Sunday 28 December 2014

Origins of Place Names: Germany

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere.Last time I looked at the origins of the names of the biggest cities in France and now move on to Germany.

Berlin has never been explained with any certainty which, as so often happens, has resulted in many suggestions. Such include the personal name Berla, 'lake', 'hill', 'dam', 'judgement place', 'customs point', 'sandy place' and others depending upon which Germanic, Slavonic or Celtic language is consulted. Popularly the name is said to come from the German word for 'bear', although there is no etymological evidence to support this.

Hamburg is either from the Germanic ham and burg to speak of 'the fortified place at the inlet' or perhaps this represents the Hammaburg or 'fortification in the wood' founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century.

Munich comes from Old High German munih meaning 'monk'. This is a reference to the Benedictine monastery previously found here.

Cologne was founded by the Romans in 38BC. The Latin name of Colonia Claudia Agrippina means 'the colony of Claudia Agrippina', this woman was the mother of the notorious Emperor Nero and wife of the Emperor Claudius, whom she murdered.

Frankfurt is first recorded as Frankonovurd in Old High German and in Latin as Vadum Francorum, both from a document dated 794. Standing on the River Main it was named to point out this was 'the ford used by the Franks'.

Stuttgart is seen in a document dated 1229 as Stutengarten, this describes 'the garden where mares are reared'. Compare this with the city's coats of arms through the ages, all of which depict horses. As English belongs to the Germanic group of languages it is worthwhile noting this name is from Old High German stute 'mare' and related to Old English stod 'stud' and Old High German garten, still easily seen as 'garden'.

Dusseldorf takes its suffix from German dorf 'village' following the name of Dussel, this the river on which stands. As with many river names the Dussel is simplistic in meaning, this comes from Celtic dur and means simply 'river'.

Dortmund is recorded as Throtmenni in 890, the name of the channel here and coming from the Old High German word for 'throat' and a description of the topographical feature. The modern spelling represents the change in pronunciation, thus the original meaning is the same today.

Essen was known as Astnida in 897, this literally being 'hills, smelting place' and derived from an earlier Indo-European 'to dry or burn'. The meaning is difficult to see but possibly describes a place cleared by burning.

Bremen is from Old High German brem describing its location at 'the marshy shore'. There is archaeological evidence of these marshlands being settled for more than 14,000 years. Note how brem can be seen to be related to modern English 'brim' with the same understanding.

Clearly I have used English spellings for these place names - makes sense as the post is written in English.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Origins of Place Names: France

Over the last few years I have sampled several of my books on the origins of place names, all of which refer to those found in England. On occasions I have also looked at the etymologies of the nations of the world and followed up with their respective capitals. This only gave a glimpse into the origins of non-English place names and, with many overseas names being found on England's welcoming signs as a result of town twinning, I thought it time to look at the origins of the place names of other nations.

I decided to start with France. This was an arbitrary decision not influenced by anything etymological (although I was thinking about croque-monsieur moments earlier).

Paris was known to the Romans as Lutetia Parisiorum or 'Lutetia of the Parisii'. Here the Latin lutum 'clay' or perhaps 'mud-like' precedes the name of the local tribe, the Parisii a Gaulish people is either from a Celtic par 'ship' and a reference to those living and working on the Seine or from a word meaning 'border town' where, once again, the Seine is influential, this time in marking the border.

Marseille is first seen as Massalia, a Latin reference to a town founded by the Phoenicians about a millennium earlier and named after the Massili tribe. The tribal name is of uncertain origin but is thought to be based on the mas- element which probably meant 'spring'.

Lyon was known as Lugdunum by the Romans, a name featuring the Gaulish suffix dun 'fortress'. The first element has three possible origins: lugus meaning 'little'; the Celtic pagan god Lug; or Celtic lucodunos 'bright mountain'.

Toulouse on the River Garonne is first recorded as Tolosa, then the home of the Tolosates. The name has never been adequately explained but may take the Celtic tul as its first element, this meaning 'mountain'.

Nice was founded and named as the Greek colony of Nikaea, itself named after goddess of victory Nike.

Nantes was named after the Gaulish tribe Namneti, although their name has never been explained.

Strasbourg is as close to an English place name as we are likely to find in France. This is derieved from a Frankish name Strateburgum, linked to strasse 'street' and burg here used in the sense of 'town' and thus speaking of 'the town by the road'. This important way took traffic from the River Rhine and across the Vosges.

Montpellier is recorded in a document dated AD 975 as Mons pestellarius, Latin for 'woad mountain'. Doubtless it was named such as the blue dye was produced here.

Bordeaux was known as Burdigala to the Romans, itself taken from the Gaulish tribal name Bituriges Vivisci. AUnfortunately the origins of the tribal name are unclear.

Lille has finally given us a place name in France named from the French language. Here this is from Old French l'isle meaning 'the island' and a reminder of the city being founded as a fortress on a virtual island in the marshland.

Next time I shall move east and examine some German place names.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Summer Holiday

Nothing to do with Harry Webb's film and/or song, I had been plotting 2015's sojourns to the sun when I recalled a couple of words which I would be more than happy to answer to.

One of my favourite parts of the world to visit is the southwest of England, in particular the English Riviera. Indeed I have been so often I more often than not refer to the main touristy thoroughfare - with its succession of gift shops, take-aways, and cheap clothing outlets - just as the locals would know it, Grockle Alley.

For those who are unaware, the term 'grockle' is a less than complimentary term describing tourists. Locals continue to use it and a little research suggests it has recently been spreading along the south coast through Dorset, Hampshire and at least as far as Sussex. One source suggests this came from the The Dandy's strip known as Danny and his Grockle, the Grockle here being a dragon. The reason it is particularly associated with Devon is probably down to the 1960s film The System, the scriptwriter one Peter Draper, who had met Freddie Fly in Torquay and picked up ther term when the latter was working as a barman in the resort. Freddie had previously worked at the boating lake still found at Goodrington and heard it there. There are records of the term being used from the 1970s in the Isle of Man, in Ibiza and even in the former Rhodesia.

Yet dig a little deeper and we find the term did not originate in Devon but had been used in New Forest for centuries. Indeed the term is so old we have no notion as to its origins.

Further southwest we come to Cornwall where tourists are referred to as 'emmets'. This term is not Cornish, the Cornish for 'ant is moryonenn, but ironically a Cornish dialect loanword from Old English aemete or 'ant', a reference to how both seemingly mill around with no apparent destination or goal.

We can trace the origin of the Old English word back to a Proto-Indo-European ai mai which is literally describing an ant as 'the biter off'. Perhaps this should be taken into consideration when using a derogatory term for tourists whose money is the lifeblood of the region - although I quite like being a 'grockle'.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Naming Baby (Him)

After looking at some of the more unusual origins of female names last time, I thought it best to redress the balance by looking at male names. As I stated last time I often roll my eyes, even cringe when hearing some of the names given to the children by parents in the 21st century. Of course this will have been true of every generation.

Normally associated with place names, there are other proper nouns of interest to me. Over the years my research has uncovered details of the origins of personal names. Many have fallen out of use but may well return in the future. There has always been those who use a relevant surname as a christian name - ironically some of the earliest surnames are adaptations of christian names - but it those which began as words which interest me. Some will have been insults, others whimsical, and even a few complimentary.

After female names last time I now turn to the male names and offer a list of examples in alphabetical order.

ALFRED is a true English name and comes from a term meaning 'elf counsel'.

BARRY may mean 'fair-haried' but, if this is the pet form of BARRINGTON, then it refers to 'a troublesome tribe or individual'.

CAMPBELL and CAMERON seem to be increasingly popular choices for male infants. They also happen to be the surnames of two influential British politicans, although this could be coincidental. The former is a term meaning 'twisted mouth', the latter 'one with a crooked nose'.

DARCY is clearly a name from classic English literature. One wonders whether Jane Austen was aware the surname is of French derivation and refers to 'someone from Arcy'.

EDGAR has never been the most popular of names but has hardly ever fallen out of favour completely even with a dated meaning of 'prosperity from the spear'. Should anyone followers of Dickens be considering naming their yuletide child after one of his most famous characters, EBENEZER means 'the helping stone'.

FRASER is also endured over the years. It means 'from a growing strawberry'. And if you think FABIO is a good idea for a modern international name, remember it does mean 'bean farmer'. Also, should you decide to call him after a favourite pet, FANG has the unusual origin of 'pleasant-smelling'.

GILES refers to 'a wearer of goat skin' and GRAHAM 'one from a gravel clearing'.

HAMLET might seem a good idea to devotees of the bard, until we realise it means 'home'. And if you think HARDING sounds like a good surname to turn into a given name, just remember it means 'son of the hard one'.

IRVIN or IRVINE or even IRVING all mean 'water of green' or, should you be a fan of Gershwin you might want to call him IRA which means 'alert' (and to quote a t-shirt from yesteryear remember "Be alert, England needs lerts").

JACOB is a timeless biblical name gaining in popularity despite a meaning of 'following after'. If you were raised on Disney's Aladdin you might not want to call him Jafar as it means 'small stream'. And whether you spell it JADEN, JAYDEN, JAIDEN, JADYN, or any other 'creative' spelling, this is a name I had personally found quite pointless even before I discovered it had been invented during the 1930s and has no etymological value whatsoever.

KAI seems to be astoundingly popular at present. It is said to mean 'from the sea', (although as anyone from Birmingham will tell you it is something which operates a lock).

LEE means 'a clearing', although if you want to be really clever and name the poor thing LEGOLAS after the Tolkein character, be aware it means 'leaf'.

MARK might seem a decent dependable name - it comes from Mars and thus means 'warlike'. And MELVIN might not be a good idea either, it comes from 'bad settlement'.

NIGEL is surely a dependable name, although 'coming from clouds' might not support that image. NARCISSUS might seem clever - it's from Greek mythology, surely nothing can be wrong here - but does mean 'numb or sleepy'.

