Sunday, 27 October 2013

Buckinghamshire Place Names

As with last week this post began as a suggestion from a reader. Thank you, Susie. Hope you enjoy the following adapted from my Buckinghamshire Place Names published by Fineleaf Editions.

Princes Risborough and Monks Risborough

Early records give this as Hrisanbyrge in 903 and as Riseberge in 1086, the basic name coming from Old English hrisen beorg and telling of ‘the hill where brushwood grows’. The additions, thus distinguishing between them, show early possession by the monks of Christchurch in Canterbury, while the royal was none other than the Black Prince. However the extremely popular royal probably never saw the place named after him more than once. Until the manor passed into his hands in 1433, the place was simply a royal manor and most often known as Magna Risborough, this Latin for ‘great’.

Street names of Princes Risborough begin with Abbot’s Way and Cannon Place, both marking the site of ‘the manor of the abbot’. Merton Close was cut on land owned by Merton College, Oxford while St Teresa’s Close is predictably a reminder of the church dedicated to that saint.

Local names include Askett or ‘the eastern cottages’; Green Hailey is from heg leah ‘the clearing where hay is cut’; Meadle is the ‘meadow hill’ from maed hyll; Owlswick points to ‘the dairy farm of a man called Wulfr or Ulfr’; Alscot is derived from ‘Aelfsige’s cottages’; Coombe takes its name from William atte Coumbe; from culfre dun comes the name of Culverton or ‘pigeon hill’; Darrillshill is ‘the animal fold’ from deor fald; Lacey Green speaks of leasowe or ‘pasture’; the ‘long dairy farm’ is seen on maps as Longwick; Loosley Row takes its name from hlose leah and describes ‘the pig sty clearing’; Stocken Farm was located around ‘the tree stumps’ which gave it a name; and the odd name of Wardrobes refers to Juliana atte Wardrobe who, in 1338, held demised land at King’s Risborough. The hamlet of Meadle figured prominently during the English Civil War, located between the lines of the Royalists to the north in Oxford and the Parliamentarians in London to the south. A lasting reminder of armed conflict is found in Armour Farm, albeit a much later engagement. It was here armaments were stored during both World Wars.

The modern name of Whiteleaf is corrupt, as evidenced by the records of Whitt Light in 1541 and, better still, by Whitcliffe Cross in 1766. Here the origin is nothing to do with fauna but comes from hwit cliffe or ‘the white cliff or bank’ and describes the chalk soil which abounds in the hills around here. As can be seen from the image below, the chalk cliff has fallen away and the turf removed to form a cross on the hillside. Traditionally the cross was formed by Christians who adapted it from an early phallic symbol. As with many such stories the archaeology does not support this idea. Neither part of the cross seems to have existed much before 1800 and, even if the supposed phallic part did, it could just as easily have been a natural landslip.

Grimsdyke is a name which is derived from Old English grim dic ‘the ditch frequented by a goblin’. A story is associated with this place, a tale of Jane Shore who was starved to death on the order of King Richard III (reigned 1483-5). He also ordered the execution of a baker, who was accused of trying to give Jane a penny loaf. Such stories are often associated with place names with the element grim, and there are also reports of ghosts and fairies attributed to this place. That this story came after the event is supported by an alternative telling of the story where Jane Shaw (note the different spelling) was a mistress of Edward IV d1479 and was accused of being a witch by the future King Richard III. It seems neither narrative is likely true, both being created to suit the rumours about the place. Indeed it may be both were invented to explain the telling of a similar tale in a ballad connected with a place known as ‘Shoreditch’.

The White Horse at Princes Risborough is another heraldic image, chosen to represent the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, the county of Kent, and the royal house of Hanover. One member of this royal house was the Sailor King, so called because he served in the Royal Navy. He is commemorated here in the name of the King William IV. From the adage “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” comes the name of the Bird in Hand, although nearly all depict the gloved hand of a falconer and trained bird of prey. With a sign showing the Three Crowns of the name, the reference is to James I, who was the first monarch to rule a united England, Scotland and Wales. The Black Prince is named after Edward, Prince of Wales (1330-76) called such because of the unusual colour of his armour. His early death, due to ill-health, was a great loss to a nation who lauded his military skill and humanitarian outlook. The Pink and Lily is an unusual, possibly unique, combination putting together two very colourful flowers. The Whip points to horseracing, the sign depicting an image of the jockey urging his mount on to victory.

