I’m over halfway through Daniel Martin (see this post), and having gotten to the chapter “Westward,” where the protagonist drives to a place called “Grimstone Down,” I of course had to haul out my Ordnance Survey Motoring Atlas of Great Britain, and was once again struck by the amazing concentration of tasty, crunchy, unpredictable place names on the map of England—no wonder the English have such a knack for using language! In the bit of Dorset where the Downs are located, glancing around I find Toller Fratrum and Toller Porcorum, Chilfrome and Cattistock, Wynford Eagle and Maiden Newton and Compton Valence, Up Sydling and Sydling St Nicholas, Cerne Abbas and Nether Cerne, Minterne Magna and Alton Pancras, Plush and Duntish and Mappowder, Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton, Puddletown and Tolpuddle and Afpuddle and Briantspuddle… you actually have to hunt to find a relatively boring name like West Stafford or Crossways. And down by the coast there’s Eype and Burton Bradstock and Swyre and West Bexington and Langton Herring… I’d better stop before I bump against Durdle Door and fall into Lulworth Cove!

By the way, this weekend another batch of incredibly generous birthday gifts was delivered, and I have to mention The World’s Writing Systems by Peter T. Daniels (thanks, Bill!), Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff, Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn (Radbourn is my favorite 19th-century baseball player; I’m sorry he’s no longer credited with sixty wins for that season, as he was in my youth), and The Kat Who Walked In Beauty: The Panoramic Dailies of 1920 by George Herriman (see my appreciation of Herriman’s genius here, and a quote here; thanks, Sven & Leslie!).

In one of the early (1911) strips, when Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse were just detaching themselves from The Dingbat Family (in much the same way as The Simpsons were liberated from The Tracey Ullman Show), Ignatz, who awoke “to find himself possessed of an unclear eye and an unbright mind, a fact, most distressing to him,” makes the following appeal: “‘Kat,’ lead me to a large kool goblet of Akwah Kroton, with ice afloat on its crystal surface.” I presume “Akwah Kroton” alludes to the Croton Reservoir, from which New York City drew its drinking water for most of the 19th century (the New York Public Library and Bryant Park now occupy the location), and refers to tap water, an early equivalent of more recent terms like “Eau de Koch” or “Bloomberg’s Best.”


  1. John Emerson says

    Krazy Kat was a favorite of Wm. Randolph Hearst who kept it in his papers even though it wasn’t terribly popular.

  2. I’d always thought of Dickens’s name Coketown for a depressing, industrial city in Hard Times as brilliant but unlikely; if there’s a Puddletown it was at least possible. Apparently Coketown was based on Preston, in Lancashire, where there is currently a huge fight over whether to put a preservation order on its 1960s bus station, an example of Brutalism (B. in the sense of béton brut).

  3. I’m pretty sure the Croton Reservoir is upstate and is where the city’s water still comes from.

  4. All those Piddles and Puddles are, of course, on the River Piddle, which rises at Alton Pancras. At least two of those places you list, JH, are famous in Britain, for very different reasons, Tolpuddle for its Martyrs, and Cerne Abbas for its priapic giant.

  5. Bill Walderman says

    @ Ben: Apparently New York City drinking water now comes from the New Croton Reservoir:

  6. Stefan Lewicki says

    You seem to have overlooked Queen’s Camel and Mudford Sock, which I remember coming across in that part of the world many years ago…

  7. Names continue to be picturesque as you go over the county border to East Devon, where we are: Dog Village, Ting Tong and Jack-in-the-Green spring to mind.

  8. Only about 10% of the flow and 3% of the storage capacity of NYC’s water system comes from the Croton system: the rest comes from the Catskill and Delaware systems. The New Croton Reservoir is actually the same as the old Croton Reservoir, only larger: the New Croton Dam was built downstream from the reservoir to raise the surface level and capacity of the reservoir, with the result that the Old Croton Dam is now submerged.

  9. The New Croton Reservoir is actually the same as the old Croton Reservoir, only larger
    I don’t understand this. The Croton Distributing Reservoir, aka “the old Croton Reservoir,” was, as Wikipedia saith, “an above-ground reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the New York City borough of Manhattan.” Whatever system it was part of, that particular structure no longer exists (something I would regret if its replacement were not one of my favorite things in the city).

  10. And which part of the system is the Croton Bug named after?

  11. As a writer, I can’t help wondering if the “crunchy” (great adjective!) fecundity of this language fed directly into the achievements of both Shakespeare and Dickens.
    I’m moving to Ting Tong. Surely there is no unemployment there.

  12. Narmitaj says

    “Duntish” and “Piddletrenthide” crop up in The Meaning of Liff and/or The Deeper Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, books that have been mentioned here before. They take “common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist” and give them words, specifically place names and mostly from the UK.
    Duntish is “mentally incapacitated by a severe hangover”.
    Piddletrenthide gets a bit self-referential: it’s “a trouser stain caused by a wimbledon”; a Wimbledon being “that last drop which, no matter how much you shake it, always goes down your trouser leg”.
    (One of my favourites is one I still have cause to think of regularly – Peoria: “the fear of peeling too few potatoes”.)