ORVILLE was a real person's name until some irritating green duck puppet became known by this name - not a particularly appropriate name for green waterfowl as it means 'a golden village'. And forget the Greek mythological figure ODYSSEUS, has a name meaning 'to hate' so perhaps not a good choice.

PAUL might not want to hear his name means 'tiny,' when he grows up.

QUENTIN and QUINCY share of an origin of 'fifth'.

RALF or RALPH have an origin of 'wise as a wolf' (depends upon one's point of view, I suppose).

STANLEY began as a place name meaning 'the stony clearing'. And forget thinking naming him SHERLOCK will give him a good start in the intellectual stakes, it means 'blonde'.

TODD uses an old word for 'fox'. While TARZAN might evoke thoughts of strength and speed, Edgar Rice Burroughs knew what he was doing when he gave his hero a name meaning 'white-skinned one'.

UTHER may seem a good idea, Uther Pendragon was the father of King Arthur, yet consider its meaning of 'terrible or abhorrent'.

VAUGHAN or VAUGHN will not only prove a challenge when it comes to writing his name when the poor blighter starts school, he also may object to a name meaning 'the small one'.

WILBUR comes from 'wild pig'. And while WILLIAM is, quite literally, a 'strong' name, WILL-I-AM refers, rather ungrammatically, to something hidden from just about everyone until after death.

XAVIER was about the only English(ish) name I could find, this name means 'new home'.

YVES was the best I could find and the French equivalent of YORK, both meaning 'yew tree'.

ZEB, short for ZEBEDIAH, was the best I could find. However the meaning of 'God lends' does not explain what is being loaned or at what cost.

I did ask a very few couples whether the father or mother had influenced the name and discovered the mother is by far the more influential in naming the child. Personally I listened to every suggestion and vetoed every single one, then offered my own ideas which were accepted quite quickly.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Naming Baby (Her)

I admit I roll my eyes, even cringe at times when I hear some of the names given to babies. I know I'm not alone. Personally I think parents should think of the school years of the child - recently heard a mother calling her daughter Ocean and my first thought was "does she make her feel sick". Recently a storyline in The Archers saw a character toying with the idea of naming her new baby Mowgli and, following the voiced disapproval of both grandmothers, resorted in a naming ceremony dubbing it Mungo - which still didn't go down particularly well.

Of course this will have been true of every generation. I used to work with a woman named Gay. Once popular (for both males and females) it is easy to see why a young baby would not be named such in the modern age. Today there is a whole generation of young ladies known as Kylie, a name which became commonplace when their mothers' were glued to the actress (later singer) appearing in Neighbours. Such is nothing new for earlier the name of Tracy did not become popular until the big screen successes of actor Spencer Tracy.

Whilst I would be associated with place names, there are other proper nouns of interest to me. Over the years my research has uncovered details of the origins of personal names. Many have fallen out of use but may well return one day. There has always been those who use a relevant surname as a christian name - ironically some of the earliest surnames are adaptations of christian names - but it those which have some etymological interest which attract me. Some will have been insults, others whimsical, and even a few complimentary.

Beginning with the female names I offer a list of examples in alphabetical order.

ANDREA would seem to be a quite normal name. It comes from the Greek and means 'manly', something which would not bother Andreas in Italy, Romania and Albania where Andrea is a male name.

BARBARA comes from the Greek and is the female version of 'barbarous' and hence means literally 'barbarous woman', although this should be understood as 'foreign woman' as, to the Greeks, anyone not a Greek was a barbarian.

CECILIA and CHLOE are two seemingly inoffensive names, these mean 'blind' and 'green' respectively. Incidentally for those who think CHELSEA is a good idea, they might like to know it means 'landing place for chalk'.)

DEBORAH would seem innoccuous enough, until we learn it is from the Hebrew for 'bee'. I also noted DELILAH meant 'flirtatious', prompting me to think "Why, why, why Delilah".

ELEANOR means 'pity'. Judging by the lyric to Eleanor Rigby, I think Sir Paul may have known the origin.

FAYE or FAY means 'fairy' (I instantly thought she would be good for washing dishes).

GEORGINA is clearly the female equivalent of George. The female form thus means 'earth woman' as in 'woman of the soil' rather than in the sense of a deity.

HAILEY actually began as a place name and effectively means 'woodland clearing, woodland clearing'.

IO is increasing in popularity, probably as a result of the space programme with this being a moon of Jupiter. Unfortunately this came from the Greek for the girl loved by Zeus but loathed by Hera, thus the god turned her into a heifer to protect her from his jealous wife, and the name does mean 'heifer'.

JADE and the name conjures up images of the stone. However it was also once used to refer to 'a woman regarded as disreputable or shrewish'.

KLAUDIA or CLAUDIA comes from a term meaning 'lame'. Incidentally those who named their daughters Kylie all those years ago may not have known it meant 'boomerang' while another modern offering Kia means 'go well'.

LEA and LEIA have several sources but the earliest is probably Hebrew meaning 'cow' (I wonder if George Lucas was aware of this?). Incidentally the increasingly popular Leena (probably only a variant spelling of Lena) comes from the Arabic for 'palm tree'.

MATILDA and a name which fell out of favour in 15th-century England as it was more often used as a euphemism for a prostitute. Of course this had been forgotten by the time it returned, maybe as a result of the song Waltzing Matilda.

NINA is most often a shortened form of many other names. However it is also a Quechua word meaning 'fire' (inspired by a passing fire engine at the time of birth and/or conception?)

OPHELIA is ultimately from the Greek meaning 'help'. Possibly worth mentioning that Oprah was not her given name, she was named Orpah which was constantly mispronounced and stuck - it means 'back of the neck'. (Parents who could see far into the future, apparently.)

PHILIPPA, clearly the feminine form of Philip, is of Greek origin and means 'lover of horses'. (Not even tempted.)

QUEENIE and only because it was the only one I could find and with obvious meaning. (All I can hear is the ending of Now I'm Here.)

REBECCA or RACHEL, both biblical names and from Hebrew meaning 'tie' and 'ewe' respectively. Here 'tie' is used in the sense of 'married to or associated with', although the literal meaning would have been 'cattle stall'.

SHANIA, increasing in popularity through singer Shania Twain, it comes from Native American meaning 'I am coming'. Saffron, another of increasing popularity, comes from a word meaning 'yellow'. (Jaundiced, perhaps?)

TALLULAH, the most famous being actress Tallulah Bankhead who popularised the name, comes from a Native American word meaning 'terrible'. (Never saw her act.)

ULRICA began as a female Scandinavian name meaning 'wolf power'. I have no idea what a female wolf is called. Nor do I know what a 'female bear cub' is called other than it is the meaning of the name URSULA.

VANESSA is really a cheat as there is little to choose from. It is quite interesting as it was created by writer Jonathan Swift, a pet name coined for his friend Esther Vanhomrigh and pieced to together from both her names. (Incidentally ESTHER is a Persian name meaning 'star'.)

WENDY is, like VANESSA, a created name and much more recently. First appearing in the 1904 play Peter Pan by J M Barrie, it was adapted from his childhood nickname of 'Fwendy-Wendy'. Hence perhaps it could be said to mean 'friend'.

XENA has been popularised by the television warrior princess. However her name comes from the Greek meaning 'stranger, foreigner'.

YVETTE is the feminine form of YVES, a French name and thus meaning 'the female tree tree'.

ZIA is thought to come from the Arabic for 'splendour' but in Italian zia does mean 'aunt'.

To address any suggestion of sexism I shall cover male names next time.

Sunday 23 November 2014

An A-Z of English Loanwords

After looking at the origins of some of the newer words and phrases added to the English language last time, I began thinking about earlier loanwords. English is positively rife with examples, hence I chose a simple A to Z format, paying particular attention to those which have been around long enough to have seen a change in meaning.

A is for Admiral
Comes from Arabic amir, where it shares a root with emir, and originally spoke of a commander on land, whereas English usage is a naval rank.

B is for Bully
A very negative expression in modern English and one coming to our language from Dutch boel meaning 'lover' or 'brother'.

C is for Carrot
Not seen in English until the sixteenth century, it is thought to come from the Proto-Indo-European root ker meaning 'horn, head'.

D is for Drug
Today medicinal and coming to our language through Old French droge 'supply, stock, provision' and from Middle Dutch and Low German drog-vate 'dry barrels'. The Old French meaning shows it was misunderstood as referring to the contents and not a barrel containing dry goods.

E is for Easel
Today the stand used to support a canvas, for an artist, or a chalkboard, for a teacher. Originally this was the Dutch ezel meaning 'donkey'.

F is for Fetish
In the modern era most often used to refer to unusual sexual preferences. It comes from Portuguese fetiches where it referred to the charms and talismans worshipped by the inhabitants of the coastal region of Africa near Guinea and also adopted by the Portuguese sailors and merchants who discovered them.

G is for Garble
Today's meaning of incoherent or jumbled speech is remarkably recent. Until the nineteenth century it was used to mean 'to sift' and first came to Western Europe as Catalan garbellar meaning 'to sift' and invariably used in reference to spices and dyes.

H is for Hug
Probably used more today that it has ever been, it is first seen in Old English as hycgan meaning 'to think, consider'.

I is for Indigo
Today only ever a colour and rarely mentioned unless speaking of the rainbow or spectrum. It originates as a Portuguese reference to the 'dye from India', one which, rather predictably, produced such a colour.

J is for Jeer
Today's use of 'to mock' is rather different to the German scheren 'to shear'.

K is for Knickerbockers
Perhaps some would see this as an item of attire. Others, such as I, would instantly think of a rather large dessert. Both are very much removed from the original Dutch meaning of 'toy marble baker'.

L is for Lambada
A well-known dance one would think, but beware accepting an invitation to dance for it was originally Portuguese lambada meaning 'beating, lashing'.

M is for Macrame
The modern use of a textile made from knotting rather than weaving or knitting is very different from the original Arabic qaram. By the time it reached English in the nineteenth century it had evolved through Turkish, Italian and French and very much changed since the Arabic meaning of 'to nibble persistently'.

