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Dem bones – a visit to the ossuary at Rothwell

6 Aug

I usually associate rows of skulls and piles of bones with something terrible – the genocide in Cambodia, for instance.  But last week, I stood looking at the remains of some 1,500 people and, rather than disgust or fear, I sensed respect, care and pragmatism – and, over the week since we visited, I’ve thought so much about the emotions it stirred in me, I wanted to write about it.

The bone crypt at Holy Trinity, the main church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is one of only two bone crypts that still survive in the UK today.  The other is in Hythe, Kent – but there is every possibility there are others out there that just haven’t been found.

The crypt at Rothwell was re-discovered in the early 1700s – even though scientific analysis suggests it had been used a little over 100 years before.  It is accessible through the interior of the church (itself a wondrous building), and down a spiral staircase through two tiny doorways.

When you enter the room, you’re greeted with an enormous pile of leg bones, carefully laid in a large wooden frame.  I’d estimate the pile was roughly six feet high (taller than me) – and then wider and longer again.  There was also a second frame of an identical size behind it.

Along the walls, skulls were carefully spaced on shelves, all facing forward.

Some were numbered.

The frame and the shelves were not original; the handout we picked up suggested that the bones were originally just mixed in together, much like this small pile of bones on the floor towards the back of the crypt.

The only bones they’ve found in the crypt are skulls and thigh bones, known as ‘cross bones’.  (We’re most familiar with this pairing and terminology from the legendary pirate flag.)  Around 90% of the bones appear to have belonged to men – and, again, scientific analysis suggests the bones derive from two different phases, the older group coming from the 1200s and the more recent from the late 1500s.   Fascinatingly, the analysis of the blood types of the bones shows the same blood groups in the same proportions as modern-day Rothwell.

So what prompted the people of Rothwell to retain only these three bones out of the 200 plus we have?  What prompted them to bury them on mass?  And why mainly retain the men?

The main theory seems to have been that the bones in the crypt were simply the result of two different disinterments.  Rothwell was a busy medieval town – in 1204, King John even granted it a charter to hold a market – and it’s likely that the graveyard quickly ran out of space.  (Bill Bryson writes on the problem of country church graveyards in his recent work Home; he explains that the reason churches sometimes look like they’re sinking is simply the sheer amount of bodies buried in the ground around them.)

So it’s entirely possible the good people of Rothwell, with their obvious sense of pragmatism, decided to make space in their graveyard for more recently-deceased individuals.  And the building of the bone crypt was, to my mind, an act of respect for the dead.  They deliberately chose the bones that were believed necessary for Resurrection, they dug out a crypt – and they built the crypt directly under the Church, keeping the bones on sacred ground.

So while it may look gruesome or careless to ‘dump’ bones in a room, I think the people of Rothwell found a compromise between allowing later generations to continue to use the sacred ground to bury their loved ones, while respecting the beliefs of the dead from generations past by ensuring they’d be ready when the Resurrection came.

And the mystery of the absence of women?  Did that suggest these people didn’t respect their females as much?  As we paid our entrance fee, the lady who took the money whispered to us she reckoned there was another undiscovered crypt on the other side of the church, but couldn’t persuade anyone to dig it up to look.  So if she was right, not only did the people of Rothwell respect people’s religion, they also thought of their modesty and dignity and separated the sexes even in death.

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On going berserk and bears

5 Aug

So I had to write a headline in work, and it had to be about a bear (don’t ask).  I was desperately trying to think up a suitable bear-related pun (bear necessities? Grin and bear it?) – and, in part, wondering how I manage to get paid for thinking up this kind of stuff.

Whenever I get stuck with a headline, I turn to http://www.phrases.org.uk, and type in my key word to see what sort of proverbs, clichés and aphorisms turn up.

Flicking through the list, there were a few possibilities: bear with a sore head; bull market and bear market; does a bear sh*t in the woods?; and my particular favourite, when the bear got in the buckwheat (Russian, apparently).

But what caught my attention was the phrase ‘to go berserk’.  What did that have to do with bears?

