Some years back, a friend of mine went on a hiking trip in Southwest England. Beautiful country, leading from the coast up into the ridiculously picturesque Cotswolds. And so many of the places had those wonderful evocative English names.
But she had one continuing frustration. Whenever she asked what a particular place name meant, she was told it meant, “a low place on the ground.” It didn’t matter where it was, it always seemed to be “a low place.” And we’re not talking about names that ended in ‘dale,’ ‘dell,’ or ‘vale’ here. We’re talking about names that ended in the typically British seemingly random collections of vowels and consonants.
What’s going on here?
One might suspect that their guide/leader was simply having a little fun at the American’s expense, but that’s probably not the case. English place names are not simply a layer cake built up of contributions from all the settlers and conquerors the island has known. It’s more like all those layers have been put through some sort of historical shredder, with the bits and pieces glued back together in a surprisingly accidental fashion.
Consider, for instance, the familiar River Avon of Shakespearean fame. River came to Middle English out of Old French, eventually tracing itself back to Latin. So far, so good. Nice little parallel to British history. But Avon comes from the Old Celtic. It means ‘river’. So the River Avon means ‘river river’. It’s really a pastiche. And it’s not alone. There’s a tributary of the Clyde known as Douglas Water. Douglas is from the Gaelic and means ‘black water’. Then there’s the River Ouse, except Ouse is a pre-Celtic word meaning, you guessed it, ‘river’.
Sometimes it gets even better. Consider Bredon Hill, in Worcestershire. Bre, Old Celtic for ‘hill’. Don, Old English for ‘hill’. So its name is ‘hill hill hill’ Or consider the beautiful Eas Fors Waterfall in Scotland. Eas, Gaelic for ‘waterfall’. Fors, Old Norse for ‘waterfall’. So it’s really ‘waterfall waterfall waterfall’. The linguistic types like to call these names tautological. So these guys are triple tautologies.
But to really understand “what’s going on here,” we need to take a look at British history. Originally, say back in the Bronze Age, the inhabitants were Celts who came in waves of settlement from Europe. The later settlers had adopted some Latin words from the Romans, and bent them to their own uses. Next it was the Romans themselves who arrived and stayed for 400 years. Where they held sway, they adopted and adapted many of the Celtic places names. For instance Lincoln is a compound of the Celtic Linn, a pool, with Colonia, a Latin term for a settlement of retired soldiers. In Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall, the Celts survived and kept their own place names, thank-you-very-much.
Next it was the Anglo-Saxons who arrived, bringing their Germanic language that evolved into Old English. They, too, had to have names for all the hills, lakes, rivers, and villages. Sometimes they adopted and adapted the Celtic-cum-Roman names, sometimes they just used their own. Following them, the Vikings first raided and then settled the north and east, bringing their related-but-very-different Scandinavian. Once again, topological, ritual, and social places had to be named. Sometimes with something Scandinavian or perhaps Celtic-cum-Roman-cum-English.
Finally, the Normans arrived, speaking their own version of French. Once again a fair amount of re-naming swept across the country. And, once again, in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall, the Celts survived and kept their own place names, thank-you-very-much.
Upshot of it was, whenever an inhabitant of Britain came to some feature of the landscape he wanted to name, he had lots and lots of choices. Not only could he simply give the place a new name in his own tongue, he could adopt an older name, or (just for fun) he could hybridize any of the above choices that, in some mystical way, made sense to him.
Of course, his new neighbors might not universally accept his neologism and might insist on using their own, older, name. Or maybe the same place might end up with several names.
For instance, there once was a ancient Celtic fort called Sorwjosdun, translated as ‘the fort of a man named Sorwjos’. When the Romans took over, they built their own fort there and called it Sorviodunum, a nicely bastardized Latin term, called Sorvio for short. Somewhere along the line the Celtic ‘dun’ (fort) got replaced by the Old English burh (fort) which soon decayed into bury. In the Doomsday Book, it is recorded as Sarisberie. Eventually, this would evolve into Salisbury.
But wait, we’re not done. Church records were written in abbreviated medieval Latin, parchment being very expensive. There was an elaborate system of symbols to indicate what was being left out. In this case, the cathedral town of Sarisberie was shortened to Sar, ending with a symbol that looks rather like a ‘4′. Unfortunately, that symbol is a bit ambiguous, with its most common usage being to indicate ‘-um’. So in church records, sermons, and a surprising amount of speech, the town evolved into Sarum. When the cathedral was rebuilt (in 1219) , the new site became Sarum and the original site ‘Old Sarum’. The English being nothing if not persistent, you can still visit both old and new ‘Sarums’.
But to go back to our original problem of my friend hiking the Cotswolds. Are you sitting comfortably?
In Old English, cumb or coomb or coombe is a short valley. Dael or dell or dale means a hollow or valley. A gil, in Old Scandinavian, means a narrow valley or ravine. A glyn or glynn or glen in Gaelic or Welsh is a valley. In Old English, a hol or hole is a hollow or deep while a hop or hope is a small, enclosed valley. In the Old Irish, a lag is a hollow. In Old German, a srath or strath is a valley bottom. (I’ve left out a few.)
So if you find a place in Britain that ends or perhaps begins with any of these or some form you can imagine morphed from any of them, you just might be talking about a low piece of ground.
But of course it doesn’t stop there. Being British, all those words are scarcely enough to satisfy their joy in naming. If you hear someone referred to as a Geordie, that means they come from Tyneside. Weegies come from Glasgow. London itself is called the Great Wen, while Edinburgh rejoices in the name of Auld Reekie, both names from the smokes and smells. And quite a few really rude names and places have survived both the Victorian prudes and modern political correctness to embarrass (and delight) grandmothers, ministers, and tourists.
But that’s another story.