Sunday 24 June 2012

UK Prime Ministers: Born to Lead?

"Some men are born to lead and others have........", well however it went it got me wondering if this was actually true. Whilst social standing would give the child a head start, does the family name or title play any part?

Taken in chronological order, we start with Sir Robert Walpole. Now while he is generally recognised as the first to hold the position, it did not become an official title until early in the twentieth century. Thus the name of Sir Robert Walpole, a place in Suffolk which is derived from Old English walh pol and describes 'the pool of the Britons'. The word is Saxon for 'foreigner', effectively referring to the Welsh and gave rise to the English name for Cymru of Wales. This could be regarded as patriotic.

Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington. There are two Wilmingtons in England, one in Devon and the other, to which this title refers, in East Sussex. It is important to know which for they have slightly different meanings. Here a Saxon personal name and Old English ing tun combine to describe 'the farmstead associated with a man called Wighelm or Wilhelm'. His family name is also a place name, Compton being among the most common of names and usually found with an addition for distinction. Indeed because the name is so common it is impossible to know where the family name came from without an exhaustive search of the family history, even then it would be unlikely to be certain. However the meaning is invariably the same, from Old English cumb tun it describes 'the farmstead in the valley'. Clearly of no help to a political career.

Henry Pelham, here the place name is found in Hertfordshire, indeed three places Pelham Brent, Pelham Furneux and Pelham Stocking. Here a Saxon personal name and Old English ham speaks of 'the homestead of a man called Peola'. The additions are hardly more inspiring regarding potential leadership, Brent is from 'burned', Furneux recalls the de Fornellis family who were lords of the manor in the thirteenth century, and Stocking is either 'made from logs' or 'tree stumps'. Maybe even a hindrance in the Houses of Parliament.

Thomas Pelham-Hollies, 1st Duke of Newcastle - no surprises to find his title refers to 'the new castle', possibly a sign of leadership. Here the double barrelled name describes 'the homestead of a man called Peola' and 'the place of holly' - no help there.

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire - although the official name of the county is Devon, it is often referred to as Devonshire meaning 'the scir of the territory of the Dumnonii tribe'. Cavendish is a place in Suffolk, a name meaning 'the enclosed park of a man called Cafna' and almost certainly the origin of the family name. Maybe this could be seen as patriotic, yet patriotism depends upon which side of the fence the observer is sitting. One man's patriot is another man's rebel.

John Stewart, 3rd Earl of Bute - the title is from Old Scandinavian bot 'piece of land', an accurate description of the region. As a surname it can be traced back to a Breton knight who came to England after the Norman Conquest, it is a variation of the Scottish Stuart, from stigeweard 'the warden of the sty'. Not a great vote winner.

George Grenville, a family name which came to our shores from Normandy, avariant of Granville and probably describing 'the grand ville'. Maybe of some help, but only maybe.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham - the double barrelled family name features Watson or, rather unsurprisingly, 'the son of Watt'; with Wentworth, a place name found in Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire, which means 'the enclosure of a man called Wintra'. The title is hardly more inspiring, for it is a Northamptonshire place name referring to 'the homestead of the family or followers of a man called Hroca'.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham - Pitt is a family name found in the south of England, derived from Old English pytte meaning 'pit, hollow'. The title is from the Kent town of Chatham or 'the homestead in a wood', where Old English ham combines with Celtic ced. This may qualify as the least helpful.

Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton - hardly seems worthwhile mentioning the family name means 'son of Roy', while the title is a common English place name with at least nine examples all with a common origin in graf tun from Old English and meaning 'the farmstead in a grove'. Again, not stirring any passions.

Frederick, Lord North - With his title representing his surname, this clearly is a place name and one which is easily recognised but impossible to tie down to an area and no vote winner. William Petty-Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburn - The surname is a combination of French petite and Irish 'son of Maurice', while the title speaks of a lost place name meaning 'the shelter by the stream'. Scenic but not stirring.

William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland - the double barelled surname features elements referring to a Suffolk place name meaning 'the enclosed park of a man called Cafna' and an Old German personal name from Bento. The title clearly comes from the Isle of Portland and describes 'the estate by the harbour'. Not a lot going for William here.

William Pitt the Younger - a surname which is quite common and impossible to pin down to any location where it speaks of 'the pit, hollow'. As bad as his father.

Henry Addington - several places, all 'the farmstead associated with a man called Eadda or Aeddi'. Not of much help.

William Wyndeham Grenville - Wyndeham is a corruption of the place name Wymondam or 'the homestead of a man called Wigmund', while Grenville is most likely a French place name meaning 'the guarded village', that is a stronghold. Might project a sense of security, but only might.