My limited knowledge of the Vikings suggested there was a type of warrior known as a ‘berserker’ – best known for quaffing down large amounts of hallucinogenic drugs before battle.  But where’s the bear connection?

The OED does suggest that ‘to go berserk’ derives directly from ‘berserker’.  Berserkr is the Old Norse name for this warrior, and it was the great romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott who first brought the word into English in the early 19th century.

It must have been absolutely terrifying to face a warrior who was, to all extents and purposes, off their face on drugs – so it’s perhaps not surprising that the behaviour of the berserker has passed into everyday usage.

(The OED definition of berserker is delightful: “A wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’”.)

And the reason for the bear connection is that one view of the etymology of ‘berserk’ is that it derived from ‘bear sark’ – or bear coat.  It seems like our Viking warrior friends may have gone into battle wearing the hide of a bear – a warm, practical and also suitably terrifying choice.

But the OED also offers the alternative word and derivation: ‘bare-sark’ – to fight without any shirt on at all.  Much like some (male) football fans like to show their hardness and hardiness by watching games bare-chested in all weathers, was a Viking warrior more terrifying if he wore no armour or ceremonial dress at all?

Jako tako, aixi aixi and hai hao: why so-so is anything but ordinary

6 Jul

I came across a second-hand copy of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World for a bargain price – so snapped it up and promptly installed it in our downstairs loo.

The downstairs loo is a natural home for this book – lots of short snippets for lovers of language, ideal to keep you entertained while you’re in the smallest room. (I wonder if publishers do deliberately produce books of this type, knowing but never admitting, that the reading audience is really only ever going to be people going about their business?)

There are many fancy phrases – but a little section about one of our simplest phrases ‘so so’ caught my fancy.

What was truly interesting is that a number of other languages also have their own version of ‘so so’ – one short common word, repeated twice, and carrying this sense of ‘average’ or ‘just ok’.

Amongst the many examples, the author, Adam Jacot de Boinod (cool name!), mentions:

  • Aixi  aixi (Catalan)
  • Atal atal (Occitan)
  • Azoy azoy (Yiddish)
  • Cosi cosi (Italian)
  • Etsi ketsi (Greek)
  • Hai hao (Mandarin)
  • Hanter hanter (Cornish)
  • Jako tako (Polish)
  • Tako tako (Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian)
  • Thik thik (Gujarati)
  • Wale wale (Chipewyan

If we’re allowing the likes of ‘jako tako’, I’d also add the French ‘ca va’, which means many things – but I interpret its meaning to include ‘ok’ or ‘so so’, particularly when given as an answer to a question, such as ‘how are you?’.

Many people who were forced to study Old English, often struggling through Beowulf as part of their English course, will recall the phrase‘swa swa’.  Swa is the original Old English form of ‘so’ – so logically ‘swa swa’ should mean ‘so-so’.  But the phrase ‘swa swa’ is actually more of a conjunction, means something more like ‘just as’ or ‘so that’.  You can see that in this phrase from the Old English version of The Lord’s Prayer, “eorðan swa swa on heofum urne”, which we’d recognise as ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Perhaps the Anglo Saxons were simply less cynical than we are, and didn’t yet need a rhyming phrase to denote things they thought were merely average?

Am I a harbinger of doom?

19 Jun

Last week, I started a new contract role, a maternity cover position.  I realised an old colleague was also working at this new firm, so I got in touch and asked him out for coffee.

After we greeted each other, he said to me: “I dread to think what you’re here to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there some secret redundancy programme about to start?”

“No, I’m just here to do business-as-usual stuff.”

“I suppose you couldn’t tell me anyway.  Is it offshoring?”

“No, I’m not doing anything like that. It’s all completely innocent and above board, I promise.”

“You’re like a harbinger of doom – I can’t help but be suspicious.”

I wasn’t particularly insulted; I’ve worked on quite a few redundancy programmes in the last few years – a sign of the times we’re in – so he was perhaps right to be suspicious.  But I have definitely never been called a harbinger of doom before (or at least not to my face).

