Iona.

I came across a reference to the island of Iona, looked it up, and in that Wikipedia article discovered some startling information about its name (I’ve bolded the startling part):

The earliest forms of the name enabled place-name scholar William J. Watson to show that the name originally meant something like “yew-place”. The element Ivo-, denoting “yew”, occurs in Ogham inscriptions (Iva-cattos [genitive], Iva-geni [genitive]) and in Gaulish names (Ivo-rix, Ivo-magus) and may form the basis of early Gaelic names like Eogan (ogham: Ivo-genos). It is possible that the name is related to the mythological figure, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, foster-son of Manannan, the forename meaning “man of the yew”.

Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì, Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is “generally lengthened to avoid confusion” to the second, which means “Calum’s (i.e. in latinised form “Columba’s”) Iona” or “island of Calum’s monastery”. The possible confusion results from “ì”, despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply “island”. Eilean Idhe means “the isle of Iona”, also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach (“the isle of beautiful women”). The modern English name comes from an 18th-century misreading of yet another variant, Ioua, which was either just Adomnán’s attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova (“yew place”). Ioua’s change to Iona results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of “n” and “u” in Insular Minuscule.

For some reason (probably having to do with my work as an editor) it irritates me when words get changed in this way, whereas ordinary sound change, even via analogy or folk etymology, doesn’t bother me at all. (See this 2003 post for another example, the verb collimate.)

Comments

  1. Also syllabus.

  2. Iona was once known as the Isle of Hye (= Ì), or Hy-Columbkill (an Anglicised version of Ì Chaluim Chille).

  3. A map of mine including Iona once came back from a university press’s cartographic department reading “Iowa.”

  4. Eli Nelson says:

    This kind of change gets on my nerves as well! A funny intentional example is the use of “keming” (k e m i n g) to refer to bad kerning (k e r n i n g), since “rn” and “m” are well-known to be easily confusable in some typefaces. For unintentional examples, there’s “ye” as in “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,” which is a misreading of thorn. A systematic example is the use of “z” instead of yogh in Scots names like “Mackenzie.”

  5. A map of mine including Iona once came back from a university press’s cartographic department reading “Iowa.”

    A mistranscription that accidentally corrected the earlier mistranscription!

  6. Also in Scotland: the Grampian mountains were a typo of Graupian.

  7. “ì”, despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply “island”.

    Not sure I understand this part — the word for “yew” came to mean “island”?

    In any case, the Hebrew for “island” is also i, which I’m sure has been used as fodder for Semito-Celtic contact theories.

  8. There’s an interesting discussion of the various names of Iona here (including the yew question, possible Norse origin, and putative Semitic connections).

  9. Trond Engen says:

    If there’s no trace of yew ever growing on the island, that etymology is obviously nonsense.

    If I could be an Irish adaptation of ON ey, then Idhe looks like an adaptation of eyði “desolate”.

  10. After 150 years’ absence, the misreading of minims has returned with a vengeance in OCRed bootleg copies of printed matter; as I noted elsewhere, the (fictional) placename Vindium appears in one such work as Vmdmm.

    I am myself much more a man of the yew than any grandson of a sea-god.

    The OE for ‘island’ was ieg > ModE island (the s is from isle and doesn’t belong there).

  11. …use of “z” instead of yogh in Scots names like “Mackenzie.”

    and Dalziel, too (which always looked faux-biblical to me.)

  12. There wis a young lassie named Menzies,
    That askit her aunt whit this thenzies.
    Said her aunt wi a gasp,
    “Ma dear, it’s a wasp,
    An you’re haudin the end whaur the stenzies!”

  13. Wow, that’s pretty weird – I just opened Languagehat site at the moment when I was thinking about spellings of the name “Iona”. But not a geographic name – rather, a personal name.
    I was going through a bunch of loosely connected genealogical trees including one hanging branch starting with Iona Shmulevich Gonikberg, born in Odessa in 1903, a decorated WWII veteran. Then I spotted a record of his likely brother, Iosif, b. 1909, MIA in WWII. And a fellow history aficionado from Odessa found a record of Yoyzen Shmul-Aaronovich Gonikberg, who was killed in October 1905 in the bloodiest of Odessa pogroms, when the monarchists, enraged after the Royal Manifesto promising restrictions of Russia’s hitherto-absolute monarchy and blaming the Jews for such a disgrace, killed over 400 Jews over the course of 3 days of state-sponsored rioting.
    Now the shape of the root of the emerging tree would depend on equivalency between the names Yoyzen and Joseph or Iona. If Yoyzen was ~~ Joseph that he must be the grandfather of the two WWII fighters (because in the Jewish custom, the grandfather’s name won’t be available for naming a grandchild until after his death, so it woud be inherited by the child born in 1909 rather than by the one born in 1903). But if Yoyzen stood for Yoyna / Iona, then he would be a cousin (named after the common deceased gramps Iona Sr.) rather than a grandfather sill alive in 1903 when Iona Jr. was born.