Spencer Perceval - is taken from the first name, itself thought to be 'the pierce valley' and a reference to a poacher or perhaps a soldier who broke through a defensive line. Surely an ironic definition for the only (to date) British prime minister ever to be assassinated.

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool - Banks is a topographical feature, Jenkinson is derived from Johannes and means 'the child favoured by God', while Liverpool describes 'the thick or muddy pool'. Whatever is gained by the surname is offset by the title.

George Canning - a place name in Wiltshire meaning 'the place of the family or followers of a man called Cana'. Nothing to be gained by this definition.

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich - Robinson is a surname meaning exactly what is says 'the son of Robin', while the title is 'rich in God or goodness'. For those of a religious mind this may sway the vote Goderich's way.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington - Wellesley is a place name meaning 'the western woodland clearing', while the title is another place name meaning 'the farmstead associated with a man called Weola'. If his political career had been based on his name rather than his military career he may well have failed.

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey - is either a nickname for someone with noticeably grey hair and/or beard, or transferred from a Romano-Gaul name meaning 'pleasing, happy'. This could have put a smile on the face of the electorate.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne - lamb could easily refer to as someone who tended young sheep, a nickname for someone considerd meek, or a corruption of 'land'. The title is an Old English term for a 'mill stream'. No help here.

Sir Robert Peel - has several possible meanings but with a connection. This could be a reference to a tall person, a pole, a stake - all of which suggest height, dominance, strength, which might be seen as symbolising a strong figure.

Lord John Russell - derived from a christian name meaning 'son of red', which cannot be seen to aid his political career in any way.

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby both the surname and the title are place name, Stanley is 'the stony woodland clearing' while Derby 'the village frequented by deer'. Not a great help to Edward.

George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen - his double-barrelled surname describes 'the farmstead at the treeless hill' with 'the spacious fort', while the title is a place name referring to the 'place at the mouth of the River Don'. No help here.

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston - his surname is derived from the Knights Temple, or perhaps a place associated with the religious order, while the surname is probably a place name derived from a surname (Palmer) meaning 'the pilgrim'. Another which may appeal to the religious vote.

Benjamin Disraeli - his surname is clearly a Jewish reference but it is difficult to trace the exact path for there are examples of this place name in various countries. This hardly helps in deciding if the name is good or bad.

William Eward Gladstone - a surname derived from the place in Lanarkshire with a name telling of 'the rocks frequented by kites (the bird)'. Some might see the rare bird symbolically rising and soaring majestically on high.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury - the double barrelled surname, Gascoyne is a name derived from the French region of Gascony, itself of unknown origin, while Cecil is from a Welsh Christian name ultimately from the Roman name Sextus. The title of Salisbury speaks of 'the stronghold of the Sorvio', those who inhabited the fort which was Old Sarum. Might be a sign of strength as could the following name.

Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery - the surname is traceable back to Dunfermline and 'the lands of primrose' which translates as 'the enclosure on the moor. The title is from Scotland and a place name describing 'the stronghold on the moor'.

Arthur Balfour - a Scottish surname meaning 'the place of pasture' and of no help to his political career.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman - Campbell is Gaelic and described someone with a 'crooked mouth', while Bannerman means 'standard bearer'. Possibly the best so far as a standard bearer, although he might want to hide his apparent sneer.

Herbert Henry Asquith - a surname from a place name of Old Scandinavian origin describing 'the wood of ash trees'. Herbet will never gain any friends with this and David Lloyd-George - the double-barrelled surname takes an early word meaning 'grey' and add a trade for George as a surname means 'farmer', will not see this as a vote winner.

Andrew Bonar Law - Bonar is a surname of French origin meaning 'handsome, of good bearing', while Law is from Old English hlaw meaning a 'mound, tumulus'. The good points of Bonar will be offset by the minus points of Law.

Stanley Baldwin - a composite of words meaning 'bold' and 'friend' would seem excellent credentials for a leader. Ramsay MacDonald - son of Donald is not particularly inspiring, even if we knew what Donald had achieved. Neville Chamberlain - an official in charge of the private chambers of his master and thus a servant, not a leader.

Winston Churchill - a place name describing 'the church on the hill' hardly makes Sir Winston stand out. Clement Attlee - an Old English place name meaning 'at the woodland clearing' would be hard to inspire any voter.

Sir Anthony Eden - a composite of two elements meaning 'prosperity' and 'bear cub' may seem cuddly to a small child but not to the electorate.