N is for Nasty
Another Dutch loanword and one originally seen as nestig or 'like a bird's nest'.

O is for Orange
Originally a reference to the fruit in English and first seen in the 13th century. As a colour it was not used until the 13th century, prior to that the colour orange was known as geoluread or 'yellow-red'. The House of Orange has a completely different etymology, coming from the place name and named after the Celtic water god Arausio. The colour was not adopted by the House of Orange until the sixteenth century.

P is for Poppycock
Probably seen in the 21st century as a rather polite way to describe another's opinion with which one disagrees. The original Dutch pappekak meant 'soft dung'.

Q is for Quisling
As many will know a word not used until the Second World War and a reference to Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian traitor who headed the puppet government under German occupation for which he was tried and shot.

R is for Robot
Another word recently introduced to English, somewhat predictably considering the scientific usage of today. It comes from the Czech language where robot originally meant 'labour, drudgery'.

S is for Slim
Today something many would strive to become and spend a great deal of time, effort and money in doing so. The original Dutch slim could be 'bad, sly, crooked'.

T is for Tariff
Today is a tax, particular on goods crossing international boundaries. Originally this Arabic word was arraf meaning 'to notify'.

U is for Ukelele
Possibly the best known of this list, for while the instrument may come to mind the original Hawaiian described a 'jumping flea'.

V is for Vernacular
Common speech today, originating from Latin verna meaning 'home-born slave'.

W is for Widow
Either the female 'widow' or the male 'widower' describe a marriage ended by the death of one individual. It can be traced to the Latin viduus meaning 'bereft, void' and ultimately from the root weidh 'to separate'.

X is for Xenophobia
Something of a cheat as I was unable to find anything beginning with X in fairly common use in English. However as the idea was to find a different original meaning 'xenophobia' does fit. This is from the greek xeno 'foreign, strange' phobia 'fear', but was earlier used (until at least 1884) in the same context as 'agoraphobia' would be today.

Y is for Yacht
Coming to English from Dutch, where it referred to a'hunting ship'. it can be traced to the Proto-Indo-European yek meaning 'to hunt'.

Z is for Zebra
Today the image of black and white stripes comes to mind, however the Portuguese zebro described the female of a kind of deer.

Sunday 16 November 2014


Regular readers of my blog will already know of my fascination with words and etymologies. As we grow older with have a natural resistance to change – the old music, films, actors, et al were always better. The same is true with language. Slang terms used by younger generations become part of the language remarkably quickly and loan words from other languages pepper the English tongue. Cola, boogie, admiral, tea, yacht, orange, candy and ginger are all common enough English words but all are borrowed from other languages.

In recent years we in the United Kingdom have been treated to the introduction of various phrases introduced from the United States of America. Some arrived through business contacts and many others through the medium of television. It did occur to me that some who use the phrases would have no notion of the original meaning. For example to say “Stepping up to the plate” is, as most will know, a reference to take responsibility and a baseball term. Those who have no knowledge of this particular sport should be made aware this is where the next player takes his stance when coming in to bat. For those in the United States to hear the phrase “Walking to the crease” (or perhaps “Taking guard”) would perhaps be equally mysterious, cricket being even less popular west of the Atlantic than baseball is to the east.

This made me think about other popular phrases.

“Touch base” – another baseball analogy. For those who don’t know it’s the bit where the running chap has to get in order to be ‘safe’ and not run out. I have to say I have never felt at all safe when anyone suggests it is time we touch base. The message here is to make contact and first used in the United States around the 1970s and in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

“Thinking outside the box” – a reference to unconventional thinking and thought to originate in a puzzle test. The aim is to connect all nine dots (three rows of three) with four straight lines and never lifting the pen from the paper nor going over the same line a second time. Answer is searchable online and I won't spoil it. Suffice to say the solution involves in drawing the lines outside the area of the ‘box’ formed by the nine dots.

“Proactive” – one of my personal hates (probably because former England cricketer turned commentator Nasser Hussain uses it incessantly) and coined in the 1930s. Here the intention was to create a word to have the opposite meaning to ‘reactive’ – ie don’t react to a situation but do something to prevent the situation ever happening.

“At the end of the day” – in the modern era has only been seen since the late 1970s or early 1980s. In the 21st century it is used as ‘in the final analysis’ when the original usage was instead of ‘eventually’. Both these alternatives are infinitely better – and I’m not the only one to loathe this phrase, for in 2008 it was voted the most irritating,

“Going forward” (also “Moving forward”) – nearly always accompanied by an equally irritating gesture and meaning ‘in the future’ or even ‘soon’, nobody seems to have any idea when it came into use (outside board meetings) or just why anyone thought it made any sense at all.

“Paradigm” (also “Paradigm shift”) – began as a scientific term. Now I fully understand the need to create words in the name of science. Imagine Sir Isaac Newton having to write about gravity for the first time and deciding upon a name for this force, what would you have come up with? The original use of “Paradigm shift” was by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolution published in 1962. For example science showed how germs were the cause of disease when previously it was thought to be a result of “bad air” and exactly how ‘malaria’ got its name. As a buzzword it is among the newest, appearing as recently as the late 1990s.

“Push the envelope” – was not first used in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff published in 1979 but likely the reason for its popularity. The use of ‘envelope’ here is nothing to do with letters but is a mathematical envelope defined as “The locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves”. In some circles the phrase is altered to “Max the envelope”, a ludicrous idea as we are all aware envelopes are called Manilla, not Max.

“Cut to the chase” – or ‘get to the point’ is thought to have come from silent film director Hal Roach. In the days when all film comedy was visual, a chase was the inevitable conclusion to a film as it made for good viewing and could be extended to fill the void left by the lack of dialogue. However there is a record of an earlier form coming from around 1880 (and well before Hollywood). Here the phrase is given as “Cut to Hecuba”. Shakespearian devotees will know this as Act II, Scene II of Hamlet, thus avoiding the long speeches and soliloquies.

“Downsizing” – first used by car manufacturers to refer to the size of the vehicles they produced and almost immediately used by them to explain why they were reducing costs by cutting numbers of employees and/or wage bills. Today, especially in the United Kingdom, it has been introduced into daily speech by the innumerable presenters of daytime television programmes who like to show us other people looking to buy their next home (and who seem obliged to use the word ‘property’ at least once in every sentence). Oddly these same presenters do not use ‘upsizing’ for those who want a bigger home but always speak of needing “More space” or “A bigger home”.

“Decluttering” – ye gods what an appalling word! It would make more sense if we had introduced ‘cluttering’ as a verb meaning ‘to make a mess or untidy’ either at the same time or earlier. Indeed instead of telling my mother “Nothing!” or “Not much!” when she asked what I had been doing in my room, I would have enjoyed saying I was “Busy cluttering, Mumsie”.

All these do bring to mind a phrase my father used a lot and one which I wish would have or maybe will catch on. On hearing some gibberish being spoken he would describe it as “Talking scribble”.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Search for the Oldest Joke

In writing about the origins of place names I often come across examples of names clearly transferred from elsewhere around the world. Among the most common are Botany Bay, New Zealand, California and even World’s End. Clearly these cannot have been named before the more famous examples and were probably suggested as those places were in the news at the time.

These are known as remoteness names, not a direct reference to the other side of the world (as in the case of Botany Bay) but a name coined for the far corner of the parish. In times when virtually everyone earned their living from the land, there were times when that patch of land at the extremity of the parish required tilling, sowing or reaping, and some unfortunate fellow had to walk there and back each day. He would have joked about it being at the other side of the world and eventually the name stuck.

There are also streets named Zig Zag Lane and similar. Whilst some do indeed have significant bends there examples where the road is as straight as any Roman road and, once again, this has been named by some wit who thought it quite inappropriate.

Doubtless these examples will have been the source of great guffaws of laughter at one time. Today they might raise a small smile at best. The question of why is undoubtedly because humour changes over time, and a remarkably short period of time, too.

The examples of place name humour is only about three hundred years old at most. More recently our grandparents or perhaps great-grandparents will have found Charlie Chaplin and similar silent screen stars hilarious – yet this slapstick will hardly amuse anyone today. When the talkies arrived it meant humour did not have to be visual. In the classic musical Singing in the Rain we see how a silent movie star’s voice ruined her career when the audience could really hear her rather than read her words on screen.

Later radio shows saw comedy actors play regular roles and the development of the catchphrase. We also saw some apparently ‘classic’ comedy routines on the big screen, thereafter television introduced other forms of comedy including Monty Python, The Young Ones and Morecambe and Wise.

From a personal viewpoint I never have understood just why Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine was amusing. I’m sure Charlie Drake and Dickie Henderson must have amused many during the 1960s, although I never met anyone who admitted such. Mike Yarwood’s impressions were once primetime television in the UK. And remember that ‘bear’ on The Andy Williams Show always demanding milk and cookies? Did you laugh? I didn’t.

Having said that I still find reruns of The Goons and Round the Horne on radio compulsive listening. The improvisational talents of Colin Mochrie and Ryan Styles are still of great amusement. While messrs Merton, Fry, Edmondson, Carrott, Connolly, Atkinson, et al can always be relied upon.

Hence clearly what is funny depends upon one’s era (there is also the cultural factor but that complicates things far too much). All this had me thinking about the earliest jokes. Would they be funny? Clearly these would have to be in written form. But would we even recognise these as a joke?

A little research uncovered three absolutely hilarious witticisms. Prepare to split your sides:

From the 1st century BC comes this little gem featuring Emperor Augustus who is touring a small part of his empire when he meets a man who bears an amazing likeness to himself. The emperor asks if his mother was ever in service at the palace? He replies “No, but my father was.”

From 1600BC and another from around the Mediterranean, this time it is the pharaohs of Egypt who are the target of the joke when the comedian asked “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” And answered himself with “Sail a boat full of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile – and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.”

