W. A Williamson.

Local etymology, or, Names of places in the British Isles and in other parts of the world explained & illustrated with notices of surnames and obsolete words online

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Online LibraryW. A WilliamsonLocal etymology, or, Names of places in the British Isles and in other parts of the world explained & illustrated with notices of surnames and obsolete words → online text (page 1 of 8)
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Printed by James Steel, Jovirnal Ofiicc,


The prevailing taste for mattera of antiquity in the pre-
sent day is, perhaps, the principal reason for the author's
taking up this subject. The fragmental evidence of past
times which the names of places afford, is the first step
in the inquiry ; and since, in all probability, as much is now
known of the ancient languages of Europe as ever will be
known, the subject can never be in a better state for investi-
tion. But etymological speculation has ever been accounted
vague and unsatisfactory, and so in some degi'ee it is ; never-
theless there are certain general principles belonging to it,
which are as capable of being conducted to rational conclu-
sions as those of any other subject. The author is, there-
fore, fully aware of the devious and uncertain nature of the
ground he treads, and though he often takes his own road,
he always first ascertains the direction in which it leads ;
that is, he avails himself of the best guides where necessary,
and when these fail he follows analogy, which is better



than weak precedent. And further, to avoid mistake and
misapprehension, no name is given in any language of which
the anthor is not himself, in some degree, a judge. The
ancient Celtic language with its dialects ; the Teutonic with
its branches ; Hebrew and those languages called classical,
are the ground-work of the design; but of such out-
landish names as Andes^ metal mountains ; Mississippi,
mother of waters ; Hydrdbad, Hyder's town, the author
knows nothing but what others say who profess to under-
stand the tongues in which they appear.

All names are printed in the English letter, for the greater
facility of pronunciation ; and particular attention has been
given to render the word so represented equivalent both in
sound and sense. Such a work in literature seems plainly
wanting to fill up the chasm that exists between operose
works on etymology and the wants of the common reader ;
— a handy depository of those antiquated, and recondite
matters which occasionally fall in every one's way in con-
versational intercourse. The author makes free use of all
comments and glosses that come in his way, to relieve and
illustrate his topics ; and that too without fearing to forego
the small measure of originality that is usually awarded to
works of this kind. For every one who makes a book
brings something of his own to the labour of others, and hav-
ing moulded the mass to the model in his own mind, he may


fairly lay claim to authorship, though it be indifferently

A principal object in a work of this kind is scholastic
precision, and this object has been present throughout ; yet,
after all, errors and oversights may, and probably do, exist
in so multitudinous a mass of verbal analysis as is here
brought together ; but the author hopes that all such will be
indulgently scanned in a popular exposition of an abstruse

Carlisle, June 1, 1849.


Local Etymology is speaking antiquity. For the names
of places were once words of common parlance, like those
now in use ; but becoming obsolete, through the people
using them becoming extinct, or antiquated, from the change
which time brings on things in common, they have lost
their place in the vocabulary of living words, and are now
mere terms, found only in the names of the places which
they designate. There, however, they are permanently writ-
ten — legible records of other peoples, speaking other lan-
guages, and inhabiting those places before the present
races ; and in every part of Europe there is thus a local
nomenclature, composed of tiie fragments of the languages
of its early inhabitants. Those early inhabitants can not
now easily be made out ; but a consideration of the ancient
names of places would lead us to the people called Celts^ celh\
chille, coille, woodmen, of whom the Irish or Celts proper,
the Welsh or Cymraeg, and the Highlanders or Gael, are thet
descendants — and who seem to be the first of mankind that
came into Europe. Of the Grecian Cadmus, we take little
notice ; that story has all the air of a fable, and so it reads


