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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, February 22, 2021

British Place Names

 

Lower Slaughter

Following my post about Sutton Hoo, many of you wrote in to share your favourite British place names, so I thought I would do some etymological research for  you. 

First up, the impossibly picturesque Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter (pictured above) in the Cotswolds, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. 

Lest you think the lovely little river was the scene of some gory battle, the explanation is much more banal. "Slaughter" in this case comes from an Old English form *slōhtre ‘muddy place’ or ‘ravine, deep channel’, probably related to our word "slough".. Not dripping with blood. 

Not far away in Oxfordshire is Chipping Norton, originally Old English cēping ‘market’ Norton 'north of' (the opposite of "sutton").

Near Salisbury in Hampshire one finds the Wallops: Nether Wallop, Over Wallop, and Middle Wallop.  This possibly comes from  Old English wella, wælla  ‘valley with a spring or stream’. OE + hop 'small enclosed valley'. Alternatively the first element may be Old English weall ‘a wall’ or walu ‘a ridge, an embankment’. This is not to be confused with our common verb "wallop" which has its own interesting story. See here: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2010/11/word-of-week-wallop.html

Moving a little further southwest to Dorset, we come across Piddletrenthide on the River Piddle. This is not alas from nursery talk; in Old English pidele meant simply ‘a marsh or fen’ and the town meant 'Estate on the River Piddle assessed at thirty hides’.

In  Yorkshire someone found the lachrymose-sounding Blubberhouses. This is in fact much cheerier, coming from Middle Engllsh  bluber bubble + Old English hūs: ‘(Place at) the houses by the bubbling spring’.

Sheepy Magna & Sheepy Parva Leicestershire. 

This one actually does have something to do with sheep: ‘Island, or dry ground in marsh, where sheep graze’. Distinguishing affixes are Latin magna ‘great’ and parva ‘little’.

Helions Bumpstead , Essex. 

"Bumpstead"  meant ‘Place where reeds grow’, from Old English bune reeds + stede enclosed pasture. Tihel de Helion was the name of a man who held one manor in 1086.

One reader was entertained to learn that a neighbourhood of York is known as "The Shambles". You can find the explanation here: 

https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2015/05/in-shambles.html

I hope I haven't been boring you but perhaps it is appropriate to leave  you in Norfolk with Great and Little Snoring (settlement  of the family of a man called Snear). 

Photo of Lower Slaughter by Ivy Barn on Unsplash

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Sutton What? Sutton Where? Sutton Hoo?


Many of you have been watching The Dig, the movie starring Ralph Fiennes and  Carey Mulligan on Netflix about the Anglo-Saxon archeological discoveries in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk (the southern part of the bulgy bit on the eastern side of England). 

You are probably thinking, "Yet another bizarre British place name!", although it cannot compete with my family's favourite when we were growing up not far from there: Six Mile Bottom.

OK, you can stop giggling now and let us apply ourselves to the place name in question. 

"Hoo" has nothing to do with  our pronoun "who". In very old Anglo-Saxon, hōh was the word for "heel". "hōh" gradually morphed into "heel" and by 1300 was not being used any more. But it survived in some place names, because hōh also meant "a projecting ridge of land shaped like a heel".

"Sutton" was a very common place name, meaning "south farmstead or village", i.e. one to the south of another settlement, 
 
Do you have any favourite "weird British Place Names"?

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Slip sliding away: sled or toboggan?

 
When I was a kid I loved to go tobogganing. My siblings and I would take a toboggan like the one pictured above to our local park and hurtle down the toboggan runs that the parks staff set up each year. Never would I have said, "I'm taking my sled and going sledding". For me, a sled has runners and a toboggan does not.

 Furthermore, "sled" is what Americans said for this favourite Canadian winter activity. But it seems to me that I am seeing "sled" more for it. "Toboggan" is certainly not gone: it is the term the City of Toronto uses on its website. 
 
It is hard to compare relative frequencies of "toboggan" and "sled" scientifically since the latter has many meanings other than "toboggan":

sled

  • 1. a low vehicle mounted on runners for conveying heavy loads or passengers over snow or ice, usu. drawn by horses, dogs, or people.
  • 2. a similar but usu. smaller vehicle, or any of various devices made of moulded plastic, used esp. by children to coast down hills for amusement.
  • 3. a snowmobile.
  • 4. Cdn (North) a covered vehicle mounted on runners and pulled by a snowmobile or tractor with caterpillar treads, used to carry freight or crew as part of a cat train.
  • 5 a bobsled  
But if we look at 1980-83 in Canadian newspapers we find no uses of "sledding" to mean "tobogganing", whereas from 2017 to 2020 there are several.
 
We inherited "toboggan" from an Eastern Algonquian language, either Maliseet-Passamaquoddy (spoken in New Brunswick and Maine) or Mi'kmaq (spoken in the Atlantic Provinces), probably by way of French. The elements of the native languages mean "device pulled by a cord".
 
A usage of "toboggan" from the South and Midwestern United States that would leave Canadians perplexed to say the least is illustrated by the following quotes:

1907   Weekly Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) 24 Apr.   If an infant has been wearing a woolen toboggan this winter, it can now be changed on a warm day to a Swiss bonnet.
1975   Raleigh (N. Carolina) News & Observer 6 Jan. 24/4   The burglar was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said.

Well, now you have a bizarre image in your mind!

This is what we Canadians would call a "toque" (pronounced TUKE), a close fitting knitted cap, originally with a long tapered end (to wrap around your face to keep it warm). Toques nowadays do not have these long tapered ends, though I can attest from my childhood that they were very practical. In the States this was originally called a "toboggan cap" before being abbreviated.

Voyageur wearing the original toque

If you're Canadian, have you noticed "sled" creeping up on  "toboggan"? What do you say? Have you ever heard of a toque being called a toboggan?

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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.