Wet yourself yet? Thought not. Then perhaps the oldest known joke in the world, which must surely merit it being considered a classic through age alone, will have us all rolling in the aisles. It is not much earlier than the Egyptian offering, dating from around 1900 BC, and a Sumerian gag which is recorded thus: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” You’d think we would have heard that as it is approaching 4,000 years old, although it is easy to see why we haven’t.

I also managed to find the oldest British joke. Found in a 10th-century book of Saxon poetry in Exeter Cathedral known as the Codex Exoniensis, the joke is in the form of a question and reads “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole it’s often poked before?” The answer is, of course, “A key.”

Perhaps it’s the way I tell them.

Sunday 2 November 2014

An A-Z of Homonyms (Almost)

While working on my last post I was reminded of a question posed to me at a recent talk. Specifically a member of Stone Historical and Civic Society asked about the use and origins of the word ‘plant’ when speaking of heavy machinery. Did it have an entirely different etymology to its more common use? Of course at that moment I had absolutely no notion. However I did promise to cover such in my blog and here it is.

Any word having the same spelling and pronunciation but having more than one meaning is described as a homonym. Correctly these should be seen as different words for, as we shall see, they have rather different histories. When contemplating this post I had wondered just how many examples I could discuss and whether there would be enough to make it worthwhile. I will admit to being a little surprised by just how many there are and hence have opted for a simple alphabetical list. No apologies for omitting the letters X and Z for there are no homonyms beginning with these two letters – unless you can show me otherwise.

Ash – referring to the tree and also the residue from a fire. Doubtless one of the oldest words as it is one of the simplest sounds and an examination shows this to be true. Related to Greek azein ‘to parch’, to Latin ardus ‘dry’, and even Sanskrit asah ‘ashes, dust’. All have the common root of Proto-Indo-European ai meaning ‘to burn, glow’ and what was originally a reference to the fire later used in a plural form to give the modern meaning. When it comes to the tree, as with many tree names, it is the use of the wood we should look to. Ash was used to make the shafts of spears, indeed Old English aesc referred to both the tree and the spear, and comes from Proto-Indo-European root os for the ‘ash tree’. Over millennia this gave Old Norse askr, Dutch esce, German esche, Armenian haci, Latin ornus, Russian jasen, and Lithuanian uosis.

Bank – either the financial institution or used topographically. Clearly the latter will have been known and described thousands of years before even the concept of finance existed. However from an etymological perspective there is virtually no difference in the two. Both are known from around the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and both seem to be derived from an unknown Proto-Indo-European word meaning something akin to ‘build up’, ascend’. The modern words have been derived from Old Italian banca ‘table’, in the case of the financial institute, and early Germanic bankiz or ‘bench’, when speaking of a feature in the landscape.

Carp – is either a fish or to complain. The piscine form is by far the simplest, ultimately from an East Germanic karpa and the name given to a fish found in the Danube. Once the carp was prized as a food fish, indeed this was the reason for the creation of the many fish ponds into which these fish were introduced – they satisfied the need for protein in a diet, especially when religion deemed it wrong to eat red meat on Fridays. We do not know the original use of the word, however anything other than a reference to food is highly improbable. When it comes to the use of ‘complaint’, the word comes to English from Latin carpere ‘to slander, revile’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kerp meaning ‘gather, pluck, harvest’. Hence the phrase ‘to pick or pull apart’, as in an argument, has the identical origin and ‘carp’ in this sense shares an origin with ‘harvest’.

Dock – as in a place where craft come to be unloaded or in the sense to remove the tail of an animal. The former appears to have been used initially to refer to a rut created by the passage of a wheel through wet or muddy ground. As a dock is a man-made feature, the cutting to where the goods can be unloaded would resemble the wheel rut. To remove part of an animal’s tail is first used in the late fourteenth century, ultimately this comes from Proto-Germanic dokko meaning ‘a bundle’ or ‘something round’ and its use for a shortened tail a reference to the muscle which had been cut.

Egg – the obvious reproductive reference is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awi meaning ‘bird’. When it comes to meaning ‘to incite’, it comes to English from Old Norse eggja and from ‘edge’ as in ‘to advance slowly’ and thus misunderstood pronunciation.

Firm – meaning ‘solid, stable’ and another word for a company or business. The former is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European dher ‘to hold, support’ and evolved before coming to English through the Latin firmus ‘strong, steadfast’. When used in the business sense the origin is also Latin but here from firmare or ‘to sign’, this giving us the modern ‘affirmation’ in the same sense.

Gum – can be a part of the mouth where the teeth erupt or an adhesive. In the latter the use can be traced to Latin gumma, Greek kommi and Egyptian kemai, all meaning ‘resin’ and used in this sense to refer to texture. When it comes to a part of the mouth we can trace it back to gheu, the Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to yawn’. Later we find Lithuanian gomurys, Old High German goumo, and Old Norse gomi, all meaning ‘palate’.

Hail – used to describe frozen rain and to refer to a greeting. The latter was first used as a nautical greeting, first seen in print in the sixteenth century, and from the religious salutation Hail Mary or ave Maria. Weather-wise it is related to Greek kakhlex ‘round pebble’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kaghlo ‘pebble’.

Inch – as in the imperial measurement and also a small Scottish island. The former comes from the Latin root uncial meaning ‘a twelfth part’. The island is much earlier and seen in Gaelic innis, Old Irish inis, Welsh ynys, and Breton enez, all from the earliest meaning of ‘land by a river’.

Jade – used for the ornamental stone and also in ‘to weary’ and possibly my favourite homonym, at least from the etymologies. The stone can be traced back to Latin ilia meaning ‘flanks, kidney area’. It came to English through Spanish piedra de la ljada around the sixteenth century to mean ‘pain in the side’ or ‘stone of the colic’. It was thought jade could cure such an ailment. Its use meaning ‘to tire’ seems to be from the earlier noun referring to ‘a worn-out horse’ – and was also once used as a derogatory term for a woman.

Key – either that used to open a lock or a musical reference. The former is of uncertain etymology but thought to come from the Proto-Germanic ki meaning ‘to cleaver, split’. Musically the reference is from Latin clavis and French clef and thought to come from a reference to ‘the lowest note on the scale’.

Lark – either the bird or meaning ‘a prank’. The latter has been suggested as coming from ‘skylark’, a nautical reference to the play of sailors in the rigging likened to that of the singing of the skylark – hence ‘larking about’. As for the bird the modern etymology is all we have, although some sources suggest a compound of Norse and Saxon referring to a ‘treason-worker’, the reason for which is unexplained.

Mace – is either a weapon or a spice. The weapon is ultimately from the Latin matteola or ‘type of mallet’. The spice is less certain but may be related to Latin macir, this the name of an Indian spice obtained from the bark of a tree, although this is disputed.

Nap – can be a short sleep, or a reference to the smooth surface of cloth. The sleep is known in earlier tongues, such as Old High German hnaffezan and Norwegian napp, yet with identical meaning the source is unclear. Of course it is always possible that ‘nap’ was the original word for ‘sleep’, certainly the latter has no very earlier references. When it comes to cloth the term comes from a root giving Old Swedish niupa and Gothic dis-hniupan ‘to tear, and a description of removing anything from the cloth which would spoil the finish.

Ounce – and when it comes to the imperial measurement of weight is ultimately from Latin uncial ‘one-twelfth’ and thus sharing an origin with ‘inch’. Of course there are 16 ounces to the pound in the avoirdupois system, this refers to the Troy system of weights. Note the abbreviation oz is from Italian onza. The ounce is also an alternative name for the snow leopard, this comes from the Old French word lonce, originally referring to the lynx.

Plant – was the original question posed and can refer to either flora or to heavy machinery. The more common usage is clearly the oldest for plants were plants before the Industrial Revolution. Whether used as a noun or verb the origin is Proto-Indo-European plat meaning ‘to spread’ or ‘flat’ and clearly first a reference to where the plants were planted, literally ‘a place’. In its modern sense it is not seen before the sixteenth century. In the machinery sense it is first recorded in a document dated 1789, where the reference is to where something had been constructed for industrial purposes, literally the machinery had been placed or planted.

Quack – used to refer to the sound made be a duck and a medical figure of dubious qualifications. Taking the anseriformes first, the sound can be traced back through Middle Dutch quacken to the Latin coaxare ‘croak’, and Greek koax meaning ‘the croaking of frogs’, and Hittite akuwakuwash ‘frog’. In a medical sense it is short for ‘quacksalver’, a Dutch phrase ‘hawker of salve’ where salf meant ‘salve’, and originally used as ‘to play the quack’.

Race – either a reference to cultural heritage or to a speed contest. That meaning ‘of common descent’ is only seen from the sixteenth century, itself from Middle French razza meaning ‘lineage, family’ and first used in English to denote those with a common occupation. The predictably earlier use, although not by much, comes from Scandinavian rasen meaning ‘to rush’ is first seen in the thirteenth century.

Sage – is used to describe wisdom and is a herb. In the former we find Latin sapere ‘to have taste’ as well as ‘be wise’. This is from Proto-Indo-European sap ‘to taste’. As a herb it came to English from Old French sauge, itself from Latin salvia meaning ‘healthy’. Interestingly the English ‘safe’ has identical origins. The herb gets its name through usage, sage being used to clean teeth, ease soreness of the gums, and as a cure for arthritis.

Tender – either meaning ‘soft’ or ‘to offer’. The former comes to English through Old French and from Latin tenerem not only used for ‘soft, delicate’ but also ‘youthful’. Here Proto-Indo-European ten ‘stretch’ was used in the sense of ‘thin’ then ‘weak’ and finally ‘delicate’. The latter comes to English from tender Old French for ‘to offer’ and from Latin tendere ‘to stretch, extend’.

Utter – either ‘to speak’ or ‘absolute’. Sharing an origin with ‘out’ and from Proto-Indo-European ud which has the same ‘to put out’ meaning. The use of ‘to the utmost degree’ comes from Old English uterlic meaning ‘external’. Thus both have a loosely common root. Note ‘utter’ was also used until comparatively recently to mean ‘to release’.