The word ‘harbinger’ starts off life innocuously enough.  It derives from the same root as the modern ‘harbourer’ – one who provides lodging – or the Swiss ‘herberge’ – an inn or a hostel.

The earliest citation in English was in around 1175, in the Lambeth Homily: Þe herbe[r]gers, þe þolemode, þe elmesfulle‥sculen beon icleoped on þe fader riht halue.  You can also see this same sense of ‘host’ clearly in this quotation from a Middle English version of The Romance of the Rose, dating around c. 1400: With sory happe to youre bihove, Am I to day youre herbegere! Go, herber yow elleswhere than heere.

It seems likely the word came into early Middle English from Old French, although the word owes its origins to a Germanic, rather than Latinate, source.  In Old High German, the original sense of heriberga meant shelter or lodgings for an army.  ‘Hari’ or ‘heri’ meant ‘host’ – and the ‘berg’ part meant protection or fortification, the same ending that we see in place names like Edinburgh, Salzburg, and Hamburg. (See more on the history of place names here.)

Sticking with this military origin, in Middle English, the word also began to take on the meaning of a person who travelled ahead of an army to procure lodgings and supplies, a usage we can see in Chaucer’s Man of Law Tale from The Canterbury Tales, c.1386:

The fame anon thurgh out the toun is born

By herbergeours, that wenten hym biforn.

And it’s from this very practical, organised ‘harbinger’ role that we derive the more general sense of being a ‘forerunner’, ‘first sign’ or ‘advance warning’.   This meaning appears in the written record in English in the mid-16th century – and by 1575, it is already used in a proverb: Hope is harbenger of all mishappe. (Gascoigne’s Fruites of Warre)  Another notable usage is Milton’s Song: On May Morning:

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger, Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her the Flowry May.

The OED doesn’t offer any commentary around ‘harbinger of doom’ – but does offer a rather more upbeat usage of the word – ‘harbinger of spring’, which is actually a North American herb, Erigenia bulbosa, whose appearance in March is seen as one of the first signs that Spring approaches.

If ‘harbinger of spring’ dates from 1865, when did people start to use ‘harbinger of doom’?  And are harbingers typically positive (the start of Spring) or negative (indicating impending death)?

My un-scientific search via Google’s timeline feature finds a contemporary citation for ‘harbinger of doom’ from 1894, in a poem entitled ‘Very Much “At Sea”.

If I find anything earlier, I will report back!

I’ve also come across a brilliant tool to help decide whether ‘harbinger’ carries more negative or positive connotations.  Netspeak searches the web for variations of phrases and shows you how common each variation is.  I simply entered ‘harbinger of ?’ and the results it produced suggests a ‘harbinger of spring’ is more popular than a ‘harbinger of doom’ – although I think if we add up all the negative meanings (doom, death, worse, bad) against all the positive meanings (spring, good, peace, hope), the conclusion must surely be that a harbinger is a pretty neutral carrier of news!

As the saying goes, perhaps me ascribing a negative connotation to the word ‘harbinger’ is simply a case of shooting the messenger!


On jeopardy and leopards

5 Jun

Someone used the phrase ‘double jeopardy’ in conversation with me this weekend, and it made me think what a strange word ‘jeopardy’ is. The only word I could think that resembled its spelling in English was ‘leopard’. The two make such an unlikely pairing that I had to investigate.

Much like my last entry about jet and jet, it appears to be coincidence, rather than design, that jeopardy and leopard share similar spelling. Jeopardy is the older word of the two – but not by much. Jeopardy dates in the English written record from around c.1200, whereas leopard appears only 150 years later in c.1350. Given the big cat is native to Africa and south Asia, it’s fascinating to see how its reputation had travelled all the way to the British Isles at a time when few would have even crossed the English Channel, let alone crossed continents.

In simple terms, jeopardy appears to derive from the old French version of ‘jeu parti’ – ‘divided or even game’. Its earliest usage, dating from 1200, referred to a chess problem, but is most clearly explained by this line from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess of 1369: “But god wolde I had ones or twyes Y-kond and knowe the Ieupardyes That kowde the Greke Pictagoras, I shulde haue pleyde the bet at ches.”

