and there is every indication they share the same derivation of their respective names. Egret is from Old French aigrette also meaning 'heron'.

Recently making a comeback to Britain, the osprey was named quite late. It comes from the Middle Latin avis prede literally 'bird of prey' and, while this originally referred to any hawk, was mistakenly thought to refer to this species.

Some names speak for themselves. Anyone who has had their food plucked right from their hand by a gull in flight will understand why they were named from the verb 'to swallow'. A dipper dives below the surface of the young streams seeking the larvae on which they feed, they also move with a decided 'dipping' motion either of which could have been the reason for the name. Most kingfishers do exactly what their name suggests, however the bird with which we are so familiar is also known as the halcyon. This refers to the supposed halcyon days of calm at the winter solstice when the mythical bird bred in a nest floating on the calm seas.

The young of the swan is known as a cygnet, derived from Latin cygnus and Greek kyknos both meaning 'swan'. These are from Proto-Indo-European keuk meaning 'to be white', this was from the time when all swans were considered to be white, before the discovery of Australia and its native black swans.

The swan itself has the strangest of origins. The term is Germanic, seen in Old English swan, Old Norse svanr, Middle Dutch swane, and Proto Germanic swanaz - ultimately from Proto-Indo-European swon 'to make sound'. Thus this is literally 'the singing bird' but swans are hardly the greatest singers of the bird world. Hence this is probably mythological, indeed in the Greek stories the swan is sacred to both Apollo and Venus and held to sing only in the last moments before death.

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.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Yet More Nursery Rhyme Origins

A couple of earlier posts looked at the history behind the nursery rhymes which have been recited by (and to) our children for many generations. Having already covered the majority, here are the few remaining:

Lavender Blue was recorded by a number over the years. Burl Ives was the first although probably best-known is that by Marillion, correctly adapted by Marillion. The earliest known reference dates from around 1680, where it was called Diddle Diddle or the Kind Country Lovers. This record interestingly states it should be sung to the tune of Lavenders Green, showing there was already a song in existence (albeit one with a different colour). Maybe this is not the song we should be teaching our children for, at least originally, it is entirely about sex and drink. Breaking down the original lyric it tells of how the man tells the woman she has to love him (because he loves her), that there is a vale nearby where she should lie down with him (simply because he desires it), and that she should also accept his dog. The more suitable modern version developed from around the early nineteenth century.

Little Boy Blue shares the blue colour but little else. The earliest written record comes from 1744, however this is thought to be much older. Some sources suggest this either comes from, or shares an origin in, Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Act III Scene VI, Mad Tom utters the lines: “Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd? Thy sheep be in the corn and for the blast of thy manikin mouth thy sheep shall take no harm.”

Staying with both ‘little’ and ‘Shakespeare’ themes we find Little Bo Peep. First seen in the early nineteenth century, it has been suggested there was a children’s game called Bo-Peep dating from the sixteenth century and one which was referred to in King Lear. However in Ninfield, East Sussex it is held Bo-Peep was their most famous resident of yesteryear. A smugglers’ stronghold locals believe she was paid to walk her sheep across the shore to hide the footprints of the smugglers.

Another ‘little’ character is Little Miss Muffet. Again this appears in print for the first time in the early nineteenth century, this in a book called Songs for the Nursery. Suggestions as to the origins are many, including that it refers to Mary, Queen of Scots, yet none have any credibility and the origins are a mystery. Reliable sources inform me one child some fifty or more years ago unwittingly rewrote the third line so it telling of how the young lady was “…..eating her curtains away.”

London Bridge is Falling Down is first seen in the middle of the eighteenth century. However this has nothing to do with London or England, indeed there are versions at least twice that age set in Denmark, Germany, France and Italy. It seems all will have a common origin, the known versions simply adaptations, yet without knowing what the original was it is impossible to give a meaning.