Vault – is either a leap or a strong-room. The athletic reference is ultimately from Latin volvitare ‘to turn or leap’, coming to English through the Old French volter. The other origin is from an Old French vaulter referring to ‘an arched roof’. Today used more often as in a bank vault, the term originated as a reference to a vault in a crypt. Architecturally this referred to the arch.

Wax – is either used as a noun or as a verb. Originally wax was seen occurring naturally in honeycombs and thus Old English weax, Old Slavonic vosku, Polish wosk, Russian vosk and Proto-Indo-European wosko all referred to ‘that substance made by bees’. As a verb and meaning ‘to grow’, the term comes through Old English weaxen, Old High German wahsan, Old Norse vaxa, and Proto-Indo-European weg.

Yak – is either a wild Asian ox or a term meaning ‘to talk idly’. The former is first seen in Europe from the end of the eighteenth century and comes from Tibetan g-yag ‘a male yak’. Idle chatter was originally seen as ‘yack’, a term unheard before the twentieth century and having no etymological history to speak of.

Naturally many are monosyllabic, itself a reasonable, albeit general, explanation of why two words of different etymological beginnings and sources sound identical and consequently have the same spelling.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Talking Buts, Butts and Buttes

When out and about giving talks, particularly those on the subject of place names, I often encounter a local name which will invariably lead to a minor disagreement between the speaker and the audience. Having regularly failed to convince many of the origin of this as a minor place name or, more often, a field name transferred to a street name when the area was developed, I thought an examination of the various buts, butts, and buttes might prove of interest.

As a place or field name it is often thought to be a reminder of where archers had honed their skills. Sunday morning church could be missed by men who were practicing with the bow and arrow. Locals enjoy such a story. It shows fellow villagers, possibly even ancestors, were patriotic and ready to answer the call to arms to fight for what was right. Sadly it is almost never right.

Here we shall look not only at why it is nothing to do with archery and at the correct derivation, but (pun intended) at all the other uses and spellings and respective origins thereof. Three spellings, those given in the title, and surprisingly more than twenty-five different uses of but, butt and butte.

1. But - as in ‘nevertheless’ comes from Germanic be’by’ and utana ‘outside’.

2. But – as in ‘on the contrary’ and sharing the etymology of 1.

3. But – when preceding the word ‘can’ and used to refer to an exception and sharing the etymology of 1.

4. But – used instead of the much lengthier ‘without the result that’ as in “It never rains but it pours” and sharing the etymology of 1.

5. But – as used when interrupting the speaker’s train of thought as in “There is no chance of rain ….. but is that a cloud I see?” and sharing the etymology of 1.

6. But – as in ‘however’ and used such as “Did not want to, but.” and sharing the etymology of 1.

7. But – as in ‘who not’ and used as “There is not a man but feels pity” and sharing the etymology of 1.

8. But – as in an objection (when it can also be used in the plural as in the phrase “But me no buts”) and sharing the etymology of 1.

9. But – as in ‘an outer room’, a new one on me, and apparently from the Scandinavian meaning “outside”. Most often this is used of a humble two-roomed cottage described as a ‘but and ben’. Again this clearly shares an etymology with 1.

10. Butt – as in ‘to push with the head’ comes from Proto-Germanic butan, itself from Proto-Indo-European bhau, and meaning ‘to strike’. This has also provided us with the verb ‘to batter’.

11. Butt – as in ‘abut’ and a reference to adjoining ends, particularly flat ends.

12. Butt – as when used with the word ‘against’, usually used in construction directions,

13. Butt – when used with ‘in’ meaning ‘to interrupt’ comes through Middle English and Norman French and ultimately from the Germanic group. It shares an etymology with 10.

14. Butt – when used with ‘out’, chiefly North American but (pun intended) becoming more commonplace in other English-speaking countries, meaning ‘desist’ and again shares an etymology with ‘abut’.

15. Butt – when followed by ‘of’ used to refer to an object, such as in ‘the butt of his jokes’ and from a theoretical Proto-Indo-European word reference meaning ‘aim’ but (pun intended) also used in the Germanic group to refer to a ‘stock, block’ as in the Old Scandinavian butr ‘a log of wood’.

16. Butt – a mound behind a target, used to support it and also to prevent the projectile from continuing through and well beyond same. This came to English from Old French but meaning ‘goal’.

17. Butt – as in ‘a shooting range’ but (pun intended) today always used in the plural. It shares an etymology with the previous ‘butt’ in from Old French but meaning ‘goal’.

18. Butt – again a shooting reference but (pun intended) here specifically to the low turf or stone wall at the stand of one shooting grouse.

19. Butt – as in butt-end and a reference to the thickest end of a tool or weapon. This is found in Old English as buttuc where it refers to ‘an end, a small piece of land’.

20. Butt – again sometimes said to be the butt-end and a reference to the stub of a cigarette or cigar. There is no known use in this sense prior to 1847.

21. Butt – as in ‘the remaining part’.

22. Butt – as in the rear end, originating in North America it is becoming more commonplace in other English-speaking countries. It is simply an abbreviated form of ‘buttocks’, itself clearly sharing an origin with 19.

23. Butt – also said to be the butt-end and a reference to the flat end meeting another flat surface, such as a couple of planks.

24. Butt – when used to refer to that part of the trunk of a tree just above the ground. This comes from the Dutch bot meaning ‘stumpy’.

25. Butt – meaning ‘a cask’, a container for ales and wines. This is derived from Old French bout and Latin buttis.

26. Butt – and the name of a flatfish derived from the Middle Low German, Old Swedish and Middle Dutch but. There is also the archaic Buttwoman, in English ‘a fish-wife’ and one who sells fish.

27. Butte – is used to refer to an isolated and steep-sided hill. This comes from French for ‘mound’ and quite easy to see its association with the defensive mound backing a target. Rarely used to mean ‘mound or knoll’ outside of North America by English-speakers, the first record of its use is by Messrs. Lewis and Clark.

So which of these is the origin of the English field name? Answer, none of them. The correct derivation is Old English butt which refers to the unploughed edge to a field or similar. This was not deliberate but a result of ploughing techniques in Saxon times. The power was provided by oxen who pulled the plough across the land. One man would guide the oxen in a straight line, a second held the handles of the plough and his sole task was to ensure the ploughshare cut as deeply into the ground as was required for a good break-up of the soil. Herein lies the problem. The distance between the nose of the oxen and the tip of the ploughshare would always be left unploughed at the end of each furrow. This was the butt.

Yet why can it not be the butt seen in archery? Surely these would have been important features in the landscape and their location known to all? Of course this must be true of a few but (pun intended) not of the vast majority and for two very good reasons.

Firstly the decree did not refer to any archery but (pun intended) specifically to the longbow. The crossbow had been in use in this country for years. It took time to load, was not particularly accurate, nor was it overly powerful. This was not the case with the longbow which made it important to practice one’s skills regularly. Thus the decree could not have been issued before the longbow was used by English forces and the first major conflict was the Hundred Years War against the French and the Battle of Sluys in 1340.

Secondly there is the positioning of the ‘butts’. The archery targets were always within easy sight of the church where the rest of the community were at prayer – hence the arrow marks found on many stones in churchyards where arrowheads had been sharpened. This was to prevent archers from enjoying a break from church instead of practising their skills and many of these butt names are nowhere near within sight of the church.

Finally there is the earliest record of the name. Whilst many records are lost there is more than enough to show the term was in use as a place name or field name well before either the longbow, and its subsequent decree, had come into use. Furthermore the use of ‘butt’ as the defensive mound behind the target is from Old French, and the Norman influence in this country is impossible before they arrived on our shores. The Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14th 1066, any butts prior to this are therefore Saxon butts.

We should also note why church was compulsory and those who failed to turn up incurred an increasingly heavy fine for repeated infringements. This would have little to do with incurring the wrath of any deity – the individual would already be keen to ward off such retribution – more likely it was aimed at those who were already doomed to spend eternity in the other place. Consider this as a time when bells rang out every Sunday to call the community to prayer and everyone attended. Those who missed church had the entire village of empty houses just waiting for the unscrupulous visitor to come calling and remove any valuables they could carry. Also a good reason for making sure the archers were within sight of the church.

Having shown just why the butts are unploughed strips at the edge of the field and nothing to do with archery, perhaps there will not be any further minor disagreements at my talks.

Of course there will.

Sunday 19 October 2014

The Capital Cities of Oceania – Etymologically Speaking

Last time I examined the origins of the nations of the continent of Oceania and, as promised, here look at the names of the capital cities. As the nations are much better known than the cities, as previously I have kept the alphabetical order of the countries.

Australia – the capital is Canberra and, although only founded as recently as 1913, the origin of this name is uncertain. However this has not prevented a great deal of speculation and the most common suggestion refers to the old Ngunnawal language in which the name meant ‘woman’s breasts’. This would refer to the nearby Black Mountain and Ainslie Mountain, although a second written account maintains the correct translation is ‘hollow between a woman’s breasts’ and thus referring to the settlement being between the two mountains where Sullivans Creek flows. A third suggestion, and perhaps the most contrived, gives the origin as European. It seems the Australian cranberry proliferated in this area, although locally it was known as the ‘canberry’. It should be noted the only proven original source of the name of the settlement as ‘Canberry’ also happens to be the source of this definition.

Fiji – where the capital has been Suva since 1882. Whilst much has been written about the place there is absolutely no record of the etymology of the name to be found anywhere – unless you know otherwise!

Kiribati – where the capital of South Tarawa derives its name from Kiribati mythology. It seems Nareau the spider created the earth, sea and sky. In doing so he named the sky ‘karawa’ and the ocean ‘marawa’ and then as the god Riiki, also created by Nareau, lifted the sky he noted Riiki was stand on a piece of land which he decided should be known as ‘tarawa’. Nareau then sidled off (assuming spiders ‘sidle’) to create the other islands of Kiribati and those of Samoa.