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, 20 October 2013

Floral Folklore

My blog always asks for suggestions or ideas for themes or subjects and I have recently been contacted and asked to put some thought into some of the unofficial names for the native flora of the British Isles. Never one to resist a challenge, I offer this selection given in alphabetical order for ease of reference only.

Bird’s foot trefoil has no less than three alternative names. All four are derived from the appearance of the plant which is said to resemble the toes of a bird – hence the official common name of bird’s foot trefoil and one alternative of hens and chickens. Looking closely at the flowers also reveals why this is known as Dutchman’s clogs, while the colours have given us bacon and eggs – albeit the ‘bacon’ looks a little pale for my liking.

Coltsfoot is also known as coughwort as it was used as a cough remedy until quite recently. Indeed the Latin name of Tussilago farfara tells us this. Resembling a small dandelion with no foliage, leaves appear after the flowers have gone over, it appears in fields before dandelions and some odd idea it was the result of the movement of livestock has led to names such as Ass’s foot, Bull’s foot, Foal’s foot, Foalswort, and Horse foot.

Columbine is the Latin word for ‘dove’, for the flower is said to resemble five doves huddled together and hanging upside-down. Personally I can see no bird at all but it is easy to see where the alternative name of Granny’s bonnet comes from, it does indeed resemble the old bonnets worn by all the women featured in Little House on the Prairie.

Comfrey was used to make a salve or poultice to treat external wounds or burns. Today internal treatments are strongly discouraged as it is believed it contains a toxin which may cause liver damage. However this must surely have been how comfrey was used in the past to earn the alternative names of boneset and knitbone.

Cow parsley is known as Queen Anne’s lace, Lady’s lace, Fairy lace, and Hedge parsley, the last telling us where it is likely to be found growing. The others share ‘lace’, an apt description of the lace-like appearance of the clusters of small white flowers.

Daisies, which comes from ‘day’s eye’ as they open in sunlight and close at night, are also known as bruisewort. Once it was gathered by Roman slaves and the juice extracted to soak the bandages used to bind wounds. Such is still used in homeopathy.

Dandelion gets its name from the French for ‘lion’s tooth’. However the French also refer to it as pis-de-lit, much as we speak of them as wet-the-beds and clearly derived from the myth that picking these common weeds will make one wet the bed that night. For once there is a modicum of truth in this myth, for the plant does contain a mild diuretic, increasing kidney function and may contribute to bed wetting. Yet many other plants contain much greater diuretics and these are never blamed for bed wetting.

Foxgloves are described as Dead-man’s bells, Fairy thimbles and Witches thimbles, all describing their appearance which, it has to be said, are slightly more easier to imagine than the idea of Reynard’s gloves.

Goat’s beard, a name which hardly fits the appearance of the flower or plant, has a more apt alternative name of Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon for the flower only opens in the morning sunlight.

Knapweed are also known as loggerheads, hardheads, starthistles and bastketflowers, all various impressions describing the flower’s appearances. I doubt if I am not the only one to associate the name with a luxuriantly-moustached constable from children’s television of yesteryear.

Lady’s smock, Fairy flower, Cuckooflower and Milkmaids can all be explained by the idea these were sacred to the fairy-folk and brining it indoors was considered very bad luck.

Lesser celandine is also described as Pilewort, and it was indeed used to cure haemorrhoids.

Lords-and-Ladies, Devils and Angels, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, all three are names for an arum which have highly uncertain origins. However we do know the origin of the name of Cuckoo pint, the bird’s name is used in a number of alternative names while the ‘pint’ is a shortened form of ‘pintle’, itself meaning ‘penis’ and a description of the pollen-bearing part of the flower.

Meadow saffron is most often known as Naked ladies. These crocus-like flowers bloom in autumn and described as ‘naked’ as the spikes bearing the flowers appear after the leaves have died back.

Pennyroyal is referred to as Pudding grass, a name recalling its use as an ingredient in many of the recipes cooked by the ancient Greeks and Roman cultures.

Ramsons, the name coming from Old English rhamsa, is the wild garlic used by the peoples of our shores for centuries. The odour has led to it being known as Stink bombs and Stinking nanny.

Rosebay willow-herb is also known as Fireweed, a reference to its bitter flavour which increases as toxins build up throughout the growing season.