Mary Had A Little Lamb was the first line of an old rugby song I encountered in my rugby union days. The second line of “She kept it in a bucket” shows this had nothing to do with the nursery rhyme other than the first line and the tune. As a rhyme it was first published in 1830, and for once we know this is based on a real incident. One Mary Sawyer had a pet lamb and, egged on by her brother, took the animal to school when one John Roulstone was studying with his uncle, a minister, to prepare for college. Roulstone was delighted by the event and next day made a special journey on horseback to the old school to hand her a piece of paper. On that paper was written the three original stanzas of the poem entitled Mary Had A Little Lamb.

Monday’s Child first appears in print in 1830. This cannot be the origin for these early horoscope-style rhymes were known by the sixteenth century and probably much, much older.

Nuts in May is first recorded in a book entitled The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. The title telling us it was already well established. It takes very little thought to see why nuts are not gathered in the month of May in the United Kingdom and thus it seems inevitable the title is a corruption – possibly of ‘knots of may’ which would them refer to small posies of may blossom, produced by the hawthorn. This is also the origin of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout to may is out”, a reference to the appearance of may blossom and not the end of the month.

Old King Cole is generally accepted to recall a Welsh royal. The evidence said to be that Coel is a Brythonic name and records are found of a Coel Hen (Coel the Old) in Romano-British history. He is said to have been born in AD85 in Wales and died in Colchester in AD170, making him one of the oldest people in England at the time. While the significance of the bowl is unknown, the pipe and the fiddlers are almost certainly both musical and suggest the king was known for his musical talent.

Old Mother Hubbard first appears in print in 1805, the rhyme almost unchanged over the next two centuries. Many explanations have been offered and yet, if this is a political satire, it is a mystery as to what or whom is being satirized.

One, Two Buckle my shoe first appears in print in 1805. Unlikely to have ever been a meaning for what was one of many traditionally counting rhymes

One, Two, Three, Four, Five is another counting rhyme and, as with the previous example, likely has no hidden meaning. First published in the middle of the eighteenth century, it is interesting to note the original English version featured a hare instead of a fish.

Oranges and Lemons is a traditional children’s singing game, first published in the middle of the eighteenth century. It seems unlikely to have any of the gruesome origins usually attributed to it - Henry VIII’s wives, public execution, and even child sacrifice – for these rely on the last two lines: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop, chop, chop, chop, the last man’s dead” and these lines are comparatively recent additions and are not seen in early printed versions. Thus this probably represents a tour of the churches of London although why is unclear.

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s Man first appears in print in 1698, not as a stand alone verse but as lines in the play The Campaigners by Thomas D‘Urfey. The lines are spoken by a nurse to children and thus shows, even then, it was simply a child’s signing game. It is difficult to see it as anything else.

Pease Porridge Hot makes its debut in print in 1760, the origins are unknown but would have been ‘pottage’ and not ‘porridge’ originally.

Peter Piper is a toungue twister first published in 1813 by John Harris in his book Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation – a challenging title to read aloud. Earlier versions are unknown and could have been written solely for the work, in which case the subject may be eighteenth century Mauritian administrator Peter Poivre, who examined the possibility of using the Seychelles for cultivating spices.

Polly Put the Kettle On is first mentioned in print in 1841, when Charles Dickens speaks of it in his work Barnaby Rudge. The tune, if not the lyric, was known in 1770 while the earliest versions speak of ‘Molly’ and not ‘Polly’. It would seem this is simply a children’s song from the Georgian era, when middle class English families would use Polly as a pet form of Mary and Sukey for Susan.

Pop Goes the Weasel has a number of printed references, all in the first half of the 1850s and nothing earlier. This may be sufficient proof the rhyme was written around this time. Much has been suggested regarding its origins which would certainly be from London. Indeed the Eagle public house still stands on the corner of City Road, as mentioned in the lyric which can be found on a plaque inside the pub to this day. Ironically every suggestion as to the origin always meets the same obstacle, the title and first line which has never been understood.

Rain Rain Go Away seems a perfect rhyme for British weather and can be traced back to at least the seventeenth century. However this is not solely British for it is common to many much older cultures including the ancient Greeks.

Thus ends the third and final look at the beginnings of traditional nursery rhymes.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. Feel free to drop me a line.