Saturday 26 July 2014

Origins of African Capital Cities - Part 1

A look at my website will show more than half of my published works have been on the subject of place names. Etymology is a subject which has always fascinated me and this blog has reflected such most weeks. As it has been a good while since I have looked at toponymy (the study of place names), I thought it time to put that right.

It was over two years ago I looked at the origins of the names of the names of the African continent. There were two posts looking at first A to L and then M to Z. It makes sense to use the same split for the capital cities of these nations and therefore this week we shall examine A to L with the remainder to come next week.

Algeria is first alphabetically, with the nation named after its capital. Algiers comes from the Arabic al-Jaza'ir which means 'the islands' and reminds us this city was built on four islands which were joined to the mainland in 1525.

Angola’s capital is Luanda, thought to be a reference to the earliest inhabitants for lived on the island of Luanda and describes ‘the place of the net’ and of course this refers to the number of fishermen who lived here. As a Portuguese territory it was known as Ilha dos Cabras or ‘place of goats’.

Benin is another influenced by Portuguese, for the capital of Porto Novo gets its name from the Portuguese for ‘new harbour’. It was they who founded the port in the sixteenth century.

Botswana’s capital is Gaborone, named after Chief Gaborone Matlapin who ruled when the town was founded in the late nineteenth century.

Burkina Faso’s capital is Ouagadougou, a name dating from the fifteenth century when the area was inhabited by Ninsi tribes who referred to the area as Kumbee-Tenga. When, in 1441, the Yonyonse hero Wubri led the tribe to victory over the Nunsi, he renamed the settlement Wage sabre soba koumbern tenga meaning “the village of the head war chief’. The modern spelling is entirely down to French colonial influence.

Burundi’s capital, largest city and chief port is Bujumbura. Known as Usumbura until independence in 1962, when the earlier name meant ‘place of confusion’, the change of name was inspired by two territories in the west of Burundi. Both mean the same thing, the change simply phonetic differences between Swahili and a closely related tongue.

Cameroon’s capital is Yaounde, When occupied by the Germans it was known as Jaunde, Yaounde is the French version, both from the Yaunde or Ewondo people native to this part of the continent.

Cape Verde is governed from the city of Praia, this former Portuguese colony taking the Portuguese word for ‘beach’.

Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui stands on the Ubangi River. Both names come from the Bobangi (also related) word for ‘rapids’ and also marks the upriver navigable limits.

Chad is governed from N’Djamena, a capital city named from the Arabic Nijamina or ‘place of rest’.

Comoros’ largest city and capital is Moroni is near Mount Karthala, an active volcano giving the meaning of ‘in the heart of the fire’.

Cote d'Ivoire’s administrative capital city is Yamoussoukro, a taken from the name of Queen Yamouusso and the former village of N’Gokro. The economic capital is Abidjan, a name with an obscure etymology and thus has seen a creative explanation for its origin. It seems an old man from here was carrying a load of branches when he met a European explorer. In a language the local man had no chance of understanding the explorer enquired as to the name of the local village. Misinterpreting the question as a challenge he took to his heels and shouted min-chan m’bidjan which the European noted as Abidjan. Unfortunately the phrase was not the name of the village, for min-chan m’bidjan is, in the Ebrie language, telling him “I just cut the leaves!”

Democratic Republic of the Congo has the capital Kinshasha, this a version of a village named Kinchassa which once stood near this site. Both are from a Bantu word of unknown meaning. As a city Kinshasha was founded as Leopoldville, named after King Leopold of the Belgians.

Djibouti was originally known as French Somaliland although today it is known by the same name as its capital city, itself from an Afar word gabouri meaning 'plate'. This is a ceremonial plate, woven from palm fibres and placed on a pedestal.

Egypt may be an ancient name but its capital was named as recently as 969. We can be certain of this date as it was when the city was conquered by the Arabs who called it Misr-al-Qahirah or ‘Mars the victorious’ as the Roman god of war was visible on that night.

Equatorial Guinea has the capital Malabo, a city founded by the British in 1827 as Port Clarence. Reverting to Spanish control in 1969 it was named Santa Isabel only to be changed four years later when President Francisco Macias Nguema arbitrarily decided to rename the place with an ‘authentic’ African name of no etymological value.

Eritrea means we need to look at Asmara, a name translating as ‘the four made them unite’. The four were women, living around here some 2,500 years ago. It is said the population were formed of four clans who lived in four communities. These four were forever arguing and fighting and it was not until the women of the respective clans sat down and decided the only way forward was to unite that peace reigned and the new name was coined.

