Last week a gentle Norfolk waterway got into trouble with Facebook. The problem was its name — Cockshoot Dyke. Facebook’s relentless algorithms blocked posts that mentioned the dyke and issued notifications warning about ‘sexual content’ and ‘violence’.
The name of this stretch of water isn’t, of course, actually rude at all. It relates to a fowl-hunting term for a broad glade through which woodcock might fly. The joy of supposedly ‘rude’ place names lies in their innocence. The village of Upperthong, near Huddersfield, is named after the Old English words uferra (upper) and thwang (a narrow strip of land), while Twatt in Orkney comes from the Old Norse þveit, meaning ‘small piece of land’.
I’ve always felt some affinity for places with unusual names. I grew up in a tiny Shropshire village called Clunton (one letter from trouble). People would often ask me to repeat myself when I told them where I lived, thinking they’d misheard. Residents of the nearby and charmingly named Hopton Wafers never suffered such embarrassment, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Only a Puritan — or a Facebook algorithm — wouldn’t snigger at Pett Bottom, Ugley, Titty Ho, Low Cock How or Wetwang.
Last month a man called Paul Taylor set off on a 1,800-mile moped journey across England and Scotland, visiting the places with the ‘rudest’ names to raise money in memory of a friend of his who had died of cancer. He started his journey in Shitterton, a hamlet near Bere Regis in Dorset, and set off for Twatt, taking in places such as Brawl (in Scotland), Sandy Balls holiday village (in Hampshire) and ending at the village of Bell End in Worcestershire. After reaching Twatt, Mr Taylor’s Tomos XL 45 classic — top speed 28mph — suffered engine failure on a remote mountain pass. He completed the journey in a hire car, adding a few extra stops.
In the case of some of these place names, the etymology is up for debate. The village of Pity Me near Durham is said to have got its name after St Cuthbert’s coffin was dropped by the monks carrying it, prompting the saint to scold them with the phrase from beyond the grave. Other theories suggest it may be a shortened version of the Norman-French Petit Mere, referring to a shallow lake or mere, or perhaps it’s a play on the settlement’s desolate character. Booze, a hamlet in North Yorkshire that is, ironically, without a pub, is thought to come from the Old English words for house (hus) and bow (boga), meaning ‘the house by the bow’ — possibly a reference to the curved hill on which it’s situated. Wetwang either comes from the Old Norse vaett-vangr, ‘field for the trial of a legal action’, or derives from ‘wet field’, to distinguish it from a nearby dry field at Driffield.
Britain isn’t alone. Dull in Perth and Kinross is grouped with Boring in Oregon and Bland in New South Wales. Hell in Michigan is said to have got its name when George Reeves, who helped form the town in the 1830s, was asked what it should be called and replied: ‘I don’t know, you can call it Hell for all I care,’ and was taken at his word. And if you get tired of Hell, the state also holds a community called Paradise.