by interpretation. The name Cadmus is the oriental Ka-
dem^ the east, with a dassical termination ; Holek Kadmah^
towards the east, is the expression, Genesis ii., and 14 :
and the Cadmonites mentioned in chapter xv., were so
called because they dwelt in the eastern part of the country,
near mount Hermon. All the incidents of the story are
fabulous. Cadmus brings an alphabet from the east, which
signifies the elements of learning and civilization coming
originally from that part of the world, as all mankind are
now agreed, and he comes from a province of Palestine,
the birth-place of the human race, and he proceeds west-
wards, the direction of civilization, which completes the
allegory. The fable was beautifully imagined, serving
the two-fold purpose of making the Greeks the inventors
of letters and arts and the aborigines of their own country,
a thing they were particularly emulous of, and therefore
called themselves Autochthones^ autos-chthon, children of
the earth, and thence the name of their most famous state
Attica. To make out their claim to this antiquity, they
disguised in fable almost every thing they found before
them of history and philosophy ; many of their apologues,
like that of Pandora, are mere metamorphoses of ancient
records. These facts, together with those rising immediately
out of our subject, show that there were people and languages
in Europe before the Greeks had a literature, or even a na-
tional name. By reference to the source of all history, we
find people very early stirring and moving off in colonies ;
the story of Cadmus refers to a circumstance of this kind,
not to a person, and is therefore of general application in
the history and progress of society. The people driven from
Palestine, (Philistine,) by the Jews, migrated to various
parts of the world, as best suited them \ and a colony set-

ting out from that country, and keeping by the shores of
the Mediterranean— all migrating people keep by the sea —
would finally arrive at the land's end of Africa ; and thence,
passing the Straits of Gibraltar, come into Spain, Gaul,
and Britain. Indeed, such a route is on record. Proco-
pius and other historians mention certain monumental in-
scriptions found in that part of Africa, the ancient Mauri-
tania, now Algiers, purporting to be commemorative of the
arrival there of certain fugitives driven from their native
country in the wars of Moses and Joshua. This was the
probable ingress of the first inhabitants of Europe, the Celts ;
they might, therefore, be as properly styled Cadmus?
Kadem, as the Grecian, for they are eastern in customs and
national character.

Theu' priests too, the Druids, especially famous among
the Britons, were eastern both in name and religious rites.
The common appellative druid^ is of drushim, interpreters,
inquu'ers, of drusli^ translated " consulter," Dent. xvm.
11 ; and la-drush, " to seek," 2 Chron. xv. 12. So also
the oriental name Darius, asking, arises, as we are assured
by Herodotus, from the first Persian monarch of that name
inquiring concerning the neighing of a horse which was to
d'ecide the election to the throne. The Druids, thus a
colony of the ancient magi, brought with them all that
ritual of fire, stones, oak groves, and serpents, so common
in the east, in early ages, and so frequently mentioned in
the Bible. Many of their customs still remain in these
islands, as that of lighting bonfires on the hills at certain
seasons ; of passing cattle through flame to preserve them
from elf-shot and sporadics, now called need-fire, or neat-fire,
from nyten, cattle, and thus put in remembrance by Scott: —

" The ardent page with hurried hand,
Awak'd the need-Jire's slumh'ring hrand."


It was, therefore, subversive of all evidence of language,
and of tradition, to derive tlie name druid fi'om the Greek
drus^ an oals, because those ancient priests had that tree in
veneration ; and it was credulous to believe them Greeks,
from what Cassar is presumed to say of them, namely, that
they used Greeds Uteris^ Greek letters, since that expres-
sion is plainly a simple corruption or wilful interpolation of
crasis Uteris^ gi'oss or thick letters in the manner of the
eastern alphabets. In thus tracing the origin of the Druids,
we are at the same time noting the advent of the Celts to
Europe ; they are coeval, and are first mentioned together.
Much, therefore, of the early learning and civilization
ascribed to other nations belongs to the Celts. This is par-
ticularly noticed by Phurnutus, an old Greek, {Nat. Deo-
rum., cap. 17,) m the passage beginning " Tou de pollasy
" Of the many and various fables Avhicli the ancient Greeks
had about the Gods, some were derived from the magi,
some from the Egyptians, and some fi'om the Kelta^ Celts."
Hence, also, much of that language which we have been
accustomed to call classical has its origin in Celtic, as will
appear occasionally in the sequel.