  13. Bill Walderman says

    “something I would regret if its replacement were not one of my favorite things in the city”
    How sad it is they gentrified Bryant Park! I remember it fondly from the old days.

  14. It’s true that the Distributing Reservoir in Manhattan is no longer there (it’s now Bryant Park, where the Public Library’s main branch is). The New Croton Reservoir, like the old, is in Westchester, on the Croton River.
    Unprepossessing English town names.

  15. The down side of having all those charming names is that I’ve noticed that the English frequently disparage places that have been saddled with uncharming names, such as Bognor, even though they might be perfectly nice communities.
    When I was about ten, my schoolmates and I would peruse the big atlas in the library looking for British placenames. Nether Wallop was our prize find.

  16. “Bognor” is uncharming?

  17. >”Bognor” is uncharming?
    Having grown up nearby, the answer is yes in all respects! The name has always been considered as “uncharming” locally.

  18. I suppose ‘Piddlehinton’ is pronounced ‘Chumly.’

  19. We’ve got Six Mile Bottom. And Swaffham Bulbeck.

  20. rootlesscosmo says

    The cartoonist Ronald Searle invented the villages of Far Tottering and Tottering-on-the-Brink.
    I heard Jessica Mitford say that when George VI was dying, someone suggested that His Majesty’s health might be improved by a trip to Bognor Regis. “B-bugger B-bognor,” he reportedly said, and died. I do not vouch for the truth of this.

  21. Re: the list of “unprepossessing English town names” that John C points to, Ugley (the Essex pronunciation of “Oakley”) and Nasty (“atten aste hay”, “at the east meadow”) are not far from each other, and there is an apocryphal story that the local newspaper, the Harlow Gazette, once carried a headline: “Ugley woman marries Nasty man”.

  22. Those are really tongue twister place names! They bring to mind ancient times and I am sure that the history of how they got the name would be fill a book. There probably is a book of how English towns got their name.

  23. “Bugger Bognor” is (allegedly) George V, not VI. He’s the one who allowed it to call itself Bognor Regis, after he once stayed in a house not far away in 1929 when he had a cold. Why Bognor, and not the no doubt thousands of other places he stayed during his reign? It’s called Bognor Regis on maps. I’ve never been there, but it does seem odd that people laugh at Bognor but not at adjacent resorts such as… (looks at map) Chichester or Brighton. Close by are Bepton and Cocking, East Wittering and, to the north, West Wittering.

  24. So that’s what “Regis” means! Just think, if George Washington had consented to be crowned then we could have Ridgefield Regis, Waynesboro Regis, Monteith Regis, …

  25. Narmitaj says

    @ Shirley: Simply googling your phrase gets you The Book of English Place Names: How Our Towns and Villages Got Their Names by Caroline Taggart and published in April.
    “Take a journey down winding lanes and Roman roads in this witty and informative guide to the meanings behind the names of England’s towns and villages. From Celtic farmers to Norman conquerors, right up to the Industrial Revolution, deciphering our place names reveals how generations of our ancestors lived, worked, travelled and worshipped, and how their influence has shaped our landscape. From the most ancient sacred sites to towns that take their names from stories of giants and knights, learn how Roman garrisons became our great cities, and discover how a meeting of the roads could become a thriving market town. Region by region, Caroline Taggart uncovers hidden meanings to reveal a patchwork of tall tales and ancient legends that collectively tells the story of how we made England.”

  26. English vills (now civil parishes) with English or Latin words in the genitive (sometimes implicit) attached to them generally designate the title of the feudal lord of the vill. Thus Bishop’s Itchington in Warwickshire, the first town on the list I linked to, is the town on the Itchen River (a good name all by itself!) whose lord was the Bishop of Lichfield. Similarly, Lyme Regis (King’s Lyme) was plain Lyme until it received a royal charter in 1284. Peter Wimsey’s home town is usually called Duke’s Denver, but sometimes Denver Ducis, especially with reference to its parish church. Often the attributions are used to provide a contrast between vills that started out as one and were divided, as for example Cheriton Bishop and Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon.

  27. Hat:
    You may or may not have discovered Andrew West’s Babelstone blog I found it when looking up the (now obsolete) rules for the use of a long s. It was most interesting to find that the rules for English differed from those for French and Italian. I was prompted to mention it by the title of your birthday book, “The World’s Writing Systems.”

  28. Never knew that, John. Thanks. I’m filing it.
    The least you should do if you’re going to establish a kingdom is to have a couple of children.

  29. Zythophile’s apocryphal headline can be matched with one from central Illinois: “Normal girl marries Oblong man”.
    A brief explanation–in 19th century America a “normal school” was a teachers’ training school. Hence the twin towns of Bloomington-Normal, where the campus of Illinois State University can now be found.
    With respect to Oblong, Illinois towns have some rather odd names, although not in the British style. The story of Oblong is found here.

  30. The U.S.A. has some winners too — I was sorting last year some fossils from Smackover (“sumac couvert”), Arkansas. I can only assume we got the tendency toward spelling out flamboyant mispronunciation from the English ancestors.

