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.

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