Two readers have sent me reports of the death on April 24 of Margaret Gelling, doyenne of English toponymists. The Economist‘s obituary does a splendid job of conveying what she did:

Mrs Gelling worked for the English Place-Name Society, formally and informally, from 1946. From 1986 to 1998 she was its president. She never held an academic post, but lectured widely, wrote a dozen books and produced three of the county surveys of place names. She was devoted to the proposition that names drawn from the landscape were not trivial or accidental, but original and important. All her passion for argument was employed to prove that hamm, a piece of land almost enclosed by water, was as vital a suffix as ham, a man-made enclosure; that an ending in –den might come from denu, a long and sinuous valley, rather than denn, a woodland pig-pasture; and that the hall in Coggeshall came from halh, a nook or a hollow, not some grand building. Cogg’s nook, a little recess tucked into the 150-foot contour line, was perhaps the best place where he could put his hut. With Mrs Gelling, topography always came first.
No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but “scrubland at the edge of the forest”. The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—“land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly”. She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land “as if a plug had been pulled out”. A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal.

Now I want to read her book Signposts to the Past: English Place Names .


  1. marie-lucie says

    I confess that I was not familiar with the name of Margaret Gelling, who sounds wonderful according to this obituary and the Wikipedia article.
    It is too bad that the book is out of print, but perhaps it will be reprinted. Here is what Amazon says:

    Place-names are important to the historian and the archaeologist. Quite apart from the inherent interest of the original meaning of a place-name, the fact that in England there are six successive layers of language reflected in the stock of place-names means that they provide vital evidence of dating and also illustrate the composition of the nation.

    The point was made in general about the names of rivers in another thread not too long ago. But I wonder what the six successive layers of language are: I would guess Pre-Celtic, Celtic, Latin, “Anglo-Saxon” (ie Old English), Norse, French. Of these, the Pre-Celtic and Celtic words are likely to be found only in place-names, not in ordinary English.
    By importing so many European names and applying them indiscriminately to the North American landscape, the immigrants severed the many connections of the European geographic names to the features of the land, and the native names when retained were rarely understood.

  2. Mostly off-topic, maybe we could have a discussion of the family names Quackenbush, Pieplenbosch, Birdsong, Birdwhistle, Vogelsang, etc. I know I mentioned this before, but, you know. One (me) imagines a shamanistic ceremony at dawn where a family finally gets its name.

  3. M-l: It is too bad that the book is out of print
    It may be out of print, but it’s easily purchased. There are always a lot more options than buying from and thanks to John J. Emerson I now know that you can find them at bookfinder.

  4. I had a client named Bird who referred to her husband as ‘The Big Bird’.
    From the TCM site:

    A Day at the Races faced a few legal problems. The original name for Groucho’s character was Dr. Quackenbush. Everyone agreed it was a ridiculous name for a doctor, but then they discovered thirty-seven actual Dr. Quackenbushes in the United States. Since most of them were eager to sue if their name was used, Groucho’s character was changed to Hackenbush. At first Groucho was disappointed in the name change, but he grew to love Hackenbush so much that he even signed it to letters.

    I get 2,340 google hits for “Dr Quackenbush”, today — although I get 534 for “Dr Quackenbush” + groucho, so that’s 1,806.

  5. ‘Papendieck’ is a quite good German name. The Gräfin I’ve mentioned before spoonerised it as ‘Piependach, or pipesroof.
    Do look at this Germanwikipicture of a tap or faucet: it’s dripping!!! Amazing — and we’re the ones who won WW2.

  6. That’s the second time in 24 hrs I’ve forgotten to put in the link.

  7. And, damn, that ought to have been ‘Pipendach’.

  8. marie-lucie says

    AJP (and JE by proxy), thank you, I didn’t know about bookfinder, which is a find indeed.

  9. On behalf of John J. and myself you’re welcome, Marie-Lucie.

  10. I was just going to mention ABEBooks, but a quick look shows that findbooks is a subsidiary of ABEBooks — which is a subsidiary of Amazon. There’s no escape from the Book Monster!