Ethiopia has the capital Addis Ababa, this from Amharic addis ‘new’ and abeba ‘flower’.

Gabon’s capital of Libreville was founded in 1848 for free slaves and is named from the French libre ville ‘free town’.

Gambia’s capital is Banjul was formerly called Bathurst but when, in 1973, it took a local name it was decided to revive Banjul which is said to mean ‘rope mats’.

Ghana’s capital of Accra is thought to derive from the Akan nkran meaning ‘black ant’. This name was originally applied to the Nigerian tribesmen who settled this region in the sixteenth century.

Guinea is governed from Conakry, a city named by the native Susu people as being ‘over the waters’ or ‘on the opposite bank’.

Guinea Bissau’s capital is Bissau, a city named from the island on which the original settlement began, itself from the tribe who lived here, and who were named from their former chief.

Kenya’s Nairobi is thought to be named from a small stream known to the Masai people as Enkare Nairobi ‘cold water’.

Lesotho’s capital of Lesotho grew from small beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century. The name means ‘place of red sandstone’, the original settlement stood on a rocky sandstone headland.

Liberia is from the Latin liber 'free' for this was where American slaves were allowed to return to their homeland and freedom from 1822. Monrovia, the capital, is named after the 5th president of the USA, James Monroe, who was in office in 1822 when the settlement was founded.

Libya is the oldest name on the continent and the capital of Tripoli is not so very far behind. Named after the the three component cities of Oea, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, it comes from the Greek tripolis or ‘three towns’.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Colourful Language

With the long hours of sunshine most of the United Kingdom has been experiencing this week, I was drawn to the infinite number of colours picked out by the sunlight. I have never been able to understand the modern need to use foodstuffs for the names of colours, especially biscuit – not all biscuits are the same colour.

Examine a colour chart from the local hardware outlet and it reads more like a menu. However there are still the original colours and surely those cannot have come from household items. Hence I turned my attention to the etymology of the more traditional colours.

Red – is a Germanic word, which can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root reudh ‘ruddy’. The theoretical original European tongue used this solely to refer to hair colour.

Orange – surprisingly not used for the colour until 1540, previously this referred to the fruit and, prior to that, the tree. Just where the fruit and tree got the name is uncertain.

Yellow – comes from the Proto-Germanic gelwaz and Proto-Indo-European ghel ‘to shine’, and used for bright metals, particularly gold.

Green – another which can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European root where ghre means literally ‘grow’ and used to refer to the colour of living plants.

Blue – came to our shores from Old French blo meaning ‘pale, pallid, wan’ even ‘light-coloured, blond, discoloured’. Here the Proto-Indo-European is bhel ‘to shine or flash’.

Indigo – never a part of the rainbow before the early seventeenth century, this comes from the Spanish indico or Portuguese endego and a reference to the blue dye from India.

Violet – predictably this was named from the flower, first used as a colour in the late fourteenth century, this is ultimately from the Latin viola and derived from an early and unknown Mediterranean word.

Black – a word which has the identical root as the colour blue. Here the Proto-Indo-European bhel developed from ‘to shine, flash, burn’ in the sense of the residue left behind after a fire, that which had been ‘blackened’ or ‘burned’.

White – the Proto-Indo-European root here is kweit meaning ‘to shine’.

Gold – here the meaning is again ‘to shine’ but this time the reference is to metals.

Silver – a later word than gold and for very good reason. Whilst there is no doubt silver was used decoratively, the original reference was to ‘money’, and possibly prior to that to the smelting or refining of the metal.

Purple – originated as the name of the shellfish from which the colour was produced. The earlier etymology is uncertain but is certainly related to the Latin purpura which, in some contexts, was used to refer to ‘finery, splendid attire’.

Brown – ultimately the Old English brun shares an origin with the words ‘bear’ and ‘beaver’. The idea of a ‘brown or dark animal’ is also seen in the Greek phrynos, again meaning ‘the brown animal’.

Beige – not seen as a colour before 1879 it was used twenty years earlier to refer to ‘fine woolen fabric’ and prior to that from the Old French as ‘natural colour of wool and cotton’.

Cerise – again not seen before the nineteenth century and from the French cerise or ‘cherry’.

Chartreuse – came to be the name of a colour as it was likened to the pale apple-green colour of the liqueur of this name, itself derived from the monastery of a Carthusian order of monks, named from the mountain in the French Alps where the monastery was built.

Cyan – not seen as a colour in English until 1889, it is not an Indo-European word but related to the Hittite kuwannan or ‘copper blue’.

Ecru – is a French word, it is not seen in English before 1869, and means ‘raw, unbleached’.