  14. There’s a small, uninhabited island in the Irish Sea, not far north of Dublin, which is known as Ireland’s Eye.

  15. Colm Cille founded his monastery on Iona during the 560s. This was earlier than when the Norsemen arrived. (Vikings raided Iona in 794.)

    Adomnán’s Vita Columbae (c. 700) gives the name Ioua insula and Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c. 760) calls it Hii, Hy.

    This might suggest that a derivation from ON ey is unlikely. There are lots of other placenames that contain it, that were settled by the Vikings later on.

    It seems that Iona never had much in the way of trees. However could be other reasons why an island might have “yew” in its name. It could be named after a person with Yew in his name, such as the above-mentioned Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, for example.

    Another island with Hy in it was the mythical island of Hy-Brasil. That doesn’t get mentioned until the 1300s though.

    Interesting–I wondered for a long time how it came to be called Iona. (Not enough to look it up, evidently.)

    Lazar: Prime Minister Robert Menzies of Australia was known as “Ming the Merciless”. Even his friends called him “Ming”–he preferred that pronunciation of his name.

  16. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Polish plant name urzet (formerly also: uret) — Isatis tinctoria ‘woad’ — is supposedly the result of an old misreading. It should be “wet”, from German Waid~Wet.

  17. Another island with Hy in it was the mythical island of Hy-Brasil

    The indefatigable Cyrus Gordon derived this from Phoenician ‘I Barzel, “Island of Iron,” and claimed that it was actually Brazil, because Parahyba.

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    That a mere transcription error could give the island a flawed name among Anglophones in the 18th century implies that there was no then-current English or Scots name – for the error to catch on seems highly unlikely unless it was mistranscribed onto a tabula rasa. But even if the local population was still overwhelmingly Gaelic-speaking in those days, was there really no English or Scots toponym used by bureaucrats in Edinburgh or (after 1707) London to keep track of the place for tax or other purposes? It was just some nameless bit of rock somewhere out there in the unknown here-be-dragons part of Scotland? Really?

  19. Jim (another one) says:

    TR,
    “Not sure I understand this part — the word for “yew” came to mean “island”?”

    No. They are close homophones.

  20. was there really no English or Scots toponym used by bureaucrats in Edinburgh or (after 1707) London to keep track of the place for tax or other purposes?

    Apparently it was called Hy. But in researching it I found this disturbing passage in the 1685 book Origines Britannicae : Or, the Antiquities of the British Churches, by Edward Stillingfleet, p. 42:

    From the Druids I proceed to the first Monks of Scotland, who are said to have left Records in their Monasteries of the History of former times. The first Monastery there, is confessed to be that of the Island Jona, or Hy, or Icolmkill, i.e. Hy the Cell of Columba, founded about the year 560

    So either the misreading happened before the 18th century or the misreading account is wrong.

  21. And here’s a quote from p. 52:

    In the second Book he [William Elphinstone] follows Fordon, not onely in other things before, but when he describes the Islands of Scotland, and particularly Jona; onely he leaves out Fordon’s Hebrew Etymology, making Jona and Columba the same

    Now, John of Fordun lived in the 14th century, so if he used the form Jona, the minim-misreading theory starts to look pretty bad.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Of Celtic misreadings, there’s also the rather pretty name Imogen. ‘Tis pity she’s a misprint.

  23. Nineteenth-century books are also fond of calling Oswiu “Oswin.” I don’t know when that started.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    the rather pretty name Imogen

    What should it be?

  25. Innogen.

    minim-misreading theory starts to look pretty bad

    Why so? It’s just as much a problem in handwriting, especially italic hands, as in print, probably more so. The word “minimum” in italic hand with undotted i’s is nothing but zig-zag-zig-zag-zig-zag…. It’s a little more readable in American-style copperplate, but not that much.

  26. Well, I was thinking the farther back you go, the less likelihood somebody would be writing about it who knew nothing about it; also, John of Fordun was Scottish, so you’d think he’d be aware of the actual name.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    languagehat: Now, John of Fordun lived in the 14th century, so if he used the form Jona, the minim-misreading theory starts to look pretty bad.

    From Piotr’s link (footnote 30):

    The form here Iona, with clear n not u, appears in a section of f44v added by Scribe 2, c. 1274 (cf. Broderick 1995, ix).

  28. So it goes back even further! I dunno, I suppose all those could derive from an original misreading, but it somehow seems unlikely to me.

  29. More ghost words here.

  30. This delightful source also mentions one fictitious saint, Bishop Enurchus, né Evurtius.
    (I mean the latter name is fictitious. The bishop was real, for all I know.)