  11. ABE is still probably the best. they make it easy for small booksellers to sell on the internet. I sold books for awhile through ABE and was generally happy with the way things went. But I suppose Amazon could ruin everything.
    Bookfinder is just a search service — they direct you to sellers, including Amazon and ABE (which is my favorite place to buy).
    Internet bookselling seriously threatens small bookstores and can impoverish the community landscape that way, but for people in inaccessible places like Wobegon, and for people looking for hard-to-find books, it’s a godsend. In the year after I started buying on the internet I must have bought 30 books that had been on my to-find list for an average of something like 10-15 years.
    With the development of POD publishing, soon almost all out-of-copyright books will also be available. At that point the only hard-to-get books will be in-copyright books that are good enough to be in demand, but too specialized to reprint, plus books tied up in lawsuits or controlled by problematic heirs.
    I still have no idea why Pelliot’s Marco Polo translation hasn’t been reprinted. It’s presumably the most accurate, judging by his voluminous Notes on Marco Polo. I just bought the French translation by Pelliot’s sometime co-author Hambis, and I presume that it’s a translation of Pelliot’s English translation.

  12. “By importing so many European names and applying them indiscriminately to the North American landscape, the immigrants severed the many connections of the European geographic names to the features of the land, and the native names when retained were rarely understood.”
    And not just Europeans did this. People named terrain features after mythical figures as they moved around. I am pretty sure you would find Navajo place names that refer to myths they brought south. In California lots of places had multiple names; Mt. Shasta probably has at least 20. I wonder if any incoming groups ever adopted previous toponyms. I can see how they would not want to; putting your own names on terrian features gives you a better emotional claim on the land.

  13. When I was a working toponymist I acquired a couple of small British books on the subject. They made me sad that ours had no depth. Then I came upon a book by a toponymist who worked in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. What a revelation! Most of the descriptive names on Canadian prairies and in woodlands are translations from aboriginal languages, and stories can be teased out of old maps and journals, etc., about the translaters (furtraders and their aboriginal wives) and the importance of the features to the people who named them.
    I think I could read Gelling’s book with unmitigated pleasure now.
    I wrote ‘working toponymist’ because it’s a subject that most people learn on the job. At a guess, I would say that Gelling worked for the Ordnance Survey; I was a clerk in the B. C. Geographical Names office. It’s a job that generally didn’t get much recognition, and not much pay, but some, like Gelling and the woman who trained me (who had been there since the forties too) come to love it. I did, but government jobs in B. C. have been precarious for decades.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Jim, what you say is true also, but calling a place “Applegate” or “Oakridge” doesn’t mean that the new place has apples or oaks, unlike the older one. Perhaps the retention or replacement of native names has to do with the speed of immigration, or the relationships between immigrants and natives. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Eastern Canada), where the first settlers were French, there are very numerous native names which are still the official ones. This is true in other places too, eg Massachusetts, but I am struck here by what seems to be a particularly large number of such names (at least in my subjective opinion).
    As I mentioned in an earlier thread, river names are particularly apt to be retained, especially (I think) if they are not so big that they go through several peoples’ territories, in which case they often don’t have a specific name (just “Big Water” or such) and the conquerors often rename them (Rio de La Plata, Saint-Laurent, Amazon, Columbia, etc). Perhaps river names are so durable precisely because rivers are not “land” where people can take root and leave their mark?

  15. Oops! On reread, I see that Gelling worked for the English Place-Name Society. The office I worked in was also called the ‘Place-Name’ Office at the time. But place-names are actually what cartographers call(ed) cultural names, and can be subsumed in the term ‘geographical names’.

  16. marie-lucie says

    iakon, forgive my ignorance of a toponymist’s job, but do governments keep changing names, or needing more and more names for places?

  17. Marie-Lucie, you remind me that Georgiev shows (in The Early History of Indo-European Languages) that river names (the ‘lowest stratum’ he called them) of the Danube valley are Indo-European.

  18. In Minnesota there are two kinds of French names, those derived from the French (often metis) who were already present by 1800, and the foo-foo names of housing developments and newly platted towns.
    And a few names, e.g. “St. Cloud”, given in the 19th C. by recent immigrants from France.
    Odessa Texas was named by a Ukrainian railway worker. The workers laying out the rail line took turns naming the town sites. Texas may have reminded him of the Ukrainian steppe.

