Archive | April, 2011

On Wetwang, Souldrop, Piddle and why Ashby-de-la-Zouche is the most fascinating place name in England

29 Apr

I’ve already blogged twice about surnames – once on the history of surnames, the other on how posh your surname is.  I have an equally-fervid love of the history of place names (toponymy), although it’s a little less interactive as, unlike the many curiously-named people I question, I am yet to find a place name sign that answers my questions …

I think I enjoy anything that gives an insight into how people used to live – and place names, like personal names, do just that.   They tell us about the physical environment, including natural and manmade features, they tell us what people did on the land, about ownership and the roots of the people who lived there and sometimes even about the social organisation.

Here are just a few examples of some of the most common, or most interesting, parts of English place names.

Places named after people

Many towns or cities are named after an ancient local leader or warlord – and, in some cases, we only know the person existed as they’ve left a place name behind them, such as Pada, the original ‘owner’ of Paddington.  The Welsh county of Gwynedd is also named after Cunedda, a 5th century leader.


The suffix –ingas was used in the Anglo-Saxon period to indicate something along the lines of ‘stronghold or settlement of the followers of X’ – so the first part of Paddington means ‘settlement of the followers of Pada’.

Barking and Reading are all well-known examples of the use of noun + ingas.  Where I live, Wellingborough, is thought to be named after a man called Waendal, who is now celebrated each year by a walking festival!

(There is an interesting argument that suggests these –ingas names tended to come in pairs as rival factions wanted to mark out territory.)


The Old English for ‘home’ is hām (pronounced with a long a), and it’s thought this was used to mean ‘homestead’ or settlement in place names.

So Nottingham means the ‘homestead of the followers of Snot’.  (The city has conveniently dropped that first ‘S’ … I wonder why!)    Or Birmingham as ‘the homestead of the followers of Beorma’).


We do see some counties that famously ended with the suffix -sex – Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and the former county of Wessex.  The –sex ending doesn’t imply anything rude, merely that Saxons had settled there after they invaded. So Essex is kingdom of the East Saxons (Ēastseaxe), Wessex the West, Sussex the South and Middlesex the Middle kingdom.

-TON or –TUN

You see -ton and -tun used both as a prefix (Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge) and a suffix, Brighton.  Much like –ham, it’s thought to have meant homestead or settlement, and you may recognise the roots of the modern word ‘town’.


When I was small, we had a book about the Green Witch of Greenwich, the Wool Witch of Woolwich, the Old Witch of Aldwych and so forth.  Given that the ‘w’ is often silent, I often wonder how foreigners manage to travel anywhere in the UK as the pronunciation of our place names is so confusing!

There are a few possible definitions for –wich.  Most commonly, it’s thought to have meant ‘settlement’, ‘abode’ or ‘dwelling place’ from the Old English wíc derived from the Latin vīcus.  By the time of the Doomsday Book in 1986, wíc was also in use to mean ‘farm’, particularly ‘dairy farm’.

For places on the coast or rivers, particularly it’s also thought that -wic meant ‘bay’, derived from the Old Norse vík, and came to be used for busy sea or river ports like York (Jorvik), Ipswich, London (Lundenwic) and Southampton (Hamwic).

And in places like Droitwich , Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich, the –wich is thought to signify a place connected with salt – either a spring or a saltwork.


This suffix, derived from the Old English burg, indicated that there was a fort in the location, or the settlement had some sort of fortification, such as walls.  With Edinburgh, it’s easy to see the fortification (it still stands!) but with other locations, such as Aylesbury or again, where I live in Wellingborough, the fort has long been long.  You can also see the same suffix appear in other European place names – Hamburg, Luxembourg or Strasbourg are three obvious examples.


The suffix –by is fascinating as it derives from Old Norse, rather than Old English – and its usage largely coincides with the areas that were settled by the Viking raiders, particularly in the North and the East of England.  It meant ‘farmstead’, so we see place names like Whitby, Appleby or Grimsby.  Here’s a chart above, showing the distribution of Old Norse (Viking) place names in the UK.  You can see by the purple that the names co-incide with the parts of the country settled by the Vikings.


