Which Suffolk place is haunted by fairies? And where’s the ‘valley of the women’ in Essex?
Elveden, near Bury St Edmunds, might well mean a valley haunted by elves or fairies, and Spexhall in north Suffolk comes from the Old English for ‘nook of land frequented by the green woodpecker’. Steven Russell meets an expert on the origins of place-names
DAVID Mills hails from the Worksop area. As a lad he’d often cycle to Sherwood Forest and to historic places such as Nottingham and Lincoln, so it’s little surprise he developed a firm interest in the past. He was also fascinated by the strange place-names he encountered during his rides. “There was a place called Clowne, for instance, and Tickhill, which was just up the road from me. I went to school at Retford, which was on the River Idle. And of course Worksop itself is a very curious name. I knew there were things called milksops [weak and not-very-brave men], so perhaps the name wasn’t very nice! I think I also knew that Nottingham was once called Snotingeham!”
David went on to university and became a medievalist – and later wrote books on the origins of place-names in Dorset, the Isle of Wight and London.
Twenty years ago came A Dictionary of English Place-Names. In 2003 A Dictionary of British Place-Names extended the reach. Now a revised and updated edition explores the meanings of more than 17,000 towns and villages and discovers how they reflect our past: the invasions and settlements of the Celts (Dover, for instance), Anglo-Saxons (Reading, say) and Vikings (Lowestoft), as well as the Norman Conquest (Battle) and more recent historical events (Waterloo).
There are about 200 new entries, including some exotic additions (such as Botany Bay and Lilliput) alongside the unusual and curious (Boot, Crackpot, Flash, Old Wives Lees, Pant, Pennycomequick and Wham)!
The sad thing about place-names, says David, is that we tend to take them for granted – simply because we see and hear them all the time. “Yet the place-names of the British Isles are as much part of our cultural heritage as the various languages, historical events and landscapes from which they spring, and almost every place-name has an older original meaning behind its modern form.” They reflect “the most astonishing linguistic richness and diversity”. It’s a complicated picture. Old English names predominate in much of England but there are significant examples of Scandinavian (Old Danish and Old Norse) in the north, north-west and east; there’s Cornish, a sprinkling of Norman-French, Latin (a bit) and ancient Celtic.
For the layman, it’s something of a minefield. Because most place-names are essentially linguistic fossils – 1,000 years old or more – their original meanings are often obscure and what we see can never be taken at face value.
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Easter, for instance, means “the sheep-fold”, while Slaughter is “the muddy place” and Swine “the creek or channel”.
Locally, the village of Gipping, near Stowmarket, is often linked with Ipswich in terms of name, says David. “But it never was.”
He acknowledges it’s a tempting theory, since the River Gipping becomes the Orwell and so in a sense the Gipping goes on to flow through Ipswich.
It’s a logical thought, but faulty.
“The misunderstanding there will probably be that in the very early spellings of Ipswich there are spellings with a G. But, in the Anglo-Saxon language, the G could represent both the hard ‘guh’ and the so-called soft ‘yuh’. Ipswich was never Gipswich” – as in the hard pronunciation – “it was always ‘Yipswich’.
“You can’t blame people for interpreting names in this way. It’s a natural thing to want to make sense of something.” His book says Gipping comes from the Old English for a settlement of the family or followers of a man called Gyppi or Gyppa.
Up in north Suffolk is Herringfleet. David imagines many people might suspect the name is linked with fish and fishing-boats, particularly with nearby Lowestoft long dependent on the sea and its resources.
“But, once you trace it back, you find the fleet bit (fleot)is an old word for a creek or stream, and the first part is ‘the family or followers of a man called Herela’ – an Old English name.
“It’s quite a nice, clean etymology, based on that early spelling in Domesday Book (Herlingaflet) and has nothing to do with herrings or fishing boats.”
The fact it looks like a couple of modern words fused together is simply a . . . well . . . red herring.
It’s no surprise we can get caught out, seeing that most place-names are more than 1,000 years old and have seen their spellings alter with the passage of time.
The Roman occupation of the first four centuries AD left little mark on place-names, explains David. “Latin was mainly the official written language of government and administration, rather than the spoken language of the countryside.”
The Anglo-Saxon conquest and settlement of Britain from the 5th Century brought Germanic tribes whose language we now call Old English. “It is in this language that the great majority of the place-names now in use in England were coined.”
The country saw the Scandinavian invasions of the 9th, 10th and 11th Centuries – which left their linguistic marks – and then came the Norman Conquest: which had a surprisingly weak effect. There’s a legacy in terms of the popularity of some personal names, such as William, but most English place-names were well-established by the 11th Century.
In Suffolk we’ve got a few French-influenced villages: such as Boulge near Woodbridge (from the Old French word bouge, for uncultivated land covered with heather).
In the past David has conducted exhaustive surveys of Dorset place-names, even investigating the name of every field. He confesses the outcome of that period of work was very academic.
“I resolved at an early stage that I wanted to tell the more general reader, if you like, about this subject; and this is, I suppose, the philosophy behind my dictionary.
“It seemed to me that it was important to get the results of this rather rarefied research into the public arena and let the general reader know what the names they are surrounded by mean and where they came from.”
Are there any names that continue to fox the experts’ determined efforts to uncover their provenance?
“There are still a few that defy interpretation. Often there is some doubt about the origin of a name.
“You’ve probably seen in my book that the words ‘probably’ and ‘possible’ and ‘perhaps’ turn up quite a lot! That is because there’s a degree of uncertainty about the interpretation of a name.