But it is in the names of places that this old language
becomes most interesting ; for though many races succeeded
the aborigines, changing names and things to suit their own
views of conquest or possession, yet many of the ancient
names retain almost their original form. This is particu-
larly the case with those ancient and undisturbed features
of nature, mountains and rivers, and we shall here note a
few of each as the beginning of the inquiry. Alps., Celtic,
alp., a height, an eminence. Appoimes, ar-pen, ar being
an intensive particle enforcing the meaning, and pen, a
head. Plinlimmon, blacn-llyma, high bare, the bare height,
a mouDtain of Wales. Talhin., talcen, a brow; Ilelvellyn,


haul-felyn, sun-burnt, tlie sun-burnt hill ; Cowran^ cwm,
a spire, a pile ; Skiddmv, siad-dau, two tops, remarkable
for two peaks ; — mountains of Cumberland.

The Celtic language was very copious in expressing
the names of hills, according to their sizes, and forms ; as
dun^pen, cruach, mullach^ sliabh, tullach^ ard^ tora. This
last makes our old word torra^ once common, but now
grown quite obsolete. It forms the names of many hills
and mountains : Torpenliovi\ tora-pen-how, a group of
mountains in Cumberland. Tortliorwald^ tor-Thor-wald,
Thor's hill in the wald, Dumfries-shire. Tara, tora, a cele-
brated hill of Ireland ; Maghtury^ magh-tora, hill plain ;
and Im'store, inis-tora, hill island, in the same country.

This name gives origin to the celebrated political saw,
tojy^ which arose in Ireland, thus. On the ruin of Charles
the Fu'st's cause in that country, his followers, taking to the
mountains for safety, a practice still common in that country
with fugitives, were jibed in their native tongue, by their
political enemies with being tora, mountain-men, runaways ;
wherefore we find in Golius — " to?y, silvestris, montana^
avis, homo, et utrumque ullus hand ibi est."* "Sut this was
only a new application of an old word that had existed in
Ireland ages before, for certain robbers that kept the moun-
tains, the subject of many a tale and way-side adventure ;
and at the time in w^hich the word took its political turn,
1650, we find them mentioned as common annoyances to
the public. In the articles of the capitulation of Kilkenny,
signed by Cromwell, the third article, stipulating for the
evacuation of the town by the royal party, proceeds thus —
" that the said governor, with all the officers and soldiers

* The passage means that whatever inhahits mountains and woods
is a Tory.


under his command, in the said city and castle, shall march
out of the town, two miles distant, with their arms, and
with their drums beating, colours flying, and matches
lighted ; and there and then deliver up their said arms to
such as shall be appointed to receive them, except an hun-
dred muskets, and an hundred pikes allowed them for their
defence against the tones."

In like manner most rivers retain their ancient Celtic
names. Tyber^ tobair, a well, the famed river at Rome.
Tweedy taosac, chief, the principal river in Scotland, the
Roman Tuesis. Read^ rhead, a current, a river of Northum-
berland. Sivale^ swla, dirty, muddy, a river of Yorkshire.
Trent^ trent, force, violence, so named from the fall of the
current in this very crooked river. Severn^ sefyd-llyn,
stagnant-pool, which in some places, as about Shrewsbury,
is one of the most sluggish rivers in England. Liffy^ llif, a
flood, a river at Dublin. Shannon^ sean-nant, old brook,
so called from being said to be the first river that broke out
in Ireland after the creation. Gelt^ gallt, a rock, a little
rocky river of Cumberland, in which are " the written rocks
of Gelt." Caldew, called by the common people Cauda^
chwydd-aw, swelling-water, a river of the same county,
falling into the Eden, and remarkable for rising swiftly after
rain. Fyars, Gaelic /war, rapid, a little river celebrated in
characteristic terms by Burns : —

" Amang the heathy hUls, and rugged woods,
The roaring Fyars pours his mossy floods."