I’ve always been interested in –holm, which is the Old Norse word for ‘island’ as there are islands in the Severn Estuary, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, visible from my home town of Cardiff.  The majority of place names that use –holm are in Scotland, particularly in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands.  So how did it end up in use in South Wales, a long way from the areas the Vikings settled in Britain?  The Vikings did raid along the coast lines of Wales and the West, and the evidence suggests that a Viking raiding party ended up taking refuge on these islands following a failed attack on a settlement in Somerset, hence the name.

Other Old Norse endings, indicative of Viking settlement are: -thorpe (farm), –thwaite (clearing), -ey (island) and –ford (fjord).


This suffix, one of the most common in English place names, derives from the Old English ceaster, which in turn comes from the Latin castra, or camp.  It’s thought to have been used to indicate a place of Roman military settlement – although there is an argument that says the Anglo-Saxons then used it to just mean ‘settlement’, regardless of whether the Romans had ever been there or not!  But the majority of usages of this suffix do appear in England where the Romans were well established, and not, by comparison, in Scotland, where they scarcely made it over the border.

We can see this suffix in places like Chester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Bicester, Manchester, Doncaster, Leicester and Worcester.  The Celts also adopted this word – and you can see in place names like Cardiff (Fort on the River Taff) or Caerleon (Fort of the Legion).


I’ve included Regis not because it’s necessarily common, but because it’s another curio of language.  Regis was used to indicate royal patronage.  The monarch may have owned the lands, given a Royal Charter to the area (as happened to Lyme Regis in 1284) or have spent considerable time in the location, such as Bognor, which received a ‘Regis’ title as late as 1929 after George V spent months recuperating there.

You also see places called ‘King’s’ (as in King’s Lynn) or Royal (Royal Berkshire), both of which also indicate royal favour.


We see –SHIRE in our county names – Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and so forth.  Its etymology is particularly interesting as it didn’t mean anything to do with geography; its original Old English form scír meant something along the lines of ‘official duty’ or ‘office’ (in the sense of a formal position).  So an alderman, bishop or lord may have had a scír – and the word came to mean not just the duty itself, but the area and its people who were part of that duty.  We can see this usage clearly in 1338:

The bisshop of Canterbire þerof payed was he, For him and alle his schire

We’ve then adopted the word as a suffix to mean an administrative area – and most of our English county names (and many Welsh) have had –shire attached to them at some point in their history, even if they don’t use it now (Devon and Rutland being two examples who have dropped the ‘shire’).  The exceptions to the ‘shire’ suffix tend to be in the south-west (Cornwall), South-East (Kent, Sussex, Essex etc.) and the north (Northumberland, Cumbria).

Finally, in my title, I mentioned a few of my favourite English place names:

Wetwang, which the Oxford English Dictionary of Place Names suggested may have meant ‘field for the trial of a legal action’, from the Old Norse vætt-vangr.

Souldrop – no, not a place to commit suicide, but the same book suggests it means ‘outlying farmstead near a gully’ from the Old English sulh + throp.

Piddle – a source of much amusement, but probably just means a marsh or a fen.

And Ashby-de-la-Zouch is interesting as it contains three different languages in one title.  The ‘ash’ bit is Old English, the –by an Old Norse ending, and the ‘de la Zouch’ derives from the name of the Norman family that once owned it!


Just what is a fangle? And why can it be only new?

14 Apr

I used the word ‘newfangled’ in conversation today.  It’s not a word I utter every day – but this headline from the Daily Telegraph caused the word to slip out my mouth.

Obviously for Telegraph readers, texting is relatively newfangled technology as the paper felt the need to make texting its headline today, in April 2011.   I did briefly wonder whether I’d travelled back in time to April 2001, when texting would have been sufficiently cutting-edge to make the front page of a national newspaper, but sadly my wrinkles and my waistline assured me it was indeed 2011.

But it got me thinking – why do we say ‘newfangled’?  We don’t ‘fangle’ anything.  We don’t even talk about ‘oldfangled’ (although as of today, I’m going to try and slip that into conversation).

The OED offers a wealth of fangles – newfangled (both adjective and noun), newfangled (verb), newfangled (adjective), newfangledness (noun), newfanglement (noun), newfangleness (noun), newfanglist (noun) and newfangly (adverb).

But it’s not just the sheer array of fangles that’s surprising – it’s the ages of them.  If you’d asked me where I thought ‘newfangled’ came from, I’d have said it sounded like the sort of word made up for an American Presidential election about 100 years ago.