  19. Marie-Lucie, we were resistant to changing names. Many people say ‘The map’s wrong’, but the fact is that multiple names are common (you only have to be on a different side of the mountain, as we used to say), but usually only one is official. Generally, it’s the one in longest use on maps.
    As for needing more and more names, this would not be true on large-area maps, but theoretically true for small-area maps. Nowadays, few new topographical maps are being produced, dammit. The B. C. government is interested only in legal, planimetric (no topography) maps, which can be conveniently produced by computer. They do reprint older topographic maps that have legal surveys on them (all those boxes). But this means that topography and place-names are not up-dated. The ‘current’ map of Graham Island (the large northern one of Haida Gwaii) is a reprint of the 1974 edition, one of the first maps I worked on. I know two names that should be changed, although B. C. Ferries would probably be resistant.
    If you’re thinking of street names, they’re not controlled here. The developer gets to use the names s/he wants (usually). Neither are subdivision or building names regulated. They are usually nothing but commercial propaganda.

  20. marie-lucie says

    No, I wasn’t thinking of street names, but of names on larger maps as you describe, and of the need to have a government department for place names at this time, when presumably the topography is known and would not change that much (but these comments probably just reflect my ignorance).
    I was asked once to give my small linguistic contribution to a book on BC place names compiled by a couple called Akrigg. Unfortunately I was not given all the (native) names that were needed and as a result they reproduced some errors or older spellings which I could have corrected if I had known.

  21. scarabaeus says

    British Isles place names have not been subject to the same intensity of change as most European place names, due to lack of conquering activity and ‘de vinner’ must make his mark by eradication of the old. Consequently there still is some connectivity to the ancient names and meanings.
    As to places named by the new conquerors in New England and Canada, they would confuse me, for in ‘me’ mind they were at least Three dialects apart only to find them as kissing neighbours.
    Besides the naming of villages come towns that be fascinating, it be finding names for little off the beaten track areas, known only to the local populace like a mead lane or a boxted in a forest of old.

  22. I knew the Akriggs, Marie-Lucie. They spent a lot of time researching in our office. Their name meant Oakridge; I had to ask.
    Nowadays my old office is operated by a Toponymic Research Officer. The position finally got the recognition it deserved, and presumable the pay, but she spent most of her time doing clerk’s work anyway, computerizing the old card catalogue.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I wonder if any incoming groups ever adopted previous toponyms.

    Further north, the Tlingit kept Eyak placenames and even their Eyak etymologies. Now if only I’d remember where I’ve read that… probably in some of the traces James Crippen has left all over the linguablogosphere…

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    In terms of the stability of British place names, that may be lessened a bit as you get away from the Anglo-Saxon heartland to the periphery. When I was in the Outer Hebrides in I think ’94 they had just used some EU minority-language-promotion funds to change all the road signs to the “Gaelic” rather than “English” spellings of the various villages &c., which created something of a transitional issue since most tourists seemed to have road maps giving only the “English” spellings, so when you got to a crossroads you needed to back out a lot of bh’s, dipthongs, and the like to reconcile the signs to your map. A lot of the local toponyms had apparently originally been Norse, making it pretty dubious whether the “Gaelic” spellings were in some absolute sense more “authentic.”

  25. mollymooly says

    My favourite developer-chosen name is Ireland is Radclyffe Hall, an apartment block in Dublin made even more awesome by the Moore’s Melody advertising slogan “I dreamt I dwelt in Radclyffe Hall”.

  26. I was just going to mention ABEBooks, but a quick look shows that findbooks is a subsidiary of ABEBooks — which is a subsidiary of Amazon.
    That is a little disappointing, but I still love ABEbooks. The service is good, the range of sellers they support is very broad, and they do not punish me for living way up here at the top of the world the way Amazon does with its Shylockian shipping charges.

  27. marie-lucie says

    I like ABEbooks too. They have many apparently small booksellers, some of them in out of the way places where unusual books would probably stay on the shelves for years if they were not advertised on ABE.
    Further north, the Tlingit kept Eyak placenames and even their Eyak etymologies.
    (That was in Alaska, along the panhandle and a little further north). From what I understand, the replacement of Eyak by Tlingit (a language related to it) must have been gradual, and probably based on cultural dominance rather than true conquest. The material way of life of the two peoples was basically the same, a Northern continuation of the maritime and riverine West Coast culture, but the “prestige” element in that culture must have crept northward gradually, and the Tlingit language with it. It is possible then that the meaning of the Eyak placenames were mostly understandable in Tlingit without having to be changed. If those names were based on features of the natural landscape, there would have been even less need to change them.

