WHAT’S IN A NAME? HISTORY, IDENTITY & SOUL

 

Place-Names in Classical Mythology: Greece
by Robert E. Bell (Jan, 1989)

A Dictionary of London Place-Names (Oxford Paperback Reference)

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English River Names (Oxford Reprints) (Hardcover)

by Eilert Ekwall (Author)

Dictionary of London Place Names

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (New York Review Books Classics)

English Place Names (English Heritage)

 

Scottish Place-Name Papers

English Place-Names Explained (England's Living History)

English Place Names/ English Heritage

Scottish Place-Name Papers

English Place-Names Explained (England’s Living History) (Paperback)

A Cotswald Village (Hardcover)

 

English Hours by Henry James(Hardcover)

Anglo-American Landscapes: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature by Christopher Mulvey

Literary Britain: A Reader’s Guide to Its Writers and Landmarks (Paperback)

by Frank Morley (Author)


A Guide to Mediaeval Sites in Britain (Hardcover)

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The ones in blue I already have; the rest are on my wish list.
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NO ONE’D DRINK EVIAN WATER IF IT WAS CALLED BLACKBURN WATER!  NO ONE’D BUY KICKER BOOTS IF THEY WERE MADE IN SCUNTHORPE!  ABBA? ABBA!  I KNEW THEM WHEN THEY WERE A LANCASHIRE CLOG-DANCING TRIO!  Jerzy Belowsky, THE YOUNG ONES

Aw jeez, my appetite is overtaking my budget!  I’m such a sucker for these place names books. I don’t even really know why except maybe it’s because any place is more interesting than this place. A house is not a home.  Hmmm…that would make a great song title. 

Anyways, I’m a rabid anglophile since childhood, but especially since discovering Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was about 12 or 13.  The world opened up to me in that year and I got hungry. But that’s another post for another day.  Since I am fascinated by my native language and fascinated by that isle set in argent, I snagged these.  And since my first trip to England, I’ve kept them close.  My favorites are LITERARY BRITAIN and ENGLISH PLACE NAMES.  A GUIDE TO MEDIAEVAL SITES is beautiful.  I got it for my birthday a few years ago.  ENGLISH HOURS is classic Henry James.  You can only digest 1 or 2 chapters at a time.  They are so thick with commentary and description.  A COTSWOLD VILLAGE is a nice bit of fluff.  When I first went to England, I spent the first four days of my trip in the Cotswolds.  I LOVED IT! It was green and hilly and vast and COLD — even in mid-summer.  My spirit was a living force inside me.  I was so excited to be in a place I thought I’ve never go to, so devastated by the natural beauty and "woodsiness" and English-ness.  There’s actually an expression for that feeling of being so overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of everything that you almost faint.  It’s called "Stendahl Syndrome". 

Stendahl was a French novelist who, upon beholding the Renaissance art treasures of Florence that he had read about and dreamed of seeing all his life, actually got physically sick from the sensory overload.  Romantic, huh!  I didn’t get physically sick, but I felt my spirit as a separate being inside me, felt it being drawn out of me to absorb the landscapes, the air, the experience.  I was on an adrenaline high for 3½ weeks.  Nowadays, that’s probably how one would explain away Stendahl Syndrome — as an adrenaline high, mixed with endorphins.  Your system is not meant to handle that for days at a time.  It’s meant to kick in for a fight-or-flight situation, then fade.  You run too long on adrenaline and it’s like racing on overdrive while down to a quarter tank of gas and a cup of oil.  Your system is going to crash and crash hard!

I’ve been back to England since then. But I want to go back again.  It just feels comfortable. I’ve been reading about it and watching their tv shows for so long now, it was very easy for me to fit in.  I speak their language. 

So what’s in a name?  Not glamour, that’s for sure.  A lot of English place names sound more like compass readings and map jargon.  They also depict the mindset of the local populace.  If you were to read a map in Latin or Anglo-Saxon, you would see names like:

  • big village at the base of the hills
  • small camp by sheep farm
  • farmer’s market
  • village of the natural cisterns
  • fort near mouth of the river

Riveting stuff, I think you’ll agree.  Lots of English place names have their linguistic roots in Roman occupation.  London was originally a Roman trading center on the Thames River called "Londinium".  Cities and towns with "-cester" were Roman camping grounds.  Names with "chep" or "chip/chipping" were trading posts, after the Old English "ceapen".  "-gate", which appears in many London street names literally meant "gate into town".  When the Vikings joined the block party, you started to see a lot of villages with "-by" in their names.  So a village by the church (kirk) would be called "Kirkby".

When the Romans quit the British Isles, the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings re-named the areas they occupied.  So the larger cities could ostensibly have 3 or 4 names depending on how many tribes settled in that area.  In Scotland, especially, you see a lot of Scandinavian word roots to the east, and in the east of England which used to be the Danelaw.  In southern and western England you see more Latin  and Anglo-Saxon roots in place names. 

Linguistics of place names might seem dry and abstract.  But it becomes more real when you understand how place names are not arbitrary.  Every place has a history, and you can tap into it by tapping into the place name itself.

 

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Steve on June 11, 2008 at 4:54 PM

    We lived in London for a while when my daughter was in 5th grade.  Her favorite place name there was Tooting Beck.  (I\’m told girls grow out of humor like that faster than boys do.)

    Reply

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