Magazine article The Spectator

Old Baghdad in Hertfordshire

Magazine article The Spectator

Old Baghdad in Hertfordshire

Article excerpt

Old Baghdad in Hertfordshire THE CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH PLACE NAMES edited by Victor Watts CUP, £175, pp. 713, ISBN 0521362091

Who would have thought of Harrow as 'the heathen temple' or suburban Penge as Celtic pen ced, 'head of the wood"? This new dictionary, the better part of 20 years in the making, re-enchants the prosaic and gives historical resonance to the timelessly English. We are reminded of the mixed Celtic, Roman, Scandinavian, Germanic and other roots of what came to be England, and given Continental and Indo-European parallels for English place-names. It tells the history of the landscape and of those who owned and worked on it, and is an invaluable companion to books like W. G. Hoskins's classic Making of the English Landscape and Oliver Rackham's History of the English Countryside.

Take names of British Celtic origin. Catterick, for instance, appears in Ptolemy's Greek (c. 150) as Katouraktonion, from the British 'place of the battle ramparts' (not, as used to be thought, 'cataract'), while Kent, Cantium in Caesar, is 'corner land' or 'edge land' and Berkshire derives ultimately from Brit, barraco, 'hilly' (viz. the B. Downs). Branodunum, from Brit, bran, 'raven', or the mythological hero Bran, becomes Brancaster, 'Roman fort where broom grows' (cf. Brandon), while Creake (Norf.) is primitive Welsh creig, 'rock', a witness to the former presence of the British (called Welsh, 'foreigners', by the English) throughout the land.

Churchill (Devon, Oxon, Worcs) is from pr.W. crug, 'hill' - in effect, 'hill hill' rather than 'church hill' (the English were not to know what 'crug' meant, and heard it simply as a place-name). A close parallel is Chetwode (Bucks), 'wood wood', from pr.W. ced, seen also in Chatham. British river-names include Brent (Gtr. Lon.), 'holy river', Dee (Ches.), 'goddess' (Deua), Ock (Oxon), 'salmon river' (W. eog) and Mite (Cumb.) from root meigh, 'to urinate'. It is nice to know that the river Rye (N. Yor.) may share the same root as the Rhine, and the Don (Brit. Danu) as the Danube, while Wilton on the Wylye may be related to Vilnius on the Vilia.

Isolated remnants of British populations can be seen in names like Saffron Walden, 'valley of the Welshmen', Waltonon-Thames, and Walmer. Swaffham is 'homestead of the Swabians', while other tribal names are seen in Hitchin, 'the Hicce', and Uxbridge, 'bridge of the Wixan' ('Village People'). Irish connections appear in Malmesbury, from the monastery's founder Maildub. …

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