From its origins in the game of chess, jeopardy then took on a number of related meanings, all around the same time. One of the alternate definitions, first recorded in c. 1250, was the point in a game when the opportunity to win or lose hung in perfect balance – the turning point, as it were. You can see this in another of Chaucer’s usages of the word, this time from the later Troylis & Criseyde of 1374: For myn estat now lyth in Iupartye And eek myn emes lyf lyth in balaunce.

Chaucer also provides the original written English record of another definition of jeopardy – the sense of peril or danger, or impending loss. This is the most common meaning of the word in modern English. The same narrative poem, Troylis & Criseyde, provides the quote: For Troye is brought in swich a Iupartye That it to save is now no remedye.

The word also came to mean a daring exploit or dangerous mission, and a stratagem, although these meanings are lost to modern English.

The OED comments that it’s not particularly clear how or why the ‘t’ of ‘parti’ became ‘d’ in jeopardy– and it’s suggested that it may developed in line with the French verb ‘perdre’ (to lose).

But with leopard, the suggested etymology reflects the origins of the beast itself. It was thought the leopard was a cross between a lion ‘leo’ and a pard, an old name for a panther or large cat.  Pard first appears in Old English, in a translation of Alexander’s letters to Aristotle: … leon & beran & tigris & pardus & wulfas

Even in modern English, pard retains a usage in heraldry: The distinction between the pard and the panther is slight, being in whiteness of spots, and they both signify an original bearer of the arms who was not free-born. (The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, 1988.)  The word pard derives from the Greek via the Latin, which can still be seen in the leopard’s genus name of felis pardus.

The full word leopard is first recorded in English in c.1330, and again, Chaucer provides one of the earlier written records of the word, as taken here from The Monk’s Tale of about 1386: Leons, leopardes [v.r. lebardis, luperdes] and Beres.

The leopard’s gone on to lend its name to an exhaustive host of other spotted animals, vegetables and minerals, including, but not limited to: leopard-wood; leopard-tree; leopard-tortoise; leopard-shell; leopard spotted-goby; leopard seal; leopard moth; leopard mackerel; leopard lily; leopard frog and the camelopard.  Disappointingly, the camelopard is not a cross between a leopard and a camel (as I first thought), but is simply an old-fashioned name for a giraffe, with the leopard-part of the name owing a debt to the giraffe’s coat.

So, to answer the original question, perhaps the only thing a leopard has in common with jeopardy is that you find yourself in the latter if you meet the former!

A linguistic excursion to the north-east – Mackem, Anish Kapoor and a Viking version of Jabba the Hut

1 Jun

We’ve just come back from a lovely weekend in the north east of England.  Sadly, we didn’t make it up to Northumbria, one of my favourite places ever, but we visited Sunderland (to see Take Take), Durham, Middlesbrough, Whitby and York, the latter on the way home.

Robbie Williams did a solo stint in the concert and sang a topical ditty to the tune of ‘Make ’em Laugh’.  Aside from the references to superinjunctions (!) in the song, he also referred to the crowd as ‘Mackems’.  I’ve met enough people from the north east to know there’s an important distinction: Geordies are from Newcastle or around the River Tyne, Mackems from Sunderland or around the River Wear.

It seems like ‘Mackem‘ is a fairly recent nickname for people from Sunderland; the earliest suggested written appearance in the OED is from a printed sports programme for a Sunderland rugby and cricket club from 1973: “We still ‘tak ’em and mak ’em and ye canna whack ’em.”  It’s not until 1981 that the proper word ‘mackem’ appears in print – in a Newcastle Football Club programme of all things! – ” Steve Cole, John Evans, [etc.] took the field against the ‘Mackems’ in a darts and doms double header.