  31. Don’t you mean the former name?

  32. That looks like a delightful book.

  33. “Later”, then.

  34. Oswin and Oswiu are different people – kinds of Deira and Bernicia respectively. Unless we’re talking about someone else.

    Dean Monro (writing in Scots in 1549) just calls it ‘Saint Colm’s Ile’, so there needn’t have been a Gaelic name that was well known to English speakers if there was a common English one.

  35. The John of Fordun quote is about the name of the saint, not the island:

    ‘He shared his name with the prophet Jonah: for Jonah in the Hebrew tongue is Columba in the Latin, and Peristera in the Greek.’

    https://archive.org/stream/johnoffordunschr00fordrich#page/102/mode/2up

    I’m not sure whether Stillingfleet is misreading Elphinstone or Elphinstone misreading John of Fordun in thinking that the saint and the *island* share a name, but if that’s an accurate translation then I can’t see anything to suggest that John of Fordun thought they did (and a Hebrew origin for the island name is pretty unlikely!)

    That translation does use ‘Iona’ as the name of the island he went to, but I don’t think that says anything definite about the name used in the original Latin.

  36. Tracing back the Wikipedia quote – the Haswell-Smith reference is just an enthusiast’s book about the Western Isles, the other is a placename list from the Scottish parliament.

    The Gaelic placenames database, also linked by the parliament, gives two quotes about the misreading theory, but they’re author surname only, and I’m too tired to do more hunting tonight!

    http://www.gaelicplacenames.org/databasedetails.php?id=836

  37. The John of Fordun quote is about the name of the saint, not the island:

    Woops, there goes that! Thanks for your detective work, and I no longer know what to think.

  38. Oswin and Oswiu are different people – kinds of Deira and Bernicia respectively.

    I always get Deira and Bernicia mixed up.

  39. John of Fordun Latin, at least in the 1871 edition, has Iona(m) not Ioua(m) for the island.

    Itaque cum angelus Domini per tres continuas noctes eundem in manu vitreum habens codicem eidem sancto apparuisset, et divina jussa de regis ejusdem ordinatione commendasset, ad Ionam transnavigavit insulam, et ibidem Aydanum hiis diebus adventantem, sicut erat jussus, manum super caput ejus imposuit, et in regem benedicens ordinavit, ac inter ordinationis verba de filiis, nepotibus ac pronepotibus futura prophetavit

  40. And attendees at the Parliament of Scotland on 1 July 1476 included the abbot “de Yona Insula”

  41. kinds of Deira and Bernicia respectively

    A little more than kinds but less than kings, perhaps?

    I always get Deira and Bernicia mixed up.

    Right after Augustine makes that pun on seeing two English slaves in the market about how they are so pretty that they are non Angli sed angeli ‘not Angles but angels’, he asks where they are from and is told Deira — and he puns again, that by being enslaved and Christianized, they are saved de ira Dei ‘from the wrath of God’. This excuse persisted in popularity right up to the 19C American South.

  42. J. W. Brewer says:

    The “non Angli sed angeli” wordplay is usually attributed to Gregory the Great. It is also usually said to have helped provide the impetus (admittedly a number of years later) for him to send missionaries to pagan Kent to work on the evangelization of the Anglo-Saxons, thus making enslavement and transportation to Italy unnecessary to achieve that goal.

  43. Yes, of course, Gregory. I had Augustine and his boss conflated.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    JC, Gregory was not Augustine’s boss, since Augustine was long dead when Gregory was born. Augustine lived in Roman North Africa and considered himself “Punic” (Wikipedia dixit). Gregory lived after the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Whether the anecdote attributed to Gregory (by Bede) is true or not, the fact that the good-looking boys identified themselves as “Angli” means that they lived after the takeover of England by the Angles. It would be strange that boys from the island of Deira in Scotland would identify themselves as “Angli” not “Scoti”, unless “Angli” were known as the dominant group while “Scoti” would be largely unknown in the wider world. So “Angli” slaves would probably fetch a higher price than “Scoti” ones.

  45. CuConnacht says:

    St Augustine of Canterbury, marie-lucie, not St Augustine of Hippo.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Iona / Ioua

    With similar, ambiguous letters, a mistake in one direction can be a mistake in the other direction. Thus far it sounds like Iona (evidenced in a number of documents) was the original and Ioua the mistaken interpretation, helped by a scholar’s desire to link the possible spelling iou- to the known iuo- ‘yew’.

  47. Augustine

    I don’t mean St. Augustine of Hippo, but St. Augustine of Canterbury, the “Apostle to the English”. There were Christians in Britain before his arrival, but they belonged to the officially schismatic Celtic church: they were already present in Roman times but were reinforced by Irish missionaries. The present Anglican Church (the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) is lineally descended, despite the Protestant Reformation and the Royal Supremacy, from the church that Augustine founded.

    island of Deira in Scotland

    Deira was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in northern England, which later was taken over by Bernicia (even further north) to form the kingdom of Northumbria. It extended from the River Humber to the River Tees, and from the eastern coast to just short of York. There is an asteroid named after it, and by coincidence an island that is part of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates bears the same name, but none in Scotland that I know of.