Marshall Islands – and the capital of Majuro, an Anglicised version of the local name of Majro and one which has evaded all attempts to define it.

Micronesia – where the capital city is Palikir, yet a third name where the origin is unrecorded.

Nauru – where there is no capital city, nor indeed any cities. The centre of government is in the district of Yaren, yet another where the origin is unknown.

New Zealand – and the capital is Wellington, named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington whose name will forever be associated with the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. However the place was not known as such until November 1840 and there had been humans here for centuries. Prior to this and, according to the Maori, to this day Wellington has three names: Te Whangi-nui-a-Tara refers specifically to the harbour and means ‘the great harbour of Tara’; Poneke is the Maori translation of Port Nick or Port Nicholson, the central marae or central religious place of the Maori tribe; and thirdly Te Upoko-o-te-lka-a-Maui meaning ‘the head of the fish of the Maui’, which correctly refers to the entire southernmost region of the North Island. Having failed miserably to define an unacceptable number of capital cities, I did think it appropriate to include as much information on the others as humanly possible. Hence I delight in revealing that New Zealand sign language uses the first three fingers of either hand raised, palm facing, and spread to effectively form the three points of a capital letter ‘W’. The hand is then shaken a little from side to side twice. As always the words are said at the same time as signing to aid those also reading lips.

Palau – Ngerulmud is often said to be the modern capital, this name of one of several villages which comprise the place name of Melekeok. This was the name of the second child of the creator god in local mythology and derived from tekeok ‘openly-boastful’ or ‘stubborn’ or even ‘self-congratulatory’. One would hope no parent would name their child in the hope it would turn out to be an arrogant, egotistical brat but that he earned this name in later life, however here the story is from a creation myth and thus representative and an explanation of human traits.

Papua New Guinea – has the capital city of Port Moresby, where the harbour was explored by the British Captain John Moresby in 1873. Whilst it was named by John, he did not for a moment think of himself but named it in honour of his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby.

Samoa – and its capital of Apia, a name which has never been defined.

Solomon Islands – has the capital city of Honiara, an Anglicised version of the original local name of Nagoniara, itself meaning ‘in front of the wind’.

Tonga – where the capital city of Nuku’alofa comes from the Tongan for ‘residence and love’. Just one in fourteen marriages in Tonga end in divorce, compare this to approach half of all marriages in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and perhaps the name is more than suitable. However the real reason is mythological and dates from the time when the Tongan King Mo’ungatonga sent his youngest son Ngata to govern the notorious troubled region of Hihifo. The lad did not travel alone but was accompanied by his uncle Nuku and older cousin Niukapu. None of the three were overjoyed by the task the king had set them and were on the point of abandoning their journey and heading off for Samoa before landing halfway in order to formulate a plan. Eventually the three leaders decided to wrap themselves in a single large mat thus giving the impression of an exceedingly large and fearsome individual having three heads and avoided any confrontation.

Tuvalu – has Funafuti as its capital city, itself named after the founding ancestor from Samoa. One island is named Funafala, a name meaning ‘the pandanus of Funa’, he the chieftain, with the atoll being named Funafuti.

Vanuatu – and Port Vila, a Portuguese name simply meaning ‘port town’.

My apologies for leaving such a large proportion of the names undefined. I contemplated leaving this post for another time but as I have always followed up the etymologies of the countries with the meanings of their respective capital cities (and had said I would do so last time) I decided to press ahead. My dismal failure to define the names of Suva, Majuro, Palikir, Yaren, and Apia, I have written to the respective administrations in the hope they may be able to shed some light on the matter. Should I receive any response I shall update and this post with the relevant details.

Sunday 12 October 2014

The Nations of Oceania – Etymologically Speaking

Following on from previous weeks here we tie up the loose ends by examining the last of the continents. A comparatively modern term, only coined in the early nineteenth century, Oceania comes from a Greek word for ‘ocean’, an unusual name for a continent. Just what it comprises depends upon the record consulted but, for our purposes, it is everything in and around the Pacific basin not considered a part of Asia, North America, or South America.

Australia – A country originally known as Terra Australis Incognita or ‘unknown southern land’, this strange name because, perhaps uniquely, it appeared on a 2nd century map some 1,500 years before it was first sighted by Europeans.

Fiji – a name of uncertain meaning but one where the origins are well known. The island group is named from the main island, correctly known as Viti Levu and referred to by the inhabitants discovered by Captain James Cook as simply Viti. It was not the Fijians but the Tongans who knew the place as Fisi, in turn Anglicised as Fiji.

Kiribati – first sighted by Europeans in 1788 and later named by the French after the captain of that earlier vessel. That original captain was Thomas Gilbert, hence the Iles Gilbert or Gilbert Islands. The local name is Tungaru, thought to be after a former chieftain. Yet in a highly unusual turn of events the populace decided to use this local pronunciation of Gilberts, ie Kiribati, to show the group now encompasses other islands originally outside of their group. One of the islands in the group, sighted on Christmas Day and thus named Christmas Island, underwent the identical change and is known by the apparent Gilbertese name of Kiritimati, again the local pronunciation of the European name.

Marshall Islands – In the same year as Gilbert spied the Gilbert Islands, Captain John Marshall explored and mapped what are now known as the Marshall Islands. Not that these islands were unknown in the late eighteenth century, indeed they were first recorded by Europeans as early as 1529 when seen by Spanish navigator Alvarez de Saavedra.

Micronesia – the name of Micronesia, like the name of the continent, is derived from the Greek where micros ‘small’ nesos ‘island’ with ia ‘territory’.

Nauru – the first European to visit the island were the crew of Captain John Fearn’s vessel on a whale hunting voyage in 1798. He referred to this as the Pleasant Island and the name stuck until the twentieth century. The local and current name seems to come from the local language where anaoero means ‘I go to the beach’ and a reference to the twelve tribes which inhabited the place having a culture entirely based on fishing and coconuts.

New Zealand – although associated with Captain James Cook, New Zealand was first sighted by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who called them the Staaten Islands. This means ‘the land of the States’, ie the states of the Netherlands. However Dutch authorities were not impressed and changed the name the following year to Nieuw Zeeland ‘new sea land’ and inspired by the Dutch province of Zeeland. Terrains of the two places could not be more different – the Dutch Zeeland is as flat as it can be which the New Zealand is a mountainous volcanic region.

Palau – this name has come to English through a German version of the Spanish name. Just what this means depends upon which local words is the origin. Two very similar words, with very different meanings, have been suggested – hence this is either beluu or ‘village’ or if aibebelau is a reference to creation mythology.

Papua New Guinea – two former areas united in the modern name. The region of Papua is from a local term but of unknown origin and meaning. The ‘new’ of New Guinea came from Ortiz de Rez, a Portuguese explorer who consider the inhabitants similar in appearance to those he met in Guinea, West Africa.

Samoa – French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named them the Navigator Islands in 1768. However the local name has always been Samoa, a reference to the large, now extinct, flightless birds which once inhabited the islands around here and named as ‘the place of moa’.

Solomon Islands – discovered and named in 1567 by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mandana de Neyra. Having met the natives and the gold ornaments they wore, he jumped to the conclusion this must be the legendary land of Ophir where, according to the Bible in Kings 1 chapter 9 verse 28, the gold was brought to King Solomon. It does instantly beg the question as to why he did not simply call them the Ophir Islands.

Tonga – in the many dialects and related tongues of Polynesia the word tonga means simply ‘south’, an apt description of these, the southernmost group of these islands.

Tuvalu –a group of nine islands settled by migrating humans some 3,000 years ago. Yet only eight were ever inhabited, hence the local tongue refers to them as ‘eight standing together’, a reference to the separate communities united by constant travel and trade by canoe.

Vanuatu – a local name derived from vanua ‘land’ or perhaps ‘home’ with tu ‘stand’, a reference to this new nation’s independence.

As previously the capital cities of each nation will be examined next time.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Asian Capital Cities – Etymologically speaking (M to Z)

Following on from last week a look at the origins of the capital cities of the Asian countries. Again I shall use the alphabetical order of the nations, as it makes it easier to compare the two and as the names of the capital cities will not be as well known.

Malaysia – where Kuala Lumpur is the capital city, a name from the Malay tongue referring to its location at the mouth of the River Kelang with kuala lumpur telling of ‘the estuary of mud’.

Maldives – the capital of Dhivehi shares an origin with the name of Maldives. Here Sanskrit dwipa is understood as ‘islanders’.

Mongolia – until 1924 the capital was known as Urga, a Mongolian name meaning ‘abode, place’. Since then it has been Ulan Bator, again from the Mongolian where ulan ‘red’ bator ‘warrior’ honours the founder of the modern republic in 1911. Dandimy Suhbataar (1893-1923) was born at, what was then, Urga.

Myanmar – has the capital city Nay Pyi Taw, which translates as either ‘royal capital’, seat of the king’ or ‘abode of kings’.

Nepal – the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu comes from the native language where kath mandir describes ‘the wooden temple’. This a reference to the temple said to have been constructed from the wood of a single tree by Raja Lachmina Singh in 1596.

Oman – Muscat’s origins are uncertain and have a number of suggested meanings. Perhaps this is Arabic from moscha and describes ‘an inflated hide or skin’; there are others who suggest this is ‘where to drop anchor’; maybe this is Old Persian meaning ‘strong-scented’; or other Arabic words giving ‘falling-place’ or even ‘hidden’.

Pakistan – the capital of Islamabad means ‘the capital of Islam’, the suffix abad Iranian for ‘city’.

Palestine – while the nation claims Jerusalem, the de facto capital is Ramallah. Here is a combination of Aramaic ram meaning ‘high place’ or ‘mountain’ with Allah being the Arabic for God.

Philippines – the capital is Manila, originally recorded as Maynilad, from the native Tagalog may ‘to be’ and nila ‘indigo’. This is understood as ‘the place where there is indigo’.