I am completely wrong.  The OED records its first usage of newfangled in – get this – in 1300.

If þi loverd is neufangel, Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel Mid illore iwon.

In the 14th century, it also appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Gower’s Confession Amantis, which I was made to study for a whole term at university and still came out none the wiser!

The OED seems a little unclear on the etymology.  The ‘fang’ bit it gives as an obsolete meaning of ‘to grasp hold of’, and the ‘new’ bit tells you how modern the thing is of which you’re grasping hold.

The word is compared to the Middle Dutch – nieuvingel – or even more excitingly, the Faroese fangla, which means to catch hold of.  I can honestly say I’ve never come across a word in English that derives from Faroese,  and am quite sadly excited!

We used to use ‘newfangled’ to refer to the person who loved the latest fashion, but we now use it to mean ‘new’ or ‘the latest thing’.

I’ve also discovered that I’m not the first to coin ‘oldfangled’ – someone beat me to that by 214 years as it first appears in 1797!  The OED gives the delightful definition of ‘oldfangled’ as meaning: ‘characterized by adherence to what is old, old-fashioned.’

And fangle does also exist – although the dictionary suggests it is effectively a mistake.  Peoplewere used to ‘newfangled’ – so assumed there must be a ‘fangle’ to be new.  Fangled came to mean newly fashioned and a fangle a fad, although this mean seems to have died out of usage.  The latest usage is in 1881: “New fashions and fangles of dress, of manners, and of speech.”

For a word that’s 700 years young, ‘newfangled’ still speaks to human behaviour and the love of the latest.  But is the word sufficient on its own anymore?  Should we now be talking about ‘techfangled’ or even Applefangled?

Cuddle an apostrophe – they’re not scary!

12 Apr

I have a deep fondness for apostrophes.  Apart from their lovely cuddly shape (who wouldn’t want to hug an apostrophe?), they provide a wealth of useful information that makes it easy to understand what a writer means.

And the really good news about apostrophes is that there are only two ways to use them.  Yes, two!

The two basic uses* of apostrophes are:

  1. they indicate that a letter or letters are missing.  I was taught to think of them as a ‘gravestone’ to indicate where a letter was no more.  (It was the early 80s, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller was popular at the time)
  2. they show possession – that something ‘owns’ something else.
    • Possession is technically a grammatical concept, rather than referring literally to owning something else– but I think in the vast majority of cases, you can see that one thing does literally ‘own’ the other

The rules about possessive apostrophes vary between the US and the UK.


  • When it’s a singular noun that ends in any letter other than ‘s’, you add ‘s to the end of the noun  (the dog’s food)
  • When it’s a singular noun that ends in ‘s’, you add just an apostrophe to the end to the end of the noun (James’ telephone)
  • When it’s a plural noun that ends in ‘s’, you add just an apostrophe to the end of the noun (the dogs’ food)
  • When it’s a plural noun that ends in any other letter than ‘s’ (e.g. children / sheep / trout), you add ‘s to the end of the noun (the children’s playtime)

You never ever split the noun – so you have to decide whether the noun is singular or plural.


  • When it’s a singular noun, regardless of whether it ends in ‘s’ or not, , you add ‘s to the end of the noun  (the dog’s lead; James’s telephone)
  • When it’s a plural noun, regardless of whether it ends in s or not, you add ‘s to the end of the noun (the children’s playtime; the dogs’s food)

You never ever split the noun – so you have to decide whether the noun is singular or plural.


I’ll start with the nice easy one.

Apostrophes indicate missing letters.  Where we have really common sequences of words (I am / he can not ), we often run the words together, losing one or two letters along the way.  The apostrophe marks the fact letters are missing.

  • Don’t = do not  (the apostrophe is the ‘gravestone’ for the ‘o’ of not)
  • Isn’t = isn’t (again, the apostrophe is the missing ‘o’ of not)
  • Can’t = can not
  • Couldn’t
  • Wouldn’t
  • Shouldn’t
  • Won’t = will not
  • Shan’t = shall not
  • I’ll = I will
  • Should’ve = should have
  • He’s = He is
  • I’m = I am
  • They’re = They are
  • It’s = It is
  • Aren’t = are not
  • Where’s = where is
  • Here’s = here is

And many more!