Soapwort is the common name of a plant also referred to as Bouncing Bett and Sweet Betty, probably female alternatives to another name of Wild Sweet William.

Stinking iris and Roast beef plant are alternatives for a plant which some say produces an obnoxious aroma when the leaves are crushed said to be reminiscently ‘beefy’.

Toadflax is also known as butter and eggs, a reference to the colour as are butter haycocks, and also bread and butter. It has also been recorded as brideweed, bridewort, bunny haycocks, bunny mouths, continental weed, deadman’s bones, devils flax, devils flower, doggies, dragon bushes, false flax, flaxweed, fluellen, gallweed, gallwort, impudent lawyer, Jacob’s ladder, lion’s mouth, monkey flower, rabbit flower, rancid, ransted, wild tobacco and wild snapdragon.

Wall pennywort is also known as Navelwort which, along with the scientific name of Umbilicus, describe the round leaves with a central depression. Note every one an 'innie', not a single 'outie'.

Wild pansy, the species from which all cultivated pansies have been produced, is also known as heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-me-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, comes-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness are all references to its use in herbalism to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, eczema, bronchitis, colds, bronchitis, whooping cough, rheumatism, and cystitis.

Once again I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Emperor Claudius is Dead

On this day in 54AD Emperor Claudius was poisoned in suspicious circumstances and his 17 year old stepson Nero succeeds him. Never being the greatest student of Latin – I gave up after a year of mindless chanting of ‘amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant’ and all the other verbs I’ll never remember – I do have an interest in links between Latin and Old English, Middle English and Modern English. And I began to think about the meaning of the names of the Roman emperors.

The first emperor was Augustus, whose full name of Imperator Gaius Julius Divi Filius Caesar Octavianus Augustus included Augustus, a title more than a true name, which comes from Latin augere (meaning ’to increase’). This is translated as ‘the illustrious one’ and a title which comes from religious beginnings and a symbol of the holder’s authority over the populace but one which exceeded constitutional status while falling short of god-hood. He is recorded as dying from natural causes.

Tiberius followed, whole ruled as Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus. The origin of the name is obscure, although it seems impossible if Tiberius is not from the river Tiber or the city of Tibur. Tiberius is sometimes said to have died of natural causes, others point to assassination and likely at the hands of his successor.

Caligula was that successor, his full name Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus did not include the name by which he is remembered. This is derived from the footwear worn by his father’s soldiers, the caliga. Hence Caligula means ‘little soldier’s boot’ and doubtless a name which he resented. We do know he was assassinated, although the conspiracy involved so many it encompassed several senators and members of the Praetorian Guard.

Claudius was next in the line. Full name of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Claudius is derived from claudus meaning ’lame, crippled’. As stated his death was most suspicious. It is generally thought his wife was to blame, Agrippina wanting to see her son Nero in charge.

Nero’s reputation has not improved with the centuries. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, he was named as a baby when his mother clearly had his future well-planned for his name means ‘great and powerful’. He certainly remained in full control of his own destiny to the very end for he committed suicide when he heard the senate declared him an enemy of Rome.

Galba was next in the year known for having four emperors. Galba Servius Sulpicius Galba Caesar Augustus, his name meaning ‘paunchy, fat’, seized power in January and was murdered by the Praetorian Guard led by his successor seven months later.

Otho only lasted three months. Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, his name meaning ‘wealth’, committed suicide after defeat in the Battle of Bedriacum to his successor.

Vitellius was the victor at the Battle of Bedriacum. Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus, his name means ‘calf’ (and probably more suitable for Nero considering his mother’s actions), and was murdered by Vespasian’s troops.

No points for guessing Vespasian was the next holder of the office. Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus was the first emperor for 65 years (since Augustus) known to have died from natural causes. Less is known of the origin of his name, which could either represent vesper ‘evening, west’ or vespa ‘wasp’.

Titus is also said to have died from ‘natural causes’, although this simply means nobody killed him nor did he take his own life but died from the plague - which sounds anything but natural. Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus can define every one of his names but for the one he was given at birth. The origin is obscure, all we do know is it was in use by the time Romulus founded the city in the eighth century BC.

Domitian was next, something of a traditional emperor in that he was assassinated, this time by members of the court. Known as Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus, his birth name means ‘tamed’.

Nerva followed, his name meaning ‘strength’. In full Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus, this emperor died from natural causes just over a year after he became emperor.