“The earlier spellings are sometimes not as good as you’d hope they would be. You can get corruptions. It happened in Domesday Book, for instance, when the scribes – who were Norman; French-speaking – tried to get their head round English/Anglo-Saxon place-names and you can see them struggling to interpret them.”
Ellough in north Suffolk – Old English roots in ealh, known as Elga in 1086 and Elgh 200 years later – is one of those about which he’s a touch guarded. David says the etymology is uncertain, but it could possibly be “(place at) the heathen temple”.
He doesn’t know if Ellough has ever been examined by archaeologists, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere roundabout lie the remains of a heathen temple – possibly with Christian churches having been built over the site in subsequent years.
That was the case with Harrow in Greater London, whose name refers to a heathen shrine or temple.
One of my favourites is rural Spexhall, near Halesworth: from the Old English for “nook of land frequented by the green woodpecker”. It’s such a bucolic image.
“Yes. When you interpret some of these names you almost end up with a line of poetry, says David.
“The best example of this, I think, is Croydon. We used to live quite close to Croydon before we moved here. We’ve only been in Suffolk a year and a half, actually. Croydon has grown enormously and has become full of traffic and people, and big high-rise developments – a lot of office blocks, where banks have moved from the City of London.
“The interpretation of Croydon is ‘valley where wild saffron grows’.”
That’s lovely. Bet one can’t find much of it now in urban south London. He chuckles. “No, probably not.”
The first element comes from a word linked to “crocus” – Croydon was Crogedene in 809 and Croindene by the time of Domesday Book. “Don” usually refers to a hill, but sometimes the spelling changes over time. In this case the important early word is denu, for “valley”.
David and wife Solvejg have long loved Suffolk, often holidaying in Aldeburgh and having friends in the county. One of their daughters – who had worked as a teacher – and her family moved to Suffolk two or three years ago and now runs Polstead Camping and Caravanning Club.
“We decided it would be nice to move out of our London suburb, Bromley, into the country,” he says, “and we absolutely love it.
“Suffolk is a quite wonderful county. We love the landscape. My wife is Danish and the landscape in a way reminds us of the very prettiest parts of Denmark.”
The couple live between Lavenham and Hadleigh.
“One rather nice aspect of Suffolk place-names for us is that there were Vikings here, in the 9th and 10th Centuries. Just up the road is Bildeston, for instance (which comes from the Old Scandinavian for “farmstead of a man called Bildr”) and Kettlebaston (farmstead of Ketilbjorn).
“It’s tickled us a little bit that there were Danes here over 1,000 years ago – long before Solvejg arrived!”
A Dictionary of British Place Names is published by Oxford University Press at �10.99
DAVID Mills read English at University College London, specialising in medieval English and the history of the English language.
His first job was as assistant to Professor AH Smith, the foremost authority on the origins and meanings of English place-names and director of The Survey of English Place Names.
“As his research assistant I went into record offices; I read dusty medieval documents, fishing out the recorded instances of place-names for his books. He was writing at the time on the names of Gloucestershire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, and I travelled back and forth.”
In about 1960 David started his own detailed survey, on the place-names of Dorset – “in many ways my life’s work”. It was done under the umbrella of The Survey of English Place Names, established in 1923 by the English Place Name Society.
“In England, we’re lucky because we’ve got mountains of early documentation. We have manuscripts going back to the Anglo-Saxon period; we have Domesday Book; we have thousands of medieval records in the public record offices and the museums.
“The material is rich and it’s possible to trace back the names of fields and even woods and streams. Field names can be 1,000 years old and tell us a lot about early agriculture.”
David became a university teacher and spent some years at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He later taught at Queen Mary (college), part of the University of London.
“I am a medievalist. I taught Anglo-Saxon language and literature, and courses in the history and development of the English language.”
What we spoke and when
Old English about 450-1100
Middle English about 1100-1500
Early modern English about 1500-1650
Our picturesque past
Some local place-name origins drawn from A Dictionary of British Place Names
Babergh: Baberga from Doomsday Book. Mound of a man called Babba.
Copdock near Ipswich: Coppedoc in 1195. Pollarded oak-tree; ie oak-tree with its top removed
Eye: Eia in Domesday Book. Place at the island, or well-watered land, or dry ground in marsh
Goldhanger, near Maldon: Goldhangra in 1086. Probably wooded slope where marigolds or other yellow flowers grow
Haverhill: Hauerhella in Domesday Book. Probably hill where oats are grown. ‘Alternatively the first element may be Old English haefer, a he-goat’
Jaywick Sands: Clakyngeywyk in 1438 and Gey wyck in 1584. Probably Middle English jay (the bird). Originally clacking (chattering) jay, from Middle English clacken (to chatter)
Kersey: Caeresige in 995 and Careseia in 1086. Island (of higher ground) where cress grows
Mistley: Mitteslea in 1086, Misteleg in 1225. Probably wood or clearing where mistletoe grows
Orwell, the Suffolk river: Arewan in the 11th Century; Orewell in 1341. An ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic river name (probably meaning ‘swift one’) to which the Old English word wella (stream) has been added
Quendon, north of Stansted Airport: Kuenadana in Domesday. Probably ‘valley of the women’
Snape: From Old English snaep for a boggy piece of land or the Old Scandinavian snap for poor pasture
Great and Little Waldingfield, near Sudbury: Waeldingafeld in about 995 and Waldingefelda at Domesday. Open land of the forest-dwellers