  28. My favorite developer place-name story involves the Norfolk & Petersburg railroad owner’s wife who named successive stations on the long straight line (now parallel to U.S. 460) inland from Suffolk. There weren’t any towns of any size along the way, so she named the stations out of Walter Scott novels. Windsor, Ivor, Wakefield, and Waverly later grew into small towns. And so did the area around the next station whose name they couldn’t agree on, Disputanta.

  29. Because it’s important, I’ll tell people again the New Munich, MN, pop. 352, was not overambitiously named after Munich, Germany. It was very sensibly named after Munich, MN, present pop. 0, about a mile away.

  30. Here, you’re interested in philosophy, Pete:
    Does a place continue to exist when it has Pop. 0?

  31. Nowadays, few new topographical maps are being produced, dammit.
    That’s a shame. You’d think during the flush ’90s money could have been found for that. Now, of course, forget it.

  32. AJP,
    This is not philosophy, but they continue to exist on B. C. maps and in gazetteers, as ‘abandoned settlements’. There are a number here on Haida Gwaii, old mining and logging camps, some of which were quite large. And they continue to exist in the minds of locals, who still use the names.
    The same is true of old — I mean older — Haida villages. Some are vey old and predate the destructive epidemics, but they still live in oral tradition, as well as on maps.

  33. Haida villages … still live in oral tradition, and on maps.
    And on the ground they are marked by rotting poles and humps of collapsed and overgrown houses.

  34. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    “I dreamt I dwelt in Radclyffe Hall”.
    Good Jaysus. I suppose they have no idea, really.
    For Irish placenames in general, check out, where in addition to the offical name you can look at scanned copies of all the old record cards with handwritten notes on the origin and meaning of the names. For some counties you can also listen to recordings of how many of the English and Irish names are pronounced. Handy if you want to know how to say, for example, “An Bhánrainn Bhán Theas”.

  35. I dreamt I dwelt in Radclyffe Hall
    What is the background of the development in Dublin? Is it a specifically gay place to live?

  36. I’m a Platonist about towns, Croon. Every town is eternal.

  37. scarabaeus says

    Irish housing developer names,would there a Cromwell place??
    do not kill me!!!!

  38. It seems the transatlantic duplication of placenames wasn’t all in one direction. Here’s something I found via (David) McKie’s Gazetteer: A Local History of Britain. It’s actually here, an entertaining and erudite website, David McKie calls it:

    Quebec (County Durham)
    This village near Esh Winning is one of a number of places in the North East which take their names from other parts of the world. Quebec was a mining village and apparently named because the fields in the area were enclosed in 1759, the year General Wolfe captured Quebec from the French in Canada. It is not unusual for fields to be named after foreign towns and places and often occurs where fields were situated at a considerable distance from their home farm. Thus fields could have names suggesting remoteness like Botany Bay or Nova Scotia. This kind of name has also gained prominence in the North East because they were topical names for nineteenth century coal mining or ironstone villages. North East place names which may fall into this category include New York near Whitley Bay, Toronto near Bishop Auckland, Philadelphia near Houghton le Spring and Canada which is part of Chester le Street. California can be found in North Yorkshire where it is part of the village of Great Ayton and is also found in Cleveland as a district of Eston in Middlesbrough. When far off field names were not available battles or places connected with the Boer War or Crimean War could also provide a source for naming Durham’s nineteenth century villages. Thus we have Bloemfontein near Stanley, Portobello near Birtley from a Battle of 1739, and Inkerman near Tow Law, named from the 1854 Crimean War Battle of Inkerman. With imagination it is quite possible to travel the whole world without leaving the North East.

  39. marie-lucie says

    Amazing! A great find, AJP.
    I suppose Houghton le Spring and Chester le Street date from the Middle English period, which did not quite know what to make of French articles and stuck le in odd places.

  40. I thought you’d like it. I’d heard of Chester le Street, but not Houghton. Another one with a mixed up name is Ashby de la Zouch, which I drove through just before Christmas. My vegetarian aunt told me they had quite a good butchers.