Magenta – first used in 1860 and named after the Battle of Magenta in Italy. Here a combined French and Sardinian force defeated the Austrians shortly before the dye producing the colour was first produced.

Mauve – is a French word and not used in English before 1859. It comes from Old French and ultinmately from Latin malva, itself a reference to the mallow plant from which the dye was first obtained.

Taupe – is not seen in English until 1906, it comes from the French taupe meaning ‘a mole’, the colour of the mole’s skin being the same dark brownish-grey colour.

Puce – first seen in English in 1787, this is from the French puce meaning ‘flea’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European plou with the same meaning and seemingly seen as the colour of fleas.

There are also colours called Hooker’s Green, Fuzzy Wuzzy, Little Boy Blue, Meat Brown, Neon Carrot, New Car, Outer Space, Peru, Screaming Green, Shampoo, Waterspout, and Zomp, none of which I shall be attempting to explain.

Sunday 13 July 2014

The Meaning of ….. Monty Python

Currently the O2 is staging something many of us thought we would never see, a reunion of the comedy team Monty Python. I am in no position to comment on the series, being far too young to remember the original broadcasts (nudge, nudge) and never having bought either the series – four series with two DVDs for the first three and one for the fourth giving a total playing time of 20 hours and 7 minutes – or the films – available as a box set (wink, wink).

Write about what you know and whilst there will be a lot of junk written (spam) about the merits of this comedy landmark, I will limit myself to an examination (not using the machine that goes ‘ping’) of the origins of some of the names (omitting Patsy, Mungo, Arthur, Brian, Mr. Bartlett, Mr. Wensleydale and the best friend of the mother of the Minister for the Interior).

There have been many explanations as to the origins of the name of the series. Monty Python is reported as being reminiscent of a rather slippery agent, a British military figure (not one wearing a tutu), a drunk in the local (whose walk is anything but silly) ….. and so on and so forth. Doubtless we will never know the real origin, likely the chaps themselves have no idea, and the arguments will rumble on (not five minutes but the full half hour).

Monty – is short for Montgomery and brought to our shores by the Normans. There are two likely origins. The most often quoted is a place name meaning ‘Gomer’s hill’ and there are a number of potential sites in Europe named after the Biblical patriarch Gomer. If not Gomer then this is from the Germanic guma ric, literally ‘man of power’.

Python – is from Greek mythology, a reference to an enormous serpent slain by Apollo at Delphi (where there may have been a shrubbery). The species is central to the mythology of the Igbo people of Nigeria who see the creature as symbolic of the earth and will protect it, even if it comes into their villages. Any accidentally killed will be given a coffin and a funeral (unlike parrots).

As the title of the revival suggests there are five surviving members of the original six providing the opportunity to give the origin of six surnames and five christian names, there are two named Terry (and not four Yorkshiremen).

Terry – came into usage from the Roman family name Terentius (Romani ite domum) and first seen in the names of saints in Ireland. It was not used in England before the nineteenth century.

John – can be traced to the Hebrew name Yochanan meaning ‘Yahweh is gracious’ (a view unexpectedly shared by the Spanish Inquisition).

Eric – an Old Norse name brought to our shores by the Vikings (who were doubtless pining for the fjords). It is thought to have come from a Proto-Germanic rikiaz meaning ‘powerful’. While the name was popular until the Middle Ages, it was not until the nineteenth century the name saw a revival, mainly due to the publication of the novel Eric, or, Little by Little (and not half a bee by the same name).

Michael – is a male name traceable to the Hebrew and meaning ‘who is like God?’. It is thought to be the only example of a name with a meaning which is a question (as in “Who are the Britons?”)

Graham – has two possible origins. Either this represents greot ham or ‘the homestead in the gravelly place’ or began as a a word meaning ‘grey home’. Both would have begun as place names (neither of which is Camelot).

Idle – where the meaning depends upon the source. If Middle English it would be a derogatory name meaning ‘useless, worthless’; however Old English would speak of a place where one could find ‘unused ground’; and very differently Old Welsh would give a meaning of ‘bountiful lord’.

Chapman – is undoubtedly an occupational surname (not a lumberjack) and from Old English ceap which is used to mean ‘market’ and has given us the word ‘cheap’. While the ‘man’ element is obvious, the first syllable could be used to refer to a seller, a buyer, an itinerant salesman, or a commercial agent, all ostensibly suggesting trade (blessed are the cheesemakers).

Palin – as with Idle depends upon the language. Here this is either an Old English place name or from the Welsh meaning ‘son of Heilyn’.

Jones – is derived from the name John, itself defined above.

