Dot Wordsworth

What’s in a place name?

There is a place in Westmorland called Wordsworth’s Well, but I must tell you that it is not named after me. A field in Westmorland is called Wordy Dolt, and I am glad to tell you that it is not named after me either. Here wordy (like –worthy elsewhere) means ‘enclosure’, not ‘voluble’ nor indeed ‘valuable’, and dolt means ‘share of the common field’, not ‘idiot’. I discovered this from the glorious English Place-Name Society. I call it glorious because it has been going for 100 years and is still pegging away at a survey recording and analysing historically all the place-names of England. So far 91 volumes have been published, yet some counties remain to be surveyed.

In its long labour it resembles other great British endeavours like the Dictionary of National Biography, the Survey of London or the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1924 the English Place-Name Society published its first two volumes Introduction to the Survey and Chief Elements Used in English Place-Names. This showed a certain confidence. Progress in place-name studies meant that in 1956 the second volume was superseded by two new volumes, English Place-Name Elements. Meanwhile, ambitions were growing. Major place-names were treated in more detail and street names and field names were added. Another familiar enemy of promise was that editors died. The upshot is that no new county volume has been published since 2016.

In 2017, a study was made of what could be done about Staffordshire. One volume had been published in 1984, covering only the hundred of Cuttlestone, one of the county’s five divisions. The editor, J.P. Oakden, had wanted to include new findings in volumes to come. A valuable typescript was discovered among his papers after his death in 1988, but much he collected was sadly missing. Staffordshire remains unconquered. Intelligence, accuracy, and thankless dedication are needed.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in