These words are all known as contractions – where two longer words are contracted into one shorter one.

I know some people get taught that if you’re writing, you should never use contractions as they’re considered ‘informal’.  However, I think tastes have changed over time – and you’ll notice these contractions appear more and more, particularly in marketing where a brand wants to appear ‘friendly’.  I use them all the time when writing communications to make the writing seem more ‘human’.


When one thing (noun) ‘owns’ or belongs to something else, we add ‘s to the end of the first noun to show the relationship (the first thing owns the second).

All these nouns are SINGULAR (refer to just one thing) and do not end in ‘s’

  • Alfie’s chew
  • The dog’s chew
  • The company’s annual results
  • The train’s passengers
  • The government’s economic theory
  • Rebecca’s country

Now you’ll see from the above that in most cases, the concept of possession is pretty straight-forward.  Alfie owns that chew. The company owns its own annual report.  But the train doesn’t literally own the passengers and Rebecca doesn’t literally own her country – so this is where the sense of ‘belongs to’ is helpful.

The main thing to note is that the ‘s goes at the end of the noun.  You must NEVER split the noun.

This is really straight-forward when it comes to singular nouns that end in any letter other than ‘s’.


  • The chair’s cushions
  • The bottle’s lid
  • The BlackBerry’s charger

Singular nouns that end in ‘s’

There are a few singular nouns that end in ‘s’ – particularly proper nouns.  A proper noun is an official name – James, Ness, the Philippines, Paris and so forth.

Helpfully, there are two schools of thought here about what you should do.

In British English, typically if the noun already ends in ‘s’, you just add just an apostrophe at the end of the noun.

  • James’ book
  • Ness’ toy
  • The Philippines’ star player

In American English, it’s more common to stick to the original rule and add ‘s

  • James’s book
  • Ness’s toy
  • The Philippines’s star player

Where there are these differences of opinions, my recommendation is that you just have to pick the rule that works for you. I like the British English version – partly out of pure national bias, but mainly as I think it looks cleaner.

But again, the rule that you must NEVER split the noun applies.

So Jame’s book / the Philippine’s star player are both wrong.

Plural nouns ending in ‘s’

When we’re referring to more than one thing, we typically add ‘s’ to indicate that a word is plural.  We may change the ending of the word slightly – but generally, you can be pretty certain most plural nouns ends with ‘s’

  • Chews
  • Books
  • Trains
  • Companies
  • Toys
  • Players

Where you have a plural noun, the same rule that you must NEVER split the noun applies.

And again, the guidance is the same with singular nouns ending in ‘s’.  If you’re working in British English, you add an apostrophe at the end of the noun.  If it’s American English you prefer, you add ‘s.

So, in this case, my noun is PLAYERS (more than one player).   The entire noun is PLAYERS – and as I can’t split the noun (you NEVER split the noun), I add the apostrophe after the noun.

  • The players’ lack of commitment …  (or players’s lack of commitment if US English)
  • The managers’ performance guide … (or managers’s performance guide if US English)

If I were to split the noun (remember our noun is PLAYERS), Player’s lack of commitment means there is only one player, so changes the meaning completely.

* (In reference to the comment that there are two basic uses, from a historical perspective, the second rule evolved from the first, so some might argue there is actually only one rule.  When English was closer to its Germanic roots, we used to add an –es ending to the end of words to indicate possession, so the apostrophe does indeed indicate a missing letter in all instances.)

Just how do you call someone dolphin-like? Rhino-like? Or even mongoose-like?

8 Apr

With a bit of luck, at some point in our education, we’ve all had at least one teacher who was exceptional at developing and encouraging us, helping us take a great leap forward under their tutelage.

Mine was when I was 10-11 – and of the many, many things I remember him teaching us, one thing that has stayed with me was his love of descriptive animal words.

We’re all familiar with canine for ‘dog-like’, feline for ‘cat-like’ or even equine for ‘horse-like’ – but there’s actually a whole zoo of these words.

Our teacher taught us about 10 of these different –ine words to describe animal-like qualities.  He believed that a wider vocab would improve our writing.   Over the years, perhaps as a tribute to him, I’ve collected as many examples as I can find.  And the more obscure, the better!