Gilliam – is a variation of William, and brought here by the French (who may have taunted us after Hastings by suggesting our mothers were hamsters and our fathers smelled of elderberries, although there is no written evidence to support this).

Cleese – is a Norman French surname first seen when William the Conqueror granted lands in Lincolnshire to one of his knights named Cleese. However had it not been for John’s father changing the family name to Cleese when enlisting in the British Army in World War One, he thought the name an embarrassment, we would have been speaking about the tradesman being the origin of one John Marwood Cheese (whose ancestors were unlikely to have produced Red Leicester, Tilsit, Caephilly, Bel Paese, Red Windsor, Stilton, Gruyere, Emmental, Norwegian Jarlsberg, Liptauer, Lancashire, White Stilton, Danish Blue, Double Gloucester, Cheshire, Dorset Blue Vinney, Brie, Roquefort, Pont l’Eveque, Port Salut, Savoyard, Saint-Paulin, Carre de l’Est, Bourson, Bresse-Blue, Perle de Champagne, Camembert, Gouda, Edam, Caithness, Smoked Australian, Sage Derby, Wensleydale, Greek Feta, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, Mozzarella, Pipo Crem, Fynbo, Czechoslovakian sheep’s milk cheese, Venezuelan Beaver Cheese, Cheddar, Ilchester, or Limburger).

Sunday 6 July 2014

The Cinque Ports

In 1155 a Royal Charter created what became known as the Cinque Ports, the name coming from the French for ‘five’ although, as we shall see, there were effectively more. The named ports, around the coast of Sussex and Kent, were to supply and maintain ships in readiness for whenever the Crown needed them. Collectively they were to provide 57 ships for 15 days’ service per annum, the duty shared out between them. In return the charter gave the named ports a number of privileges. As the charter states (with any necessary explanations in brackets):

“Exemption from tax and tallage (tolls), right of soc and sac (self-government), tol and team (levy tolls), blodwit (those who drew the blood of others), fledwit (those who fled justice), pillory and tumbril (carry out punishment for minor offences), infangentheof and outfangentheof (detain and even execute criminals who erred within the limits of the port's jurisdiction or even outside it), mundbryce (the right to erect dikes as flood defences on the property of others without question), waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan (claim on goods through or lost overboard or which had been unclaimed for more than a year).”

Such powers given over to small communities was quite unusual and, rather predictably, resulted in a certain amount of lawlessness. Few saw the need to obey the laws, many offences were ignored, and smuggling was so rife as to be the dominant wage-earner.

Whilst there are officially just five cinque ports, we also find eight ‘limbs’ and some twenty associated towns and settlements. As this blog so often looks at etymologies, and having produced books looking at these specific counties - East Sussex Place Names, West Sussex Place Names, East Kent Place Names and West Kent Place Names - I thought it might be interesting to look at the origins of the names, even though these place names will have been coined many years before the charter and thus will not have been influenced by same.

The official five are:

Dover – Possibly the nation’s most famous port for passengers as it is the traditional gateway to Europe, the name appears as Dubris in the fourth century, as Dofrus at the end of the seventh century, and as Dovere in the Domesday record. This is an old river name, the River Dour being a British or Celtic river name from dubras and meaning quite simply ‘the waters’.

Hastings – Recorded as Hastinges in the Domesday survey of 1086, this comes from a Saxon personal name and Old English inga telling of the ‘(place of) the family or followers of a man called Haesta’. However this was not the original name of the place, for at the beginning of the tenth century we find Haestingaceaster or ‘the Roman stronghold of Haesta’s people’.

Hythe – Old English hyth is used to refer specifically to ‘the landing place, harbour’. This name is found as Hede in the Domesday record of 1086.

New Romney – Listed as Rumena in 895 and as Romenel in 1086, this place name was originally a river name. From Old English ea ‘river’ this suffix appears to follow the element Rumen, itself an old name for Romney Marsh meaning ‘the broad one’.

Sandwich – Seen as Sandwicae in the early eighth century and as Sandwice in the Domesday record, this name comes from Old English sand wic and refers to ‘the sandy harbour or trading centre’.

Eight Limbs:

Brightlingsea – Listed as Byrhtlingan in the early eleventh century and as Brislinga in Domesday, this name refers to the ‘raised dry land of the family or followers of a man called Beorhtric’. Here the Saxon personal name is followed by ingas eg.

Deal – Found as Addelam in the Domesday record of 1086 and as Dela in 1158, here is Old English dael or ‘(place at) the hollow valley’.