Harold Macmillan - name 'means son of the devoteed or saintly one' would be hard-pressed to convince the voters he was in any way credible.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home - Douglas is 'the dark stream' and Home exactly what it seems combine to leave no impression.

Harold Wilson - 'son of William' is as inspiring as the offspring of Douglas. Edward Heath - obviously 'the heathland' and perhaps would leave the country equally a wasteland.

James Callaghan - 'descendant of the one of turmoil or strife', considering the problems of his short period in office, is probably well named.

Margaret Thatcher - a trade, one who thatches roofs could be seen to be keeping us dry and warm, although these hardly seem attributes which instantly spring to mind when thinking of the Iron Lady.

John Major - a French name meaning 'the council of a spear', quite possibly the best message of them all, conveys a message of democracy backed by leadership and strength.

Tony Blair - a Gaelic word meaning 'a plain', or flat, featureless and completely uninteresting.

Gordon Brown - a nickname for one's hair or complexion or dress said to resemble that colour and conveying an idea of something rather drab.

The current incumbent is David Cameron - a name from Gaelic for 'crooked nose' and surely a bad idea for anyone to ever be linked, however tenuously, to dishonesty.

So to answer the original question the answer must be a very definite "NO!" With one or two exceptions virtually no name could ever be said to carry any promise of a good leader. Indeed the best surname, that of John Major, simply did not fit the man or his two terms in office at all. Perhaps closing our eyes and stabbing a pin in the ballot paper is still the best option.

Sunday 17 June 2012

The Four Corners of the Earth

An expression which is often said to refer to early maps which tended to fade away around the edges. However the term 'the four corners of the Earth' dates from much earlier, it is found in the Coverdale Bible, translated from Revelations 7:1 as "And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth." Similarly found in Isaiah 11:12 with "And he shal set vp a toke amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde." Not that these truly refer to the world being flat, although many would have found it difficult to believe otherwise, although flat or spherical it was always seen as round and thus there were no corners. Hence here the reference can only be to compass points.

Sunday 10 June 2012

The Dark Ages

I was recently asked why does my writing most often centre on Saxon England? Of course many of my books have been on the origins of place names and as the vast majority of English place names originate from this period writing on the Saxon era was inevitable. Yet those books were written because of my interest in etymology (specifically toponymy, the study of place names) and not because of my interest in Saxon England.

Considering my writing covers English history, I rarely more than touch on the Roman occupation or the rule of the House of Normandy. However the intervening six and a half centuries, the Romans left in 410 AD and the Normans arrived in 1066, are still referred to as the Dark Ages. Perhaps it was because history just ignored the Saxon era when I was at school, leaping from Romans to Normans with hardly a pause. This may also be the reason I have no interest in these important episodes in British history, having been force fed a diet of road-building Romans and Norman knights.

Said Dark Ages were not only when most English place names were coined. This was also the time when the basis for the democratic system of government were laid down, a system copied throughout the world. Said Saxons brought with them their language, Old English. This evolved to Middle English and the modern version, spoken in 112 countries (double the number of any other language), and spoken as a second language by at least 500 million. While the craftsmanship shown by the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard shows these ages were anything but dark.

The Saxons also split the land into the counties which remained largely unchanged until 1974. These traditional boundaries were taken into consideration when my published books on place names covered Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, South Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Herefordshire, West Sussex, East Sussex, and Gloucestershire. I am very much looking forward to the publication of the volume on Cambridgeshire later this year.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Schooldays with Whatshisname

Ideas for writing come from the strangest places. An aroma, a tune, a news item, a venue, or even a particular meal might bring to mind a memory which results in an idea. The other day it was the face of a child who looked very like a boy I was at school with forty-odd years ago. I don't remember his name, yet do recall how his unpopularity did not diminish his annoying enthusiasm one iota, nor did it stop an extraordinary claim which I recalled the instant I saw his doppleganger.

I recall the autumnal chill in the air when this odd individual insisted if, after visiting the upstairs toilet and flushing, you didn't reach the bottom of the stairs before the flush finished you would die. Nothing was offered as to the means of our potential demise nor how this had failed to kill off the entire population before we were in on this fascinating snippet. Despite the utter absurdity of this statement there were those who chorused "Yeah?!"

Most likely the chap grew up to become a plumber, possibly working for Dyno rod. Undoubtedly he is still plunging headlong down staircases in the hope of reaching the bottom in an effort to delay meeting his maker for a while longer.

All this brought to mind by the face of a child who must have been left wondering what he had done to attract the attention of some greying fellow with a notebook.