Exploring Wiltshire's place names

Attended a talk in the public library last night, on the subject of Wiltshire's place names. I was the youngest person present by about 20 years, but still found it a fascinating discussion.

The speaker, local resident and prolific author Martyn Whittock, spent an hour or so explaining how place names can unlock all sorts of information about the history of a place and its people, and how modern attempts to decipher them can go wrong.

Here are my (hurriedly typed and edited) notes from the talk.

Place names are fossilised language. Unpack them to find out about past societies, up to 1000 years old.

The map has been overwritten many times. Place name study has boobytraps - place names are problematic for researchers. They suffer because people love to make sense of them, and in doing so obscure them. We like place names to make sense in our language, but the names themselves often originated in another language.

An example. There's a place called White Ox Mead, and it's easy to imagine that it was once a place where oxen grazed on luscious grass. But the name actually refers to a former owner of the land, my namesake, Whittocke. It was called "Whittocke's meadow", but over the centuries that was corrupted by speakers of later versions of English into "White Ox Mead".

So people's attempts to make sense of names often end up corrupting the names themselves.

Most names are Old English. We have lost the original meanings because Old English is, to us, a foreign language. Take a place like Quidhampton. Sounds quite nice today, but it derives from "home of the people famous for their cattle's dung".

Names have lost their meanings because language has changed.

Another example. Sugarhill sounds very sweet, but the "sugar" bit derives from an Old English word for assailant, so it really began as "Mugger's Hill". Doesn't sound so nice, does it?

Sometimes the place name has remained the same, without being corrupted, but the meaning of the word has disappeared. Codford is not a ford where cod were once found, but Codde's ford; Codde was an Old English personal name which is no longer found. Slaughterford is not named after a battle, but because it was where sloe trees were grown.

Names get fixed when they are written down. Many names were fixed in the Domesday Book, but remember that was written in abbreviated Latin by French invaders. Names got corrupted. The Ordnance Survey did the same thing for many minor place names when it was initiated 800 years later.

One surprising thing is how few Roman names have survived. There's a huge amount of physical evidence of the Roman occupation, but in percentage terms, only a tiny fraction of British placenames have Roman origins. There are conflicting theories to explain this. The one I subscribe to says that the Roman occupation only really directly affected the minority of the British people, the upper classes. For most people, the Romans were just the latest in a line of rulers and landlords, so when Rome collapsed, Roman placenames had little importance to most common folk.

Some Latin-sounding name elements were adopted by the Anglo Saxons, after Roman occupation, because they needed words to describe things they found in the British landscape that they had no word of their own for.

Remember the invading Saxons were from rural communities, they had no words to describe some of the more advanced urban aspects of Roman development.

In south Wiltshire there's a concentration of -font suffixes (Urchfont, Teffont, etc). We think these were Anglo Saxon attempts to use the Latin word fontana to explain Roman water features, like irrigation systems and aquaducts.

If there had been no Anglo Saxon settlement, we'd all be speaking Welsh, which is derived from the original British dialect.

Many place names, especially of hills and rivers, carry British names. The English word "welsh" was the Old English word for "foreigner" or "outsider". It was, at the time, a very insulting term to use. It survives in place names with a wal- element, such as Walcot ("the cottage of the foreigners").

In time, "welsh" was considered so insulting that a more polite term started to be used to describe the Welsh people, "cumber". This gives us place names like Cumbria and, locally, Cumberwell.

There are very few Norman-French place names. The Normans saw no need to re-name everything. The only one in Wiltshire is Devizes, for division or boundary.

The Anglo Saxons had 25 words for hill, 12 for wood, and 12 for valley. They were intimately connected with the landscape. Shows how disconnected we have become. They saw nuances, complications in the land, and used those as the basis for place names.

Some words for valley, for example:

denu - main valley cumb - bowl-shaped valley halh - nook slaed - short side-valley

There are lots of leahs, which means wood, and later "clearing". Such as Woolley, just up the road here, was "the clearing of the wolves".

Melksham is a great example of the confusion surrounding -ham suffixes. There were two separate Anglo Saxon words: "ham" meaning settlement, and "hamm" meaning watermeadow. Often, that second 'm' has disappeared. Melksham was "the water meadow famous for dairy products - milk hamm").

Names relate to geology too. There were two Anglo Saxon words for river, "brock" (our modern brook), and "burna" (the common -bourne suffix).

A burna, to an Anglo Saxon, was a chalk stream; typically wide, shallow, sparkly, with clear water.

A brock was a stream running through clay, which made it darker, murkier, usually deeper. Anglo Saxons spotted this kind of distinction, which we wouldn't make today. We'd just call them all a stream.

My favourite place name in Wiltshire is Pomeroy. It's a tiny little place, you can easily miss it. There's only a farm and one or two other buildings. Back in 1001, it was called Plumbaric, meaning "the fortified place where the plum trees grow", although there's no evidence of fortification there now. I like it because it seems as though it has remained largely unchanged for a thousand years. The English countryside is full of little details like this, small places that have remained essentially the same for an extraordinary amount of time.

(20th May 2004)