A Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used to write something new. But the original manuscript can still be glimpsed under the new writing. British place-names are like that, except that they’re a palimpsest of a palimpsest and some of the oldest names are still there. Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Norse replaced Celtic ones like Welsh and Gaelic, but those languages may have replaced something even earlier:
Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these languages in Neolithic times, and it is assumed they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the fourth century BC. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey. (Introduction, “The Chronology and Languages of English Place-Names”, pg. XV)
I don’t see how they know that language was Indo-European. Perhaps it was a linguistic isolate or related to Basque or Etruscan. Or perhaps it was Indo-European but had preserved something even earlier. The names of rivers are usually the most ancient of all, because rivers are visually and psychologically powerful things. Whatever the truth about those river-names, there’s a strange power in the thought of an entire language reduced to a few syllables, like a sea shrinking to a few salty pools. I’m reminded of the doomed siren in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Sadastor”, confined to the pool that is all that remains of a world-ocean.
When we say “Humber” or “Wey”, we step into a pool of that ancient language and it lives again for an instant. If the theories are correct, that is. There is a lot of conjecture and uncertainty in toponymy, the science of place-names. This entry is like a fairy-tale in miniature:
Warnford Hants. Warnæford c. 1053, Warneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford frequented by wrens or one used by stallions’. OE wærna or *wæærna + ford. Alternatively the first element may be an OE man’s name *Wæærna.
Wrens, stallions or man? The entry in the Domesday Book (DB) didn’t record the exact quality of the vowel, so the original meaning is lost. Something similar happens in the preceding entry, but this one is a fairy-story by the Brothers Grimm:
Warnborough, North & Warnborough, South Hants. Weargeburnan 973-4. Wergeborn 1086 (DB). Possibly ‘stream where criminals were drowned’, OE wearg + burna, though wearg may have an earlier sense ‘wolf’, hence perhaps ‘stream frequented by wolves’.
But far more onomastic fish were caught by the Domesday Book than slipped through. It was a net cast by the Normans over their new kingdom and historians have been feasting on the catch for centuries. Very few names were recorded much earlier. One of those that were hasn’t survived unaltered:
Hebrides (islands) Arg., Highland, W. Isles. Hæbudes 77, Hebudes 300. Meaning uncertain. The Roman name was Edudæ or Ebudes, and the present name resulted from a misreading of the latter, with ri for u.
I like fortuitous changes like that. Is it another pre-Celtic name? Perhaps. But mysteries can rise from clear meanings too:
Caithness (district) Highland. Kathenessia c. 970. ‘Promontory of the Cats’. OScand. nes. It is not known why the early Celtic tribe here were called ‘cats’; the cat may have been their token animal.
We know what the name means, but not why it got that meaning. We’ve lost so much of the past and that’s one of the powerful things about this book. George Orwell summed up the feeling in another context:
When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence. (“Looking Back on the Spanish War”, 1942)
So have most of the people who lived on the British Isles. Kings have reigned here and been utterly forgotten. But here and there a name survives with no story attached to it:
Broomfleet E.R. Yorks. Brungareflet 1150-4. ‘Stretch of river belonging to a man called Brūngār’. OE pers. name + flēot.
Who was Brūngār? Was he important? Was the name a joke? If the name hadn’t been recorded so early, we might now think the name refers to a plant, like “Broomfield, ‘open land where broom grows’”. Misinterpretations must happen a lot in toponymy: Celtic words with one meaning look like Anglo-Saxon words with another, pre-Celtic names may have been folk-etymologized, and so on.
That raises another haunting question, which Orwell addresses here in another and more serious form:
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. (Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 1, ch. 3)
Suppose that an apparently transparent place-name like Greenfield or Shepton is a re-working of an older name with an entirely different meaning in Celtic or pre-Celtic. Does the truth survive in any sense? Or does the meaning of the new name change the truth? This must have happened many times in Britain and elsewhere.
The reverse is rarer: some apparently mysterious names might be scribal slips or lost words in familiar languages. This village in Worcestershire has a strange name that may be thousands of years old:
Tardebigge Worcs. Tærdebicgan c. 1000, Terdeberie [sic] 1086 (DB). Possibly a Celtic name from Brittonic *tarth ‘spring’ + *pig ‘point, peak’.
Or does it go back even earlier, to that vanished pre-Celtic language? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s really Anglo-Saxon, distorted or otherwise. Unless a chronoscope is invented, we may never know the truth and mysteries like that may remain.
But mysteries are rare. Viewed in the context of local topography or history, place-names usually have obvious meanings. And they tell us what we’ve lost. Britain used to be a place of glades:
Lanercost Cumbria. Lanrecost 1169. Celtic *lannerch ‘glade, clearing’, perhaps with the pers. name Aust (from Latin Augustus).
It used to be a place of wolves too:
Greywell Hants. Graiwella 1167. Probably ‘spring or stream frequented by wolves’, OE *grææg + wella.
And of witches:
Hascombe Surrey Hescumb 1232. Possibly ‘the witch’s valley’. OE hægtesse + cumb.
And of Woden:
Wednesbury Sandw. Wadnesberie 1086 [DB]. ‘Stronghold associated with the heathen god Wōden’. OE god-name + burh (dative byrig).
But the forests were cut down, the wolves were slaughtered, and the grey Galilean triumphed over Woden. So another layer of meaning washed over the landscape and new languages appeared in place-names, like Latin and French: Eccles means “church” and Beaulieu means “beautiful place”, for example. To survive, some of the old paganism had to be obscure:
Sawel (Samhail) (mountain) Tyrone. ‘Likeness’. Samhail Phite Meadhbha c. 1680. The full name is Samhail Phite Méabha, ‘likeness to Maeve’s vulva’, referring to a hollow on the side of the mountain.
Most of the etymologies in A Dictionary of British Place-Names are mundane, not Maevish, but age can lend glamour even to the mundane. Some place-names in Britain are very old and this book is a good way to feel the years.
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