Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 15 November 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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A Kentish man, Mr Spencer Jones, sends me a photograph of a street named ‘The Forstal’. It is a cul-de-sac, or dead end, as we say in Oxfordshire.

Why, asks Mr Jones, is this perfectly ordinary word not in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary? The answer would be that it is dialect. There are lots of words not in the OED — slang, jargon, personal names, place-names and dialect words. Some of each category, though, do get in.

Forstal is in Joseph Wright’s Dialect Dictionary. The earliest citation it gives (although Wright could not use as wide a catch as James Murray at the OED) is an interesting one from Aylesford Parish Register for 1661: ‘Henry Gorham and John Allen ...going into the river at Jermans fforstall to wash themselves ... were both drowned.’ (The ff is a scribal convention for a capital F; the writing of proper names such as Fiennes with an initial ff is misconceived.) The word is found in Norfolk, Kent and Sussex and means ‘a small opening in a street or lane too little to be called a common; a piece of waste land; a green before a “place” or house; a paddock near a farm house; a farmyard’ or ‘a way leading from the high road to a great house’.

As it happens, forstal is in the OED, under the spelling forestall. Our meaning is number 2c, and the same quotation from the parish register is given, because it was discovered by Notes and Queries in 1894, as both dictionary-makers must have seen. It also means ‘a horse’s frontlet’, but never mind.

The origin of the word, so the OED opines, is from fore, and stall ‘apparently used in the sense of “position taken up”’. The very oldest recorded meaning is ‘ambush’, as used by Aelfric in about the year 1000 of the plot by the Jewish elders to ambush Christ.

Mr Jones had noted the similarity to modern German Der Forst, ‘the forest’, but the similarity is slightly misleading, since forest and Forst come from the mediaeval Latin forest-em (silvam), the ‘outside’ wood. Our forstal is in front, not outside.

A good book for place-names is Eilert Ekwall’s Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, though I have always suspected him of overdoing the Norse elements. Actually it doesn’t include Forstal. But you can find the word in English Place-Name Elements published by the English Place-Name Society. They publish volumes for each county, costing about £25 second-hand, and you can look up even field names in your own area.