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Old Baghdad in Hertfordshire

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place Names edited by Victor Watts

CUP, pp.713, 175

Who would have thought of Harrow as ‘the heathen temple’ or suburban Penge as Celtic pen ced, ‘head of the wood’? This new dictionary, the better part of 20 years in the making, re-enchants the prosaic and gives historical resonance to the timelessly English. We are reminded of the mixed Celtic, Roman, Scandina- vian, Germanic and other roots of what came to be England, and given Contin- ental and Indo-European parallels for English place-names. It tells the history of the landscape and of those who owned and worked on it, and is an invaluable companion to books like W. G. Hoskins’s classic Making of the English Landscape and Oliver Rackham’s History of the English Countryside.

Take names of British Celtic origin. Catterick, for instance, appears in Ptolemy’s Greek (c. 150) as Katourak- tonion, from the British ‘place of the battle ramparts’ (not, as used to be thought, ‘cataract’), while Kent, Cantium in Caesar, is ‘corner land’ or ‘edge land’ and Berk- shire derives ultimately from Brit. barraco, ‘hilly’ (viz. the B. Downs). Branodunum, from Brit. bran, ‘raven’, or the mythological hero Bran, becomes Brancaster, ‘Roman fort where broom grows’ (cf. Brandon), while Creake (Norf.) is primitive Welsh creig, ‘rock’, a witness to the former presence of the British (called Welsh, ‘foreigners’, by the English) throughout the land.

Churchill (Devon, Oxon, Worcs) is from pr.W. crug, ‘hill’ — in effect, ‘hill hill’ rather than ‘church hill’ (the English were not to know what ‘crug’ meant, and heard it simply as a place-name). A close parallel is Chetwode (Bucks), ‘wood wood’, from pr.W. ced, seen also in Chatham. British river-names include Brent (Gtr. Lon.), ‘holy river’, Dee (Ches.), ‘goddess’ (Deua), Ock (Oxon), ‘salmon river’ (W. eog) and Mite (Cumb.) from root meigh, ‘to urinate’. It is nice to know that the river Rye (N. Yor.) may share the same root as the Rhine, and the Don (Brit. Danu) as the Danube, while Wilton on the Wylye may be related to Vilnius on the Vilia.


Isolated remnants of British populations can be seen in names like Saffron Walden, ‘valley of the Welshmen’, Walton- on-Thames, and Walmer. Swaffham is ‘homestead of the Swabians’, while other tribal names are seen in Hitchin, ‘the Hicce’, and Uxbridge, ‘bridge of the Wixan’ (‘Village People’). Irish connections appear in Malmesbury, from the monastery’s founder Maildub. The Scand- inavian invasions are reflected in countless names of Danish and Norwegian origin such as Brocklesby (Lincs), ‘Broklauss (‘breechless’)’s farm’, and Kettlebaston (Suff.), ‘Ketilbjorn’s estate’, as well as in names like Harwich, ‘army camp’, (OE here, used for the Danish host) and Denver, ‘Danes’ crossing’.

As for the Normans, they not only brought French names such as Beaurepair (Bearpark, Co. Dur., and Belper, Derby) but generated new forms for English names when they could not pronounce the old ones, as in Salop for Shropshire and (perhaps fortunately) Nottingham for Snotingaham. Knights Templars returning from the Crusades gave us what is surely the most exotic name in the country, Baldock, Old French for Baghdad.

The ancient custom of executing felons by drowning them, hands tied behind their knees, is reflected in the name Warn- borough (Hants), ‘the felons’ stream’ (OE wearg burna). There is evidence of sport in the names of Follifoot (N. Yor.), OE fola gefeoht ‘place of horse-fights’ (popular among Vikings) and Hesketh (Lancs), ‘race-course’. The supernatural is represented in Shuckburgh (Warw.), ‘goblin hill’, Drakelow (Ches.), ‘dragon mound’ and Hestercombe (Som.), ‘witch’s valley’, while Teversal (Notts) may be ‘sorcerer’s stronghold’ (cf. Ger. Zauberer). Of many animal names such as Wooley (Cambs), ‘wolves’ wood or clearing’, that of Beverley (E. Yor.), ‘beaver stream’, deserves special mention, since beaver bones have been found nearby. Names are often not what they seem, of course. Thus Nasty (Herts) is ‘(place at) the east enclosure’, while Goodwood (Suss.) is ‘Godiva (Godgiefu)’s wood’.

The book contains one or two inconsistencies between entries, and (inevitably) omissions, such as the Wash, Rutland (abolished but restored), Scolt Head Island (Norf.), and, surprising here, Babraham (Cambs). One might wonder about the inclusion of Bristol Airport, although it is pleasing to read that Bodmin Parkway Station is ‘a modern euphemism for a railway station distant from the town it serves’.

Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (1935, last edition 1960) has given sterling service for decades, but Watts is so much more expansive and rich in informed suggestions that his work, sadly now a memorial to him, will be indispensable to anyone interested in the history of the English landscape, settlement and language. A pity about the price, though.


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