Faversham – Seen as Fefresham in 811 and Faversham as early as the Domesday record of 1086, here Old English faefer ham speaks of ‘the homestead of the smith or metalworker’.

Folkestone – Recorded as Folcanstan in 697 and as Fulchestan in Domesday, here Old English stan follows a Saxon personal name to speak of ‘the stone of a man called Folca’.

Lydd – With the earliest record dating from 774 as Hlidum, this comes from Old English hlid to speak of this place being ‘at the gates’.

Margate – A famous Kent port recorded as Meregate in 1254, with Old English mere geat referring to ‘the gate or gap to the sea’.

Ramsgate – Another Kent port, this found as Remmesgate in 1275, here we possibly find Old English hraefn geat and ‘the gap of the raven’, although it may be the first element is used as a Saxon personal name. Either way the gap is still visible in the cliffs.

Tenterden – Found as Tentwardene in 1179, this refers to itself as ‘the woodland pasture of the Thanet dwellers’. The name of Thanet is suffixed by Old English ware and denn. The Isle of Thanet itself means ‘the bright island’, a British or Celtic name thought to refer to a beacon.


Bekesbourne – Seen in the Domesday record of 1086 as Burnes and in 1280 as Bekesborne, the original name is from burna or ‘stream’, with the later addition showing it was held by Willelmus de Beche, if only for a short period between 1198 and 1208.

Birchington – Found as Bircheton in 1275, here is the birce tun or ‘farmstead among the birches’.

Bulverhythe – With the earliest record dating from 1229 as Burewarehethe, here we find Old English burg wara hyp or ‘the landing place of the people of the fortified place’.

Eastbourne – Listed in Domesday simply as Burne, this is from Old English burna or ‘stream’. The addition, first seen in 1279, means exactly what it says and compares its location to the Westbourne.

Fordwich – With eighth century records of Fordeuuicum in 675 and Forduuic in 747, here is Old English ford wic referring to ‘the dairy farm at the ford’.

Grange (part of Gillingham) – As a Saxon reference is always to an outlying field or farm belonging to a monastery or the church.

Hydney (lost place name in Eastbourne) – Comes from two Old English elements, hid eg refers to ‘the hide of dry ground in a marsh’. A hide is not a true measurement of land, even if it is often cited as being equivalent to 120 acres. This is simply an average as the true definition should be ‘the area of land required to feed one family for one year’. Clearly many factors have to be taken into consideration, such as quality of the soil, annual rainfall, drainage, suitability of the crops grown, and the size of the family.

Kingsdown – Two quite obvious elements here, Old English cyng dun referring to ‘the king’s land of or near a hill’.

Northeye (lost Sussex village) – As with Kingsdown this is clearly from two Old English elements where north eg describes ‘the northern area of dry land’.

Pebsham – Once again the Old English elements are easily seen, here ham follows a Saxon personal name to refer to ‘the homestead of a man called Pybba’.

Pevensey – Listed as Pefenesea in 947 and as Peuenesea in 1050, this sees the Old English suffix ea with a Saxon personal name to describe ‘the river of a man called Pefen’.

Reculver – A Kent place name from a British word related to Welsh gylf and Old Irish gulba following a Latin prefix prae to give the great headland or promontory’. The name has a myriad early listings beginning with Regulbium in 425.

Ringwould – Found as Roedligwealda in 955, this name speaks of the weald or ‘previously high forested ground of people of a man called Hrethel’.

St Johns – Quite clearly a place named from the dedication of its church.

St Peters – Again a place named from the dedication of its church.

Sarre – Listed as Seorre in 761, this represents an old British river name, and while the true origin is not certain, possibly comes from the same root as Latin serth meaning ‘to crawl’.

Seaford – A name which is self-explanatory and describes ‘the ford by the sea’. The name is recorded as Saford in 1150.

Stonar – First seen in 1178 as Stanora this name comes from Old English stan ora and describes ‘the stony shore or landing place’.

Walmer – From Old English wahl mere here is ‘the pool associated with the Welshmen’.

West Hythe – As with Hythe this describes ‘the landing place’ with the addition showing location in respect to its namesake.

Woodchurch – A very easy name to define, indeed it is still self-explanatory. However the ‘church built of wood’ tells us rather more than would first be apparent. In Saxon times churches were predominantly constructed of wood, not until the Normans arrived were they mainly of stone. This stone gave the common place name of Whitchurch, literally ‘white church’ and showing it stood out as being made of stone, prior to this references to a church were simply to the place of worship and not to the material of which it is constructed. Hence we can deduce this church at Woodchurch was built from timber at a time when it was unusual to do so, showing the name and the church was comparatively late.