Qatar – the capital city of Doha either comes from the Arabic Ad-Dawha or ‘the big tree’, a marker for the original fishing village and possibly used as a marker by the fishermen, or from dohat the Arabic word for ‘bay’ where the fisherman cast their nets.

Russia – and Moscow is named after the River Moskva. The river name has a number of possible meanings depending upon the language: Salvonic Moskva gives ‘damp, marshy’; Slavonic mostkva results in ‘bridge water’; and Finno-Ugrian moska va would describe ‘the ford where calves are seen’.

Saudi Arabia – where the capital of Riyadh is a corruption of the Arabic Ar-Riyad and means ‘the grassland’. Anyone who has seen the area here will know there has not been grass here in recorded history and thus the name seems to have been ironic – much as the island of Greenland is nearly all glaciers.

Singapore – as a city-state the capital city is the state of Singapore, hence the meaning of ‘lion town’, understood as ‘strong town’ from Sanskrit singa pura is also applicable.

Sri Lanka – where Columbo is probably a Portuguese name derived from the Sinhalese name of Kolon thota meaning ‘the port on the river Kelani’. There are also those who maintain this is Sinhalese Kola-amba-thota or ‘the harbour with leafy mango trees.

Syria – where Damascus is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and thus has one of the oldest names. Thus it is no surprise to learn the origin of the name is uncertain and has a number of suggested meanings including ‘dwelling’, ‘a well-watered place’, ‘the land of the Levant’ or simply ‘industrious’.

Tajikistan – where the capital of Dushanbe may not be the best-known city in the world, but certainly should be lauded for having an origin describing the development of the place. Dushanbe is a Tajik word meaning ‘Monday’ and named such as this was the site of a marketplace held on Mondays. Possibly even more interesting is the origin of the Tajik word for ‘Monday’, where du ‘two’ went with shanbe ‘Saturday’ and thus Monday is described as ‘the second day after Saturday’.

Thailand – has its capital of Bangkok, a name thought to come from bang ‘village’ or ‘district’ with makok ‘wild plums’. However the Thai people call this Krung Threp the ‘city of angels’.

Timor – where the capital city id Dili. Settled by the Portuguese, who first recorded this name, it was not named by them but would seem to be a Portuguese version of an existing name. However it is impossible to define the name with any certainty until we know the original language. Having said that, and I do not offer this as an origin, it seems every potential avenue I explored were linked and had a theme suggesting the name meant ‘contemplation’, ‘thought’, ‘consider’ and other synonyms. Hence with tongue very firmly in cheek I wondered if the answer to “What is the name of this place?” could have been ‘we are still thinking about it’.

Turkey – another ancient name and one which perhaps came from a Phrygian ank ‘angled, crooked’ maybe a reference to the gorge. The Arabic name is Qal’at as-Salasil or ‘the fortress of chains’.

Turkmenistan – where we find Ashgabat, which links Turkmenian iskh ‘pleasant’ and Iranian abad ‘town’.

United Arab Emirates – where the capital city is Abu Dhabi and a known meaning of ‘father of deer’ the reason for the name is not so clear. Bedouins refer to this as Umm Dhabi or ‘mother of deer’, while the original name was Milh meaning ‘salt’, a reference to the salt marshes around the city.

Uzbekistan – where Tashkent comes from Turkish tash ‘stone’ and Iranian kent ‘town’.

Vietnam – where Hanoi describes itself as ‘surrounded by a river’, although this has only been the name since the nineteenth century. Prior to this the city was known as Kecho meaning simply ‘capital’.

Yemen – where the capital of Sana’a is one of the oldest inhabited places in history, legend has it founded by Shem, the son of Noah. The current name comes from the Arabian word for ‘well-fortified’, while the earliest name was Azal, said to be after Uzal, son of Qahtan and great-grandson of Shem.

On the subject of place names, places much nearer to home, two new books out this week. Both published by Sigma Press I am delighted to see County Durham Place Names and Northumberland Place Names on the shelves.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Asian Capital Cities – Etymologically speaking (A to L)

The last couple of weeks I have looked at the origins of the names of the nations of Asia, the largest continent on the planet. As previously I shall continue by looking at the origins of the capital cities of those countries, again split into two groups. I shall use the alphabetical order of the nations, as it makes it easier to compare the two – especially as the names of the capital cities will not be as well known.

Afghanistan – the capital city is Kabul, which shares its name with the River Kabul. The river was certainly named first but, unless this is an Iranian word meaning ‘red’, the origins are unknown.

Armenia – and the capital is Yerevan, one of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and thus one of the oldest names. This does not seem to be from the Armenian king Yervand, although possibly from the Urartian military fortress of Erebuni which did stand around the same area by 782 BC. As two languages blended the pronunciation evolved from Erebuni to Yerevan and thus likely to be ‘abode of Aru’ a local god. Note the Armenian phrase yerevan is used to mean ‘to appear’ and has led to suggestions this came from the words spoken by Noah as it was the first city to emerge, from his perspective on Mount Ararat, resting place of the ark, from the receding flood.

Azerbaijan – where the capital is Baku and a name of uncertain meaning but not without a couple of ideas. Perhaps this is of Arabic and/or Persian derivation where baadku or ‘mountain wind’ gives ‘windswept’, or if this is Iranian abad ku this would speak of ‘town of fire’ and refer to a culture of fire-worshippers.

Bahrain – where the capital city of Manama comes from the Arabic al-manama referring to either ‘the place of rest’ or ‘the place of dreams’, depending upon one’s interpretation.

Bangladesh – has Dhaka as its capital and largest city. A name of uncertain etymology, there is certainly no shortage of suggested origins. Locally the dhak tree is a common sight and perhaps the most likely source. There is also the goddess Dhakeshwari, there is a shrine to her in the city. A dhak was also a musical instrument, held to have been played when the Bengali capital was inaugurated in 1610 under the orders of Subahdar Islam Khan I. Lastly there is the Prakit dialect, where Dhaka Bhasa or Shakka is used for a ‘look-out point’.

Bhutan – has a recent capital named Thimphu, itself from a district name already in use by the fourteenth century and of unknown etymology.

Brunei – with its capital and largest city of Bandar Seri Begawan has a name from two sources. Originally this was Bandar Brunei or ‘Brunei town’, the addition comes from the Sulatan’s late father Seri Begawan, itself from the Sanskrit bhagavn or ‘god’.

Cambodia – the capital is Phnom Penh which, in the Khmer language, means ‘mountain of abundance’.

China – and today the capital is correctly said to be Beijing, this from Chinese bei ‘north’ and kintsing ‘capital’, a comparison with Nanking or ‘southern capital’.

Cyprus – has the capital Nicosia, a corruption of the Greek name of Lefkosia meaning ‘grove of poplars’.

Georgia – the city of Tbilisi is derived from the Georgian tbili meaning ‘warm’ and referring to the local mineral springs.

India – has the present capital of New Delhi, named from what is officially known as Old Delhi, becoming capital in 1947. The name began as a territory, the origins uncertain but possibly from Hindi dilli or ‘threshold’ and a reference to it being close to Hindustan.

Indonesia – the capital city is Jakarta, either from Sanskrit jaya-kerta ‘the place of victory’ or Iranian kert ‘built place’.

Iran – and its capital is Tehran, named from the Old Persian teh ran or ‘warm place’.

Iraq – Baghdad is thought to come from the Iranian words bag dad to describe ‘God’s gift’.

Israel – Jerusalem has been found in Assyrian cuneiform as Urusalimmi, this from Old Hebrew shalem ‘peace’ and from the root ‘stone’ ieru ‘house’ or perhaps ‘people’. Thus it is difficult to know if this is ‘house of peace’ or, if earlier, ‘house of stone’.

Japan – as crossword buffs will know this was formerly known as Edo, literally ‘estuary’. The modern name is from the Japanese to kio ‘the eastern capital’, a comparison with ‘the western capital’ of Kyoto.

Jordan – has its capital city named after the Egyptian god Ammon, used in the sense of ‘protected by Ammon’.

Kazakhstan – has Astana from an early Proto-Indo-European word sta ‘to stand’ shared with the suffix for the country, the Iranian stan ‘land’.

Korea (North and South) – two countries and two capital cities. Pyongyang is the centre for North Korea, a name literally meaning ‘flat land’ and understood as ‘peaceful land’. In South Korea it is the city of Seoul, another literal name translating as ‘capital city’.

Kuwait – shares an origin with the country. Kuwait City is also from Arabic Al-Kuwayt and refers to the former Portuguese fort as ‘the enclosed’.

Kyrgyzstan – the capital is Bishkek, traditionally from the Kyrgyz word for a churn used in the fermentation of mare’s milk, the national drink. Such etymology seems at the very least creative and designed to deflect from the name of Frunze in the Soviet era, itself coming from Mikhail Frunze, a close associate of Lenin who was born in Bishkek.

Laos – the capital is Vientiane, or in the local form Viengchan, meaning ‘town of sandalwood’.

Lebanon – the capital is Beirut which has two equally plausible explanations. Either this represents the Roman Berytus, the Latin version of the hoenician word beroth meaning ‘wells’ or it is directly from Aramaic berotha or ‘pine trees’.

As previously M to Z will follow next time.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Countries of Asia – Etymologically Speaking (M to Z)

Following on for last week’s look at the origins of the names of Asian nations, here is the completion of the list.

Malaysia – is probably from the Sanskrit malai or ‘mountain’, although the alternative maha lanka, also Sanskrit, for ‘big island’.

Maldives – has almost as many suggested origins as there are islands. The most likely of them Sanskrit dwipa ‘island’, which would give maldiva ‘thousand islands’ even though there are twice that number.

Mongolia – another named after the native peoples, the Mongols name meaning ‘brave ones’. Earlier they called themselves Bide, a much more modest name meaning simply ‘we’.

Myanmar – used to be known as Burma, both names derived from the indigenous Bamar people themselves coming from the Sanskrit mranma or bama ‘strong ones’.

