HOO KAME, WHAA FIELD, AND THE SLITHERS.

I’m fond of strange and amusing place names (see, for instance, this post), and there’s a magnificent crop of them at Dull Flag and Tongue of Gangsta: The Laugh-out-loud Place-names of Shetland and Orkney, a Strange Maps post by Frank Jacobs (see here):

These two maps, both produced by Steve Goldman, show the place names in both groups of islands that he considers strange. “I’ve loved place names on Orkney and Shetland since I was a kid. They are by turns surreal, beautiful, nonsensical, rude, and bizarre… There seems to be no consistency to them at all”, says Goldman. “I’ve done some online research to try to find their derivation, but there seems to be little out there”.
Indeed, apart from Mr. Goldman’s suggestion to recycle some toponyms as band names (Whirly would be a good indie band, Brethren could be a bearded folk quartet, and Twisting Nevi a dance act, etc), there seems to be little sense to be made from Orkney/Shetland place names, except to enjoy them as mellifluous bizarrery per se.

Go thither and enjoy the mellifluous bizarrery!

Comments

  1. What is it about clusters of odd names? West Virginia/Eastern Kentucky, Newfoundland, Shetland/Orkney… The blame for Newfoundland’s saucy names (Dildo, Tickle, Spread Eagle) apparently belongs to Cook’s expedition. The others seem to be due to divine inspiration, an odd miasma, or both.
    Bill Bryson, in Notes from a Small Island, has a page discussing funny British place names. I can never finish that page because I’m laughing so hard.

  2. Place names can be pressed into extra service as Douglas Adams and John Lloyd found. Those not familiar with ‘The Meaning of Liff’ can see it here: http://folk.uio.no/alied/TMoL.html

  3. I quite like White Stane Of Willies. It only seems to be about three or four houses. Shetland doesn’t really have reputation for this sort of thing, does it? It’s beginning to sound like Provincetown or Fire Island.

  4. I noticed a couple of place names featuring “Hellig” and “Hell” – could these betray a Norse origin to at least some of the names?

  5. Shetland was owned by Norway until 1468, and a Norse dialect called Norn was spoken there until about the 18th century. So you would expect a lot of the placenames to have a Norse origin. The spelling system could well be a local product though. But Mr. Jacob seems to be unfamiliar with some very common Scots words as well. “Lums of the Sound” is a descriptive and straightforward name; you could almost visualize the place just from the name. He spells it incorrectly though.
    He gets “segue” and “segway” mixed up too.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Y : I can never finish that page because I’m laughing so hard.
    Start from the bottom.

  7. Isn’t “snoring” from Norse as well?

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Many of these names or name elements, but far from all, are transparently Norse: Hellier, Flae, Bister, Yell, Voe, How, Mire, Gangsta, Scar, Tonga, Ness, Stane, Was-, Muckle-, Grim- etc. etc.

  9. dearieme says:

    What does “Scar” mean, Trond? I ask because whenIwasalad and went out on a trawler, a scaur (pronounced “scawr”) in the upper Solway was part of the sea bed that was rocky, as opposed to the usual sandy or muddy bottom.

  10. Jeg skar means I cut, but you have the same word for a ravine in English, dearie. Do you know James Ward’s painting of Gordale Scar, in Yorkshire? It’s in the Tate, it’s a huge picture. I’ve been there, it’s not half so scar-y in Real Life.

  11. Turner did one too. And Wordsworth wrote a poem about it. I’m not sure why it suddenly became so popular in the early 19C and then got forgotten about again, but I’ve no doubt Christianity is in there somewhere.

  12. Start from the bottom.
    m-l, ever logical. And if necessary start in the middle.

  13. m-l:
    I tried that, but I couldn’t keep my balance while upside down. Especially not when laughing.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    A skar, as Crown says, a ravine, but that can’t be it. There’s a related skòr “cut, carving” with many meanings, e.g “counting mark” (borrowed into English as ‘score’) and “step in a staircase”, also toponymic: “ravine, terrace”, that might be a better semantic fit. But it seems to me that it has to be a form of sker, modern No. skjær, “skerry, rock at sea”. But I don’t like the vowel.

  15. dearieme says:

    It’s hard to represent the vowel I knew (and also hard to be certain that I remember it correctly – my memory is patchy, to say the least). I’d say that it was part way between “scawr” and ordinary English “scar”.