So if you’re ever stuck for a word to describe someone who reminds you of an animal … here are just a few you can try out!

Some of the ones I learned in school are:

  • Aquiline – Eagle-like
  • Bovine – Cow-like   (we were taught to think of Bovril, the beef-based drink)
  • Caprine – Goat-like (our memory trick was ‘Capricorn’)
  • Elephantine – Elephant-like.  I’ve also since learned you could use ‘pachydermic’
  • Leporine – Rabbit or Hare-like
  • Lupine – Wolf-like
  • Ovine – Sheep-like
  • Porcine – Pig-like
  • Ursine – Bear-like   (again, we learned to remember this via the constellations Ursa Major and Minor)
  • Vulpine – Fox-like
  • Zebrine – Zebra-like

The words I’ve collected over the years include:

  • Acarine – Mite-like
  • Alcelaphine – Antelope-like
  • Anatine – Duck-like
  • Ceratorhine – Rhino-like
  • Cervine – Deer-like
  • Columbine – Dove-live
  • Cygnine – Swan-like
  • Delphine – Dolphin-like
  • Hippocampine – Sea-horse-like
  • Hystricine – Porcupine-like
  • Lutrine – Otter-like
  • Macropodine – Kangaroo-like
  • Murine – Mouse-like
  • Pavonine – Peacock-like
  • Phocine – Seal-like
  • Ranine – Frog-like
  • Soricine – Shrew-like
  • Sciurine – Squirrel-like
  • Strigine – Owl-like
  • Turdine – Blackbird or Robin-like
  • Vituline – Calf-like
  • Viverrine – Mongoose-like

There are other words, like simian for ‘ape-like’ that don’t share the –ine ending, but I’ve excluded those from this list for reasons of tidiness!

The –ine ending derives from the Latin and is suffixed to names, animals or things to indicate ‘of the nature of’, ‘pertaining to’ or ‘like’.  We can see the same ending in words like masculine and Alpine – ‘of a man-like nature’ and ‘pertaining to the Alps’.

I often think these would make a great pub quiz question!

Can you pummel a pommel horse?

5 Apr

I was watching the recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe (he of the accent that wanders between several parts of the British Isles) – and during a fight scene, the word ‘pummelling’ popped into my head.

It’s a great sounding word, isn’t it?  It sounds far too nice to mean punching or pounding someone.  I’ve read in David Crystal’s Words Words Words that when you ask English speakers for their favourite sounding words, the combination of M + vowel + L is always popular – examples being mellifluous or the girl’s name Melanie.

(As an aside, I recently learned the word to describe pleasant-sounding words is Euphonious, from the Greek euphonos meaning ‘sweet-voiced’)

Is pummelling also related to a pommel horse?  A pommel horse is no friend of mine – I hated gymnastics at school – but the words sound very similar, and I can sort of see how a gymnastics routine might ‘pummel’ the horse.

But it was the pommelling, rather than the pummelling, that came first.  It’s first recorded in English as a verb in 1530: “I pomell, I beate one aboute the eares”   The ‘pummel’ variant was only a few years behind, as this 1548 quote shows: “Thei turne him cleane out of his owne doores, and pumble hym about the pate.”

But the word didn’t start life as a verb.  The first recorded usage of pommel is as a noun in about 1300, and refers to the round knob on top of a flagpole or dome.  Not long after in 1330, it was recorded as meaning the rounded knob on the end of a sword handle:  “On þe pomel was ywrite: ‘Icham yhot Estalibore.’”

From these two meanings, pommel came to mean ‘a rounded object’ – and from there it seems, we started to use it to refer to the rounded dome at the front of a horse’s saddle.  See this usage from Merlin in c. 1500: “Theire swerdes hangynge at the pomell of theire sadeles be-fore.”

It was this saddle-based sense of ‘pommel’ that led on to pommel horse – the pommels being the handles the gymnast uses to hang on to the vaulting horse, just as riders occasionally use a pommel to hang on to the saddle!   This meaning doesn’t appear until the early 20th century.

But the sense of ‘pummel’ as meaning to strike repeatedly comes from the round thing at the end-of-the-sword pommel – people obviously used to use their pommels to beat other people, and the noun become a verb.

So to answer my own question, yes, you can pummel a pommel horse!