There are a couple of theories on where the word ‘mackem’ comes from; the most popular seems to relate to the shipbuilding industry that was prevalent in the area.  The Wikipedia article on this topic suggests the ships were built in Wearside – ‘we make ’em’ – and then taken to Tyneside for fitting out – ‘and they take ’em’.  This is the theory supported by the OED, which also mentions the complementary theory that the pronunciation of ‘make’ and ‘take’ differed between Wearside and  Tyneside.   (A number of references to ‘Mackem’ online mention the fact it was featured on the BBC’s Balderdash and Piffle – and the OED revised their entry on the topic thanks to the viewers’ input.)    A secondary theory suggested by the Wikipedia article is that the origins of the word could lie in a local beer – the ‘Double Maxim’.

From Sunderland, we travelled to Whitby via Middlesbrough.  We wanted to see the football ground and the famous transporter bridge – but between the two lay Anish Kapoor‘s 110-metre long, 50-metre high ‘Temenos’.  To describe it as spectacular doesn’t do it justice. The photo below hopefully gives some sense of scale – Temenos is dwarfing a football stadium!

Temenos is a Greek word, meaning ‘a sacred piece of land’, or the land around a temple.  It derives from the Greek word ‘to sever’.  I think it’s an interesting choice of name given the location of the statue.  It’s between the football ground (a temple to many!) and the transporter bridge on the other side, surrounded by this incredible industrial landscape that’s undergoing  a regeneration, so is a mix of the swanky and modern surrounded by the grim and hard-edged.  I gather it’s the first of five such ‘giants’ that Anish Kapoor is building around the north-east area.

From Middlesbrough, we took the coast road, crossing into God’s own county, Yorkshire, to arrive at the charming seaside town of Whitby.  It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to – one night wasn’t enough to enjoy its many attractions!

Whitby is famous for many things – the haunted ‘Hands of Glory’, the whaling industry, Dracula – and perhaps the most prosaic by comparison, Whitby Jet.  Jet is a black stone that was commonly worn in the Victorian period when mourning.  Wikipedia tells me it’s not a proper gemstone or mineral, but is rather a mineraloid as it’s made from compressing decayed wood.  All the mentions of ‘jet’ did make me wonder what jet (the mineraloid) has in common with a jet engine or a jet of water.  Is it something to do with pressure?

It seems like the words, although appearing the same, actually have little in common etymologically.  ‘Jet’ in the sense of an engine or a water jet derives from the French ‘jeter’ – to throw or to cast.   It was first used in English to mean a projection or protruding part; from this meaning, we also derive words like ‘jetty’ and ‘jut’.   The word also came to stand for a particular type of movement – darting or jerking forward – and then came to stand for a stream of water or liquid that spurts out at high pressure, as in this definition of 1696: Jet,‥a spouting forth of Waters.

The sense of ‘jet’ as meaning a spout or nozzle didn’t appear until the 1820s, and it’s not until after Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in the late 1920s  that we see the word applied to a particular type of plane:  “The advantages of the jet are so great that I am sure their development will be rapid.” (1944)

By contrast, the ‘jet’ that we wear in jewellery derives from the Old French, jaiet, which ultimately derives from the Greek gagate (jet).  It’s this sense of ‘jet’ that gives us the adjective ‘jet black’.

Finally, on the way back home, we called into York for a few hours in the pouring rain.  Many of the street names in York’s city centre end with ‘gate’ – Coppergate, Gillygate, Walmgate and so forth.  The ‘gate’ derives from the Old Norse ‘gata’ or street, reflecting York’s extensive Viking heritage.  Having looked up the etymology of ‘gate’, I think I might leave that for a future entry; it’s phenomenally complicated!

I particularly liked this street, Jubbergate, which gave me visions of Jabba the Hut wandering amongst York’s Viking settlers. Sadly, the Vikings didn’t appear to take their inspiration from George Lucas.  The Jubber is perhaps related to the word ‘Jew’, as the street was once known as Jubretgate, suggesting it might have been part of a Jewish quarter within York.

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.

-ING

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.)

-HAM

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’).

-SEX

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’.

WICH, -WICK, -WYCH AND -WYKE

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.

-BOROUGH, -BURY, -BROUGH AND –BURGH

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.

-BY

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.

-HOLM

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).

-CHESTER, -CASTER, CESTER

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).

 REGIS

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.

-SHIRE

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!