    Scoti historically were the Irish rather than the Scots; the name was only transferred after the settlement of the Scottish Highlands by the Irish about a hundred years earlier. Even two centuries later, the theologian Johannes Scotus was surnamed Eriugena ‘born in Ireland’ to make it clear that he was Irish and not Scottish. He is not to be confused, while we are talking about things with the same name, with the much more famous theologian Johannes Duns Scotus, from Duns in Berwickshire, Scotland, Doctor Subtilis.

    Augustine of Hippo, just to close the loop, is known as Theologus, and Andrew Smith, the inventor of the Brithenig language and Ill Bethisad, is sometimes called Intheologus ‘not the theologian’ because his former roommate was a theologian.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Cuconnacht, JC, thank you. I did not know there was an English Augustine. I should have checked “Deira” too.

    Totally my bad.

  49. J. W. Brewer says:

    Well, Madonna Ciccone is not the only person (not even the only living American prominent enough to have a wikipedia article about her) with that first name, but it is generally forgivable to assume that otherwise unspecified references to Madonna are intended to be to Ms. Ciccone unless context dictates otherwise extremely strongly. Not-otherwise-specified “Augustine” presumptively being the of-Hippo one may be a similar situation. Here, Augustine of Canterbury is perhaps plausibly suggested as an alternative by the context only if you already know the story being told.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks JWB!

  51. I was about to not gush how ‘Iona’ is vaguely but perceptibly not bad, (Columba the Jonah goes diving in a whale of not seeing Ireland; also the attitudes in which hidden names hover) but they did the whole archipelago, a misreading in a 15th c. edition of Solinus which Boece picked up is how we got ‘Hebrides’ from Pliny’s ‘Ebudes’.

    P.S. Pretty sure I am not the only one here macbaining it, so:

    iubhar, yew, Ir. [iubhar], E.Ir. [ibar], Gaul. ; Ger. [eberesche], service-tree ([*ebarisc]). So Schräder. It does not seem that Ir. [eó], W. [yw], Br. [ivin], [*ivo-], Eng. [yew], can be allied to [iubhar].

  52. “the officially schismatic Celtic church” — that’s a rather old-fashioned view. Of course, the distinctiveness of “Celtic Christianity” and the lineal descendant(s) of the pre-Reformation church are more contentious questions in Irish historiography than British. But Augustine was sent to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, not the Christian Celts.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    This excuse persisted in popularity right up to the 19C American South.

    It persists right up to the 21C American Right, though admittedly in greatly decreased popularity.

  54. they did the whole archipelago

    Wow, that’s a great rant, ending with one of my favorite allusions: “as the old priest retained his Mumpsimus for Sumpsimus.”

  55. That’s not the right wing, that’s the insane right wing. Of course, there is also the gentleman who proclaims himself better by nature than those of (recent) African origin because he, forsooth, has superior Neanderthal genes whereas they are “pure Homo sapiens” and thus lacking in … whatever. Brains serve madness as well as they serve sanity.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Funny how “Neanderthal” and “Homo sapiens” seem to have exchanged places in the popularity contest.

  57. Only in the mind of this particular person, I think, and I suppose he was actually talking about hybrid vigor vs. purity. Which, come to think of it, have also exchanged roles in more peoples’ minds than his.

  58. ə de vivre says:

    I don’t know if it’s been talked about here, but it appears Neanderthal genes may actually have benefits for our immune systems, while those same super-charged immune systems make those of us with more Neanderthal heritage more susceptible to allergic reactions.

  59. Just to tangle things up completely, wasn’t it Gregory himself who supposedly had this conversation in a slave market in Rome, and then sent Augustine to England? Where, IIRC, he was afraid he’d be eaten.

  60. Yes, exactly. I had attributed the wisecracks to Augustine (later “of Canterbury”, but not yet); JWB corrected me, saying it was Gregory; and I said I had conflated Augustine with his boss.

    I can’t find any references to a view that the Angli and Saxones were cannibals.

  61. I see I was careless in following the discussion. And no doubt the cannibal tale was like many such.

  62. No, I think it was the Britons who opined that the Picts would dine on the shepherd as soon as the sheep. But I read it on a wall in the London Dungeon 30 years ago…

  63. January First-of-May says:

    When I saw the form Ivova “yew place”, I immediately noticed its similarity with the Russian adjective ивовая “of the willow”.
    Apparently the Celtic word for “yew” (as well as the English) is indeed related to the Russian word for “willow”. Not sure if the second parts are the same etymologically, however.

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