  31. Stephen Downes says

    Not to mention Chipping Sodbury, Mousehole, Burton Combust, Barton-in-the-Beans, Clapton-in-Gordano, St Just-in-Roseland, Eggbuckland, Bovey Tracey, Idle (which has, or had a Working Men’s Club, to rival the Ugley Women’s Institute), Britwell Salome, Ogbourne Maizey, Ipplepen and Wyke Champflower …
    On the old wooden country signposts names were put in sometimes felicitous juxtaposition. One near Oxford had what ought to be the name of a Dickensian firm of dubious lawyers:
    Shabbington, Ickford and Worminghall.
    And I once saw, in Sussex or Kent, one announcing:
    Prosperous Ham

  32. Ham, in south-east Kent, is near Sandwich.

  33. Since the dukedom of Denver is a 15th century creation, was the village new too, or did it have an older name?

  34. I believe it was called Col O’Rahdough.

  35. On the old wooden country signposts names were put in sometimes felicitous juxtaposition.
    On the road from Paris to Gisors, there used to be a directional signpost which read:
    These are small towns/villages in the Vexin region west of Paris.
    I think the sign has gone now.
    Re British names, I bored my wife considerably in 1965 by reading out many of the names of hundreds of railway stations, mostly on local and branch lines, and often just “halts”, closed after an efficiency survey by Dr. Beeching, who remains a hate figure for true railway enthusiasts … A list which contains many curious names is here .

  36. Graham Asher says

    George R Stewart (‘Names on the Land’) prefers ‘chemin couvert’ as the origin of Smackover.

  37. Picky: I believe that Denver and Duke’s Denver are distinct places at least as of the 20th century, another of those split vills. However, it might well have been Earl’s Denver before that.

  38. And which part of the system is the Croton Bug named after?
    The whole thing. Cockroaches probably became more common in NYC after running water was being provided to every dwelling.

  39. Aha, John. Two manors. There is a tithe map somewhere, perhaps? This “might well have been” stuff isn’t good enough, you know. I think, anyway, it’s usual where the place is spit into two manors for them each to carry a modifier. Earl’s Denver and Denver-Summut-Else, say. Heck, man, we need to know!

  40. “When I see the word ‘manor’, I reach for my Pollock & Maitlandboth volumes.”
    I can’t nail the answer down because my Sayers volumes aren’t physically available, the relevant one(s) aren’t online, and Denver’s namesake city in the States dominates the Google hits no matter what restrictions I try.

  41. marie-lucie says

    “Chemin couvert” ‘covered dirt road’ makes more sense than “sumac couvert” ‘covered sumac’, not ‘sumac-covered’.

  42. Well, Wikipedia tells us that Duke’s Denver is supposed to be about three miles east of (actual) Denver, Norfolk, and that Denver, Colorado is named after an American politician named James W. Denver, whose family may have come from Denver village. Etymologically it is Dena fær ‘Danes’ ford’.

  43. John Cowan says

    The magisterial work of Wilfrid Scott-Giles, then Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, is based not only on the novels but on published and unpublished correspondence with Sayers, and can be borrowed from the Internet Archive (at the moment I have borrowed it). It establishes beyond doubt that the barony of Denver and the original lands of the de Guimsey family referred to Denver, Norfolk. When the 3rd Baron gained the lands of Sir Thomas Bredon by marriage, he took over the hall (still called Bredon Hall) and built a castle there, which came to be known as Denver Castle, though it was some fifteen miles from Denver village. As a result, the perhaps-unnamed hamlet by the hall and castle got the name of Duke’s Denver. I’m not sure where Wikipedia got its three miles’ distance from.

    From the same source, the 2nd Earl (and 7th Baron) went to the French wars and was known to the enemy as “le comte d’Enfer” from his extreme savagery in sieges and the destruction of French resistance in the countryside. A chronicler wrote “le comte d’Enfer / Sourisoit comme un chat chasseur” [though this can hardly be the original spelling], and the English misinterpreted this as “grinned like a Cheshire cat”. The cat of Hell finally made the mistake of hanging a priest, who cursed him to death by mice, which duly happened.

  44. PlasticPaddy says

    There is chat chasseur and also chatte chasseuse. In English there is a mouser but no hunting cat (I suppose this would be understood as a cat one hunts with). The French are more liberal, as the chat chasseur is permitted to hunt birds and flies, etc., not just mice. We had a cat who hunted wasps, but ceased to pursue both wasps and flies after swallowing a wasp instead of just batting it sensibly around at a safe distance.

  45. John Cowan says

    Googling for “hunting cat” shows many hits that clearly mean ‘cat who hunts’ or ‘cat who is hunting at present’. In addition, Collins lists it as a compound meaning ‘cheetah’.

    I have returned the Scott-Giles book The Wimsey Family, if anyone wishes to borrow it. The Internet Archive is on the same footing as a public library: anyone may borrow a book, but online access is cut off after 14 days or until you borrow it again. You can also download it as an encrypted PDF with a DRM time limit.

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