  16. My first “toponym.”

  17. Rodger C says:

    @Trond Engen: Long ago I read that Yell (the toponym) is of obscure origin and may be from the ghostly language known technically as “Pictish or Atecottic or some damn thing.”
    @Y: As for WV/E KY names, one of my favorite road signs is one near my residence that announces the proximity of Dwarf and Rowdy.

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I think part part the explanation of the weird place names in Shetland is the tremendous number of places that need to be named. I read years ago (I thought it was in a book by George Stewart, but all his books that I can find on Amazon seem to be about American place names, so probably it was somewhere else) that Shetland has the highest density of place names of anywhere in the world, so that just about every identifiable feature of every field has its own name. If that is true then they were bound to run out of ordinary names very quickly, so they needed to be inventive.

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    One of my favorite road signs is one near my residence that announces the proximity of Dwarf and Rowdy
    Somewhere near Stirling there is a road sign that points to Stirling in one direction and Dollar in another. I saw a photograph of it once.
    More parochially (as it will leave anyone who is not a biochemist with an interest in the history of the subject completely unimpressed) there is a road sign in New South Wales that points to Harden in one direction and Young in another.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    Rodger C.: Long ago I read that Yell (the toponym) is of obscure origin and may be from the ghostly language known technically as “Pictish or Atecottic or some damn thing.”
    Oh, I thought I saw gjel “gorge”. Doing toponymics without a topographical map is a risky undertaking. I may just have to go upstairs and find my maps of Shetland and Orkney.

  21. Athel: This is pretty characteristic of aboriginal settlers: the Indians of California similarly named every curve in every creek in their territories with names meaningful to them, and most features around Boonville have or had Boontling names (of course, Boonts weren’t actually aborigines, but they were in a similar situation anent nomenclature). In Shetland, as in Iceland, there has never been any replacement of the population, so all the names are still remembered, if perhaps not in daily use.

  22. “One of my favorite road signs is one near my residence that announces the proximity of Dwarf and Rowdy
    Somewhere near Stirling there is a road sign that points to Stirling in one direction and Dollar in another. I saw a photograph of it once.”
    There’s a similar pair of road signs in Southland, New Zealand pointing to Clinton and Gore.

  23. Rodger C says:

    @Trond Engen: Yell is an island, and its Norse name is given as either Jála or Ála. This looks to me as if it might have been borrowed as Jála, changed to Ála via the well-known loss of initial /j/, then reborrowed as Jála once the combination became permissible again.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Rodger C: Yell is an island
    Oh, yeah, I should have remembered that.
    It made me wonder how á could become short e, so I looked ir up. According to my ON dictionary it’s Jala, not Jála. There’s also Jali m. “Yell Sound”. Then one thing took the other. For both Jala and Jali the dictionary gives reference to the þulur and to G. Nedrebø’s 1929 Stadnamn fraa Oslofjorden. I don’t have access to that, but it has to be to a discussion of Jeløya. The Norwegian WP entry gives the ON name as Jalund or Jölund. It doesn’t refer to Nedrebø for the origin, but it does say that Bjorvand and Lindeman attribute the name to PNorse *elundu “foam, surf” &lt PGmc *elwund- &lt PIE h1el-. That’s probably also the origin of él “shower (cold and windy if I’m not mistaken)”.
    Ála is glossed as “an island” and the reference is also to the þulur. As it stands there are decent Norse etymologies for it. Is it certain that it’s referring to Yell?
    Interestingly, the entry between Jala and Jali is Jalangrsheiðr “Jelling heath”. That’s hard to reconcile with “surf”.

  25. Somewhere in Massachusetts there’s a highway sign for Sandwich and Mashpea that I remembered mostly because those two things should not go together. Nonetheless, I came across a recipe for mashed pea sandwiches in Bon Appetit a few months ago.

  26. Rodger C says:

    @Trond Engen: I haven’t seriously looked at this question for going on forty years, and my memory of the exact sources is vague. No doubt you’re right that it’s Norse.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    I’m not that sure it’s Norse. And if it is, it’s very different from what I first thought.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    I do e.g. find Jali m. for the Yell Sound somewhat disturbing. A root meaning “breaking waves” or “sudden wind” or some such is fine, but the derivation as a masculine byname is unusual.

  29. Or “sudden waves”, or (of course) “breaking wind”.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Helly-Hansen Windbreaker.

  31. As many will already know, in east Kent, England you can find rural road signs that point one way to Ham and the other way to Sandwich.

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