Nepal – is possibly another of Sanskrit origin where nipalaya means ‘abode at the foot’ (of the Himalayas) or alternatively from Tibetan niyampal ‘holy land’.

Oman – was also the name of an ancient city named from the Arabic for ‘stopped here’, as it was settled by nomads, or from the founder Oman-ben-Ibrahim.

Pakistan – a recent name, first suggested in 1931 although the nation did not officially exist until 1947, which is thought to come from Urdu or Iranian pak ‘clean’ (in spirit) with that common suffix stan ‘country’.

Palestine – shares an origin with the Philistines, both from the Hebrew palash meaning ‘to travel’.

Philippines – when first spotted by Magellan it was December 17th 1521 and he named them the St Lazarus Islands, this being the feast day of St Lazarus. However when the first settlers arrived in 1543 they named them in honour of the heir to the Spanish throne, the future Philip II.

Qatar – is thought to derive from an ancient port or city of the same name, although the meaning is unknown.

Russia – a surprisingly recent name only used for the entire country since the 15th century. It comes from the local Rus people, whose name has been explained several ways. Perhaps this is a Slavic name describing the Varangians, who were Swedish Vikings and ruled from the 9th century and had a name meaning ‘foreigners’. It could also refer to the Swedish Ruotsi tribe, their name meaning ‘rowers’, ie of Viking ships.

Saudi Arabia – was named after King Ibn-Saud, he united the former states of Nejd and Hejaz to create the country in 1932.

Singapore – another name of Sanskrit origins where singa pura may literally mean ‘lion town’ but should be seen as ‘strong’ as there are no lions here. The traditional story of this being named in the 7th century when an Indian prince landed here and mistakenly thought the first animal he saw was a lion can be ignored.

Sri Lanka – named as such from 1972 and taken from the local Sinhalese for ‘blessed island’, the Sanskrit lanka means ‘island’. Originally this was Singhala, named for the local people, which came from Sanskrit sinha, literally ‘lion’ but used in the sense ‘brave’.

Syria – a name of uncertain origin until the discovery of a tablet at the beginning of the 21st century which showed the name does have a link to the Assyrian people, themselves named for their chief city of Assur which was named for their chief god.

Tajikistan – is another stan or ‘country’, here being that of the Tajiks. These were undoubtedly the people who were here in the 7th century but their name is difficult to define as it is not clear if these were of Turkic or Iranian heritage.

Thailand – comes from the native name of the island of Prathet Thai meaning ‘country of the free’. Prior to 1939 it was known as Siam, this from the Sanskrit word sian meaning ‘brown’, the distinctively different colour of the skin of the indigenous people here.

Timor – is simply an Indonesian word meaning ‘east’, it is the most easterly of the Lesser Sunda Islands but one which explains why this has not been listed under the official name of East Timor.

Turkey – has already had a number of clues under other nations with mentions of the Turkic people with the suffix from Latin ia showing it was their territory. The Turks probably get their name from tora ‘to be born’, although some maintain the English ‘turban’ has also influenced the name.

Turkmenistan – is again named after the local tribe, these the Turkmens with the addition of stan ‘country’. The origin of turkmend or ‘Turk-like’ is possible but, with the different uses of men in Turkish languages, it is difficult to know if this is ‘pure Turks’, ‘good Turks’, ‘great Turks’, or several other similar terms.

United Arab Emirates – a name which explains itself, the unification of (seven) Arabic states headed by an emir and known by this name since 1971. Prior to this it was the Trucial States, again a comparatively modern name and dating from 1820 when British presence here ensured a truce in the area which had previously been known as the Pirate Coast.

Uzbekistan – and another stan or ‘country’ named after the indigenous peoples. The Uzbeks are thought to get their name from Khan Uzbek, the fourteenth-century chieftain of the Golden Horde, even though both the language and the race had already existed for centuries.

Vietnam – a local Annamese name meaning ‘land of the south’. Prior to 1945 the country was separated into Annam, Tonkin and Cochin-China.

Yemen – is thought to be from the Arabic yamin or ‘on the right hand’. Hence this describes this land as being to the right when facing Mecca while Sham (a part of Syria) speaks of it being ‘on the left’.

As previously etymologies for the relevant capital cities will follow.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Countries of Asia – Etymologically Speaking (A to L)

The last couple of posts have looked at the origins of the names of the countries, and then the capital cities, of the nations of the Americas. Having already looked at countries and capitals of Europe and also Africa, thought I should complete the set with those of the largest continent, Asia.

Afghanistan – is held to be named after the legendary forefather of all the Afghans and thus the name Afghana is followed by the Iranian word stan meaning simply ‘country’. It will soon become apparent this suffix is used for a number of countries around the western part of Asia.

Armenia – a name of uncertain etymology, albeit definitely an ancient one. The native name for the region is Hayk, the legendary patriarch of the Armenians and the great-great-grandson of Noah who led his people around 4,500 years ago. The first mention of the present name is said to be seen on a Persian Inscription dating from 515BC as Armina and, once again, said to point to a legendary father of the nation, one Armenak.

Asia – it did seem appropriate to give the origin of the name of the continent at this point. Originally this name referred solely to the eastern coastline of the Aegean Sea where Assyrian asu with the joint meaning of ‘sunrise, east’ corresponded with ereb ‘sunset, west’ and the basis for the name of Europe. As recently as the 1st century BC the name applied only to a Roman province along this coast.

Azerbaijan – is another ancient name and of uncertain origins. However the traditional explanation points to the Persian Atropates, a satrap or governor of this region. Some suggest his name comes from the region already known as ‘land of (holy) fire’. Geologically the land here does release combustible gases and did attract a culture of fire-worshippers who built their temples here.

Bahrain – has a name originating from Arabic al-Bahrayn meaning ‘two seas’. Even today the sea to the north and that to the south are known by different names, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Bahrain, respectively.

Bangladesh – until 1971 this was East Pakistan and, as one of the world’s youngest nations, has one of the easiest names to define. This is from Bengali and means ‘Bengal nation’.

Bhutan – is quite simply the Sanskrit bhot ‘country’.

Brunei – again this may represent a Sanskrit word meaning ‘land’, although others would suggest a Malay word meaning ‘plant’. Yet traditionally this was founded, and therefore named, by one Awang Alak Betatar who came here and, on discovering the estuary, pointed and exclaimed Baru nah! meaning ‘That’s it!’

Cambodia – is yet another nation held to be named after a mythical forefather. Here the Khmers came from Cambu, also the local name for the Mekong River, and while the correct name today is Kampuchea, the earlier Cambodia is just a Portuguese version of that name.

China – as with Cambodia this has been influenced by the Portuguese. There are two possible origins for this, either from the Ch’in dynasty of the 3rd century BC or, and this seems less likely, Ji-nan ‘south of the sun’. Note the Chinese name for China is Chung-hua ‘the middle land’. As one who delights in etymologies, especially of place names, and as this ‘middle land’ is how every homeland is seen to its inhabitants, I am so very thankful others were infinitely more imaginative.

Cyprus – even with its long recorded history the name of Cyprus remains a mystery. Of course there have been suggestions, all from the Greek, where it would either be from its many cypress trees (although these are not native but were imported from Lebanon), a reference to the henna plant Lawsonia alba, or a pointer to the large deposits of copper ore.

Georgia – has its modern name from an anglicised form of the Russian name, the Russians referring to the people as Gruzia. The origins of their name is disputed but may come from Middle Persian varkana or ‘the place of wolves’.

India – in 1947 what had been the India under British rule split to form the new nations of Pakistan and what is now known as Bangladesh. This is ironic as India was named after the River Indus, now entirely in Pakistan. As with nearly all major rivers the name of Indus means ‘river’, this from the Sanskrit sindhu.

Indonesia – is an island which shows etymologically historical links to India, for this takes the name of India and adds the Greek nesos or ‘island’.

Iran – is another name ultimately traceable to Sanskrit. Here aria, which also gave the Iranian ariya, means ‘worthy’. This had been the name of the Indo-European people who settled this region many thousands of years ago. For such an ancient name this has only been the official name of the country since 1935. Prior to that it was Persia, also named from an indigenous group Farsi who share their name with the Pharisees and which comes from the Sanskrit parasah ‘steed’ and describes them as ‘horsemen’.

Iraq – is simply Arabic iraq ‘the well-rooted country’. Known as Mesopotamia for millennia, this came from Greek mesos potamos ‘between the rivers’ (Tigris and Euphrates).

Israel – is the name of the Hebrew tribe, the Israelites. In turn this came from Israel or ‘god Isra’ and the second name of Jacob interpreted as ‘God’s warrior’ from Hebrew sara ‘to fight’ and El ‘God’.

Japan – is the Chinese name for the islands where Ji-pen-kue describes ‘the land of the rising sun’.

Jordan – is named after the River Jordan, itself from the Hebrew and either jarden ‘to drain’ or jarda ‘to rush’, both apt descriptions of rivers.

Kazakhstan – is named after the native peoples. The Kazakhs, with the addition of Iranian stan ‘country’, were of Turkish origin whose name is thought to mean ‘freemen’.

Korea (North and South) – etymologically, if not politically, North and South Korea are identical. Until the 14th century this was Koryo ‘the high place’, itself a dynastic name and hence the modern name. To North Koreans their homeland is Chosen from the name of the next dynasty of Choson, meanwhile South Koreans refer to their land as Taehan, itself from Han the earlier name of the states here.

Kuwait – is an Arabic name where Al-Kuwayt refers to ‘the enclosed’ and probably points to the 16th century Portuguese fort.

Kyrgyzstan – another Iranian stan or ‘country’ following a Turkic word for ‘forty’. This would refer to the forty clans led by the legendary hero Manas who led the fight against the dominant Uyghurs.

Laos – named after the Thai Lao people, with the Portuguese adding the plural ‘s’.

Lebanon – takes the name of the mountains, itself from the Aramaic laban ’white’, which may refer to the snow-capped peaks or the limestone rocks.

Part two will follow next time and, in coming weeks, a look at the origins of the capital cities.