In Welsh, the term taf signifies a spread, expanse, as
of water ; and thence Tafe^ a river of Wales on which
is Landaff^ Llan-taf. The Welsh term wrjre signifies the
same thing ; and thence Wyre^ a river of Lancashire ; and
Wear, a river of Durham. The term tain means still the


same ; and thence Teign and Tijne^ the name of several
rivers of Britain.

In examining the ancient local names of Europe, we
find them in each of the three Celtic dialects, — Welsh,
Gaelic, and Irish ; and each of these setting np claims of
precedence. In general, the claims to high antiquity set up
by the Welsh, are well made out, by then* ancient customs,
and by the numerous primitive words in their tongue.
Among the latter we notice the word bara^ Hebrew, Jar,
bread, bread-corn, the origin of our old term in cookery,
bara-picklets^ cakes made of fine flour. This gi-ain is well
known as &ere, big, or old-fashioned barley ; the poet shews
its season : —

" Its wearin now on to the tail of May,
And just atween the 'beer-seed and the hay." — Ferguson.

This grain is first mentioned by this name in Dooms-
day Book, where an agricultural village or community is
called a Berwica, bere-wic, corn-town ; which term is still
acknowledged in English by berton, a farm as distinguished
from a manor, and by barton^ a farm -yard — the "barton
cock :" as places take the names of the things they produce,
so several places in England are called Berwick^ Berton^
and Barton.

A Welshman, moreover, calls himself Cymraeg^ Cim-
ber, Gomerite ; maintains that he is the ancient Briton ;
and points to the ancient local names in confirmation, and
to that of Cumberland in particular, as the patronjnnic of
his race.

" Among her mighty wilds and mountains, freed from fear,
And from the British race residing long time here,
Which in their genuine tongue themselves did Kimbri name,
Of Kimbri-land, the name of Cumberland, first came."

Drayton's Polyolbion.


It appears, however, that there are many ancient local
names in this country that cannot be traced to the Welsh
tongue. For instance, the word uisce, uiske, water, and
from which we have our common term whisky^ is not in the
Welsh tongue, but peculiar to Gaelic and Irish, yet making
the names of many places in all parts of Britain. Thus
Usk^ uisc^, a river of Wales, on which is the town of that
name ; Esky a river of Yorkshire, one of Cumberland, and
one of Scotland ; and the English rivers Exe^ Ouse^ and Isis.
Kow, had this word uisce ever been in the Welsh tongue, it
could not easily be lost ; and its absence there, yet making
the names of so many places in the island, raises a doubt,
after all, as to who were the " Ancient Britons."

To the Celts in Europe, succeeded many other nations,
as the Teutones^ thuath-duine, northmen ; the Germans^
wehrmanner, warriors ; and the Saxons^ sassens, settlers,
all giving names to place, in their own way, and their own
language ; and thus the subject of local etymology presents
a motley mass of verbal miscellany. Local names, how-
ever, always arise from one common principle, namely,
some quality or circumstance of the place ; and with this
guide, we proceed with a general view of the subject.

Local names arise from the nature and disposition of
ground. A plain level space the Saxons called asmoethe,
smooth, whence the names of many places in England, in
the form smeth and smith ; as Smetham^ smooth-ham, the
name of two villages of Yorkshire ; Smithwick, smoethe-wic,
Cheshire ; and Smithfidd^ smooth field, tiie celebrated
cattle market in London.

