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.