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Friday, July 4, 2014

Down with "Wimbleton"


I have a friend who is driven crazy when she hears people mispronouncing the famous shrine of lawn tennis as "Wimbleton". "WimbleDDDDDDDDDDDDDon. Argh!!" she vents on her facebook page. 

And she is right to complain. The name "Wimbledon" was first recorded  in about 950 as "Wunemannedune", which clearly would take up too many characters for people tweeting about tennis, so needed to be shortened. Dun(e) was one of the Anglo-Saxon words for "hill" (a cousin of the French word that gave us "dune"), so this place was probably originally the hill of a man called Wunemann. Dun is not to be confused with tun, the Anglo-Saxon word that gave us "town", and which does of course show up in many place names. Just not this one.

(Wimbledon seems to be the victim of another mispronunciation: "Wimpleton". A wimple is a type of veil covering the head, chin, sides of the face, and neck, common in medieval times and surviving in traditional nuns' attire. The word dates from Old English.)

I'm not done with dun, though, because it's, well, downright fascinating.

Just as tun ended up as "town", dun ended up as "down", and although we don't call hills in general "downs" anymore, this word has survived as the name of the Downs, the treeless rolling chalk uplands of the south and south-east of England (apparently they also have Darling Downs in Australia). 


One of the world's most famous racecourses is found here, the Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, and no doubt in homage to it, "downs" is also used in the names of many racetracks in North America. Bizarrely, though, the only dictionary to include this sense of "downs" is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary!

But there was an even greater destiny in store for this Saxon word meaning "hill": it would become... an adverb! and... a preposition!! And pretty important ones, too. 

In Old English, the way to say "from the hill" was  of dune. Since people coming from a hill were of necessity going from a higher point to a lower one, the reduced form adune came to mean "to a lower point, closer to the earth". Adune quickly became dune, and the two words ended up as  "adown" (which the OED is still not ready to call obsolete) and its wildly successful offspring "down". It's entertaining (at least to me) to realize that the word "downhill" means, etymologically speaking, "hillhill".

For the origin of the word "tennis", see this post: 

For the origin of "racquet", see this post:

PS Happy Fourth of July to my American followers!

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.