A naked and barren piece of ground was called a hare^
from which arose our old term bare, a bowling-green. So
Barham^ bare-ham, Essex ; Barley^ bare-leag, leag^ a field,


a town of Herts ; Barrock^ bare-rock, Cumberland. In
Id names this word becomes beria^ berry ^ and even bury ;
for Matthew Paris shows that *S'^. Edmundsbury^ SntFolk, is
so named from the beria^ bare, or open plain around it.

Local names arise from the general appearance or aspect
of the place. The old word shene^ shining, signifies a place
of beauty and freshness. Whence Shenton^ shene-tun, a vil-
lage of Salop ; Shenhampton^ shene-ham-tun, a village of
Gloucester ; Senhouse, shene-house, a surname. Skene,
the old name of Richmond-on-Thames, so called from its
verdant beautv, and the most charming of rural poets ap-
proves the title : —

" ' or ascend,

While radiant summer opens all its pride,
Thy hill, delightful Skene."

Local names arise from climate. So Buenos Ayres,
good au- ; Wether al., a high standing village of Cumberland,
is weather-hill, exposed ; and so also Wetherly, Lincoln, and
Wetherby, Yorkshire. The word weather, originally weder,
signifies storm, and therefore Waterford, a part of Ireland,
is weder-fiord, storm bay, so named by the Danes. So too,
Scotia^ Scotland, from the Greek Skotos, dark, gloomy, dark-
ness and gloom being the characteristics of its mountain
regions in all time. Etymologists have, indeed, sought a
higher origin of this name — in Scytfaa, and in Pharoah's
daughter Scota^ but all with no satisfactory issue. The
Scots, as a colony of the Scythians, have been brought from
Ireland — a circumstance which the Roman poet Claudian
commemorates : —

cum Scotus Hihernem

Movit, et infesto, spumavit remige thetis."

" When /Scots came thund'ring from the Irish shore,
And ocean trembled, struck with hostile oar."


It would, however, take a prodigious deal of reading
and reasoning to confirm any of these conjectm-es. Mac-
pherson, the sturdiest of the Scottish antiquaries, altogether
denies the Scythic-Irlsh descent ; and there are several other
reasons against those theories. The ancient native name of
the country is Caledonia^ coille-dun, wood-hill country.
The ancient British name is Alban^ that is upland; whence
Bradalbane^ braidd-alban, extremity of Alban, the boundary
cf the ancient Aibanii. Lastly, the country took the name
of Scotia only in the beginning of the third century, a time
when countries were likely to change their ancient names
for classical ones ; that is, after the Greek and Roman navi-
gators, geographers, and historians had written and specu-
lated on the several countries of Europe.

Places take names from natural productions. Thus,
Octon^ Oak-town. Stepneij^ Stibenhede, Stephens'-heath.
Salcy Forest^ Northamptonshire, is Sallow Forest, where
the willows grow. Ashbij-de-la-Zouch, French, seche, dry,
the dry ash, is a town of Leicestershire. Perth, Celtic-
Welsh, perth, a bush, the country of bushes. Drone, Celtic
draen, a thorn, ancient village of Scotland. Elmley, elm-
leag, elm-field, Salop. The Latin of elm being ulmus, and
the Greek, ptelea, we have Pteleum, an ancient city of
Greece described as so called, a copia idmorum, — from the
abundance of elms. Kilkeel, Celtic-Irish, Chille-ceal,
flower wood, a town of Ii-eland. The place of the first
vineyard in Britain is still called Vine. A particular kind of
smooth stone called by the Saxons haen, from which is our
word hone, a razor-stone, gives name to all the Hanlcys and
Henleys in England. Ampthill, Bedfordshire, is the Saxon
ampt, ant, emmet, an ant-hill. The old name for a rabbit,
coney, gives name to Conishy, Cunningham, and the several


Tkwaite, Bumthwaite, biirn-thwaite ; Moorthivaite, moor-
tliwaite, and otlicr places in Cumberland. Tkivaite, a town
of Sussex ; and Tluiydtes^ a surname.