  41. marie-lucie says

    AJP, Wonderful place apparently, Ashby de la Zouch. The view of the bypass is particularly impressive. Did you find out the pronunciation of Zouch? like touch or (perhaps more likely) like Ouch!?

  42. Yes, my aunt avoided the bypass by heading straight through the town, it wasn’t unpleasant by any means. It’s ōōsh, as in louche.

  43. Here, you’re interested in philosophy, Pete:
    Does a place continue to exist when it has Pop. 0?

    Well Dud, that’s a goo’ question. It’s like, as one Ronnie says to’t’other, ‘e says: “This ‘ere newspaper reckons we’re living longer these days”. And ‘t’other Ronnie goes: “Well, that’s right, innit. Speakin’ for meself, I’ve never lived so long in me life!”

  44. marie-lucie says

    la Zouch, anciently la Zouche
    This cannot be a true French name as words beginning with z are all borrowings from other languages, or relatively recent slang words. It sounds like a Flemish name originally, although Frenchified.

  45. The town is named after the de la Z(o)uche family, and according to Wikipedia, they’re of Breton origin.

  46. David Marjanović says

    It’s ōōsh

    Naturally, I first read that as Öösh (Өөш), a place (piece of desert) in Mongolia chock full of fossils.

    I suppose Houghton le Spring and Chester le Street date from the Middle English period, which did not quite know what to make of French articles and stuck le in odd places.

    There are lots of similarly odd French placenames! Take Villeneuve-le-Roi. “New city the king”? Huh? -du-Roi I’d understand, but that’s not what it is, it is -le-Roi.

  47. marie-lucie says

    David: The reason it is -le-Roi or -la-Reine or -le-Duc or -le-Comte (and any number of similar formations with a noun designating the perosn who “owns” the town)) is that it continues the old Latin genitive which did not need a preposition. Once the nominal cases had completely lost their markings in Old French and the preposition de had become the normal mark of the possessive, new place names were no longer formed on the model of Villeneuve-le-Roi “the king’s new town” or Bourg-la-Reine “the queen’s fortified village”, but the existing ones remained as they were, without reformation.
    In the hybrid English place names above, the le (now neutral of epicene in gender in English) follows another French pattern which uses some feature of the town as part of its name, as in Villedieu-les-Poêles “Villedieu of the frying pans” (since the major industry of the town was – and still is = the making of copper cooking utensils). So Houghton le Spring may have been known for a famous spring (perhaps an old pagan sanctuary), and Chester le Street for its Roman road (Latin (via) strata) (and “Chester” is from Old English ceastra from Latin castrum, etc “camp”).

  48. I first read that as Öösh (Өөш), a place (piece of desert) in Mongolia
    I first read that as Öösh, a piece of dessert in Mongolia.

  49. Chingis’s House of Öösh, in downtown Ulan Bator, has the best you’ll ever taste.

  50. David Marjanović says

    it continues the old Latin genitive

    Wow. That explains a lot!

  51. marie-lucie says

    p.s. Villedieu-les-Poêles “Villedieu of the frying pans”
    Actually, Villedieu is an other instance of a former genitive without de, as it means “God’s town”. Similarly some very old hospitals are called Hôtel-Dieu “God’s house’. The word hôtel, from Latin “hospitale”, originally meant a large house suitable for receiving visitors, as also in the later Hôtel de Ville ‘City Hall’. Occitan ostau ‘house’ (or locally still ostal) is also from the same Latin word.

  52. ‘God’s Town of the Frying Pans’, then. That makes more sense.

  53. We are all eggs in God’s frying pan.

  54. marie-lucie says

    AJP, LH: it is [God’s town] [of the Frying Pans}, not [God’s][town of the Frying Pans], let alone [town of][God’s Frying Pans]. But LH, you might be right.

  55. I just found in Trask that Pimlico, the London district, is named after a long-gone alehouse called Pimlico’s, named in turn after a remigrant settler who lived near Pamlico Bay, North Carolina, named in turn after the now-extinct Algonquian-speaking tribe the Pamlico / Pamticough. This is said, Trask says, to be the first Native American place name in Britain.

  56. Wonderful!

  57. marie-lucie says

    Yes, Trask has a whole page of it, if I remember right, a real morceau de bravoure. I think it should be reproduced as an anthology piece.

  58. Pimlico as a Native American name, with four-part harmony and stuff like that.

Speak Your Mind