From George R. Stewart’s wonderful Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (he has been discussing the dislike of the stern Protestants who founded Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies for towns named after saints and other elements that smacked of Catholicism):

Also the [Massachusetts General] Court would not have liked Prescott if it had known the word to mean “priest’s cottage.” But though they were learned in Latin and Greek and Hebrew, the rulers of Massachusetts knew little of the roots of their own language, and the names of most English towns were to them merely counters without meaning.


  1. hee-hee!!!

  2. the dislike of the stern Protestants for towns named after elements that smacked of Catholicism
    I liked the bit right before that where it says

    Governor Winthrop journeying to Plymouth came to a place which some simple fellow had called for himself Hue’s Cross:
    the governor being displeased at the name, in respect that such things might hereinafter give the Papists occasion to say that their religion was first planted in these parts, changed the name, and called it Hue’s Folly.

  3. It looks like the Pilgrim Fathers got the last laugh, because Prescott, Massachusetts has been buried beneath the Quabbin Reservoir since 1938.

  4. Bill Walderman says

    Wasn’t Boston (the English town) originally St. Botolph’s Town? It would be ironic if the largest Puritan community was named after a saint.

  5. That Hue’s Folly story reminds me of all the places in the Hebrew Bible where names suffixed in -baʕal ( ־בעל )’lord, master; (deity) Baʕal’ that redactionists (incompletely) changed to -bošeth ( ־בשת ) ‘shame’
    So for example מרי־בעל Meri-Baʕal (1Chr. 9:40) ‘Baʕal is (my) advocate’ referred in other places as מרי־בשת Meri-bošeth Who is your advocate? No, not Baʕal, ‘SHAME is my advocate’.
    Religious onomastics can be so much fun sometimes. 🙂

  6. dearieme says

    A company put up a billboard outside a