Land let out in grazing was called gis-ground^ the
custom agistment^ and tlie person letting it gist-taker ; all of
theFrencli gite^ and the older form giste^ a bed, a lair, where
cattle lay out during the season. Hence the names of
many places : Gistham^ glste-ham, Suffolk ; Gisborn^ Gis-
borough, towns of Yorkshire ; Nether- Gitting^ Temple-
Gating^ Gloucester.

Land burnt, and dried, was called sart^ seared, of the
Saxon verb searan, to burn : " seared as with a hot iron/'
says Paul ; " The sere and yellow leaf," says Shakespeare.
Places in a dry and parched situation, or expopcd to the
sun, were expressed by the same word. AVhence many
local names : Sart, a village of Ilerefordshu'e ; Sarum,
sere-ham, Wilts, on a dry hill ; Salisbury^ formerly Searis-
byrig, the new town in a valley.

Land lying lee or in grass, Saxon, griss, gives name to
several places. The old word gratton, is a contraction of
gi'ass-town, and thence Gratton, griss-tiin, a village of
Northamptonshire; and Gretna, the same, a village of
Dumfriesshire ; and the surname Grattan. GrrxecJmrch,
London, is grass-church, being the site of an ancient grass-

Land laid up in fallow, Saxon faleive, pale red, from
the colour, gives name to many places : Falloicfield, Nor-
thumberland ; Tup-Fallow, Somerset. With the country
people, the word h faugh, as in Ferguson's Pastorals : —

"You saw yersel how weel my mailin thrave,
Ay better /augr/i'd, and snodit than the lave."

So Faugh, a village of Cumberland, cast of Carlisle.


Any part of land laid up in reserve was called a hain-
ing^ a saving ; hain being an old form of the verb have, as
said of the gudedame's cheese : —

" The damfe brings forth in complimental mood,
To grace the lad, her weel-/iam'd feebbuck fell."

So the names of several places. Haining^ an ancient
hamlet of Cumberland ; Foxleyliennmg^ in the west of the
same county; and '^ Haimri's valiant Will," Eoxburgh-

Places take name from particular kinds of land mea-
sures. A wang was a large indefinite tract of ground, or
open field ; a wliang^ a lump, a slash of any thing. Hence
Wingjield, wang-field ; Wetwang, Herts ; and the numerous
places in Germany called Wange?i. A hide was as much
as a yoke of oxen could cultivate in a year, — what could
be taken out of their hide. Hence the several places in
England called Hide and Hi/de. The carncate was also a
plough-land, of the French charrue^ a plough ; a term which
we often find mentioned in old writings, and thence the
several places called Caraie^ and Currig : and Currick^ a
hamlet in the vicinity of Carlisle.

A stang^ originally meaning a pole, signifies also a land
measure, and is thus defined in Sir Henry Piers' Descrip-
tion of Westraeath: — "They usually divide a field into
acres, half acres, and stangs, that is, roods." Hence seve-
ral local names : Garstang, garth stang, a town of Lanca-
shire ; Mellerstang.1 the miller's stang, a village of Wes -

Tlie tath was another agrarian measure, containing
sixty acres, as noted in Sir John Davis' Survey of L-eland.
— " That every bally betagh, which signifies in the Irish
tongue a town-land, contains sixteen tatlis^ and Qxavy tath


sixty acres English, or thereabouts." So the local names
Tatliam^ tath-ham ; Tefhury*

Local names arise from the divisions and boundaries.
Thus, Shire^ of scyre^ to divide, separate, is the common
termination of counties — Downsliire^ Devonshire; Shire-
stones separating Cumberland from Lancashire. This word
had the figurative sense of separating liquors by decant-

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Online LibraryW. A WilliamsonLocal etymology, or, Names of places in the British Isles and in other parts of the world explained & illustrated with notices of surnames and obsolete words → online text (page 1 of 8)