Caesar Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus Augustus also died from natural causes. Trajan, as he is remembered, is a name understood to mean ‘the kind-hearted soldier’.

Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, another who died from natural causes, is better known as Hadrian. Sadly his name does not mean ‘builder of walls’ but ‘from Hadria’. This town in northern Italy has a name which is also seen in that of the Adriatic Sea.

Thereafter the emperors are not as well known or remembered, thus I shall stop here – and not because Antoninius shares an origin with the modern Anthony in coming from the Greek anthos for ‘flower’. However, as ever, 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, 6 October 2013

A Writer’s Research

As the majority of my writing recalls events which happened before anyone I’ve ever known was born, it takes a great deal of research to produce the finished work. Personally I find all research to be enjoyable, although that for my recent release of Bloody British History Stafford published by The History Press was particularly enjoyable and I’m very much looking forward to producing further volumes.

In preparing the Stafford volume I ploughed through every local newspaper released for the area from the early nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War. I lost count of the number of reels of microfilm I saw scrolling past but soon learned where to find the relevant columns. This would have saved some time had I not been distracted by some of the reporting of the day. Some of the news items would hardly be considered worthy of even a mention today. The reporting style, too, was most entertaining. One story, covered in Bloody British History Stafford, concerns the large fire destroying much of the town centre in 1887. Many volunteers pitched in to aid the firemen, some being interviewed by the local reporter. I found the quotes most amusing. Such eloquence from witnesses regularly given free supplies of thirst-quenching ale during their rest breaks, with not even a hint of a grammatical slip.

Not suitable for inclusion in the book were a number of stories which I made a note of simply because I found them so entertaining. For example can we imagine a modern headline proclaiming how wondrous it must be to live in a certain terraced house as recently the combined ages of the four residents surpassed three hundred years!

With modern transportation methods meat is brought into our towns and cities in easily handled sizes to be trimmed and cut for the customer. Once the slaughterhouses were situated within the town, the animals brought in alive. Several stories were related regarding the cattle and their attempts to avoid the butcher’s slab, always assuming they knew of their destination. It was common for butchers to bring the animal to their premises, the beast led by a halter to its final destination. One butcher could not understand where all his halters were disappearing to, so instigated a thorough search of his servants’ rooms. He found the remains of the halters, each minus the ends, within the skirts. It seems his employee desired a very full skirt in the style of the day, however could not afford the metal hoops to fill them out and found a suitable replacement in the halters.

Escaped animals, presumably those not tethered by a halter, were quite commonplace. One evening in May of 1858, Mr Bridgwood, a butcher in Eastgate Street, lost control of a bullock. It ran into the yard of the New Inn where a young lady was targeted. She fled and escaped when a young child wandered into the path of the now rather angry bullock. The child was knocked down and would have suffered worse than the minor bruising had it not been for the intervention by a man who “seizing a large stick laying conveniently at hand, applied it with vigour to the forehead of the enraged brute.” Others managed to tether its legs, making it topple over and enabling them to break its legs, thus preventing it escaping and allowing the butcher to kill it where it lay – in the middle of Stafford.

However one narrative of Victorian pomposity appeared in an edition from May 1864. The newspaper reported how, while it was mindful a Smithfield (meat market) was a necessity, it was appalled that these creatures were still allowed to roam the streets on the way to the abattoir. It seems on the day of the May Fair two animals were highlighted as to why this must be dealt a most severe and final blow. Firstly one rampaged through the crowded streets until apprehended. However it was the second, a cow which attracted the most attention when it decided “to venture into the District Bank, perhaps in order to pay a call on the mayor.” There is no explanation as to why the mayor was in the bank, nor why they thought the cow may be seeking the man out. However it seems likely the mayor had done something to irritate the newspaper in recent weeks, or maybe he was just extremely unpopular. Yet things deteriorated shortly afterwards when, as the newspaper reported, “in the presence of both sexes of all ages the screams and dismay was apparent to all as it did the unthinkable – it calved. An indecent disgrace and disgusting filth for any town to be forced to endure.” A letter the following week echoed the editor’s sentiments in saying “in 1864 and within 130 miles of the Metropolis (London) this should be allowed to happen!” I still wonder how far from the Metropolis a cow would need to be to give birth in public and for it to be considered acceptable?

Incidentally, I shall be signing copies of Bloody British History Stafford at Waterstones in Stafford from 10am on Saturday October 19th 2013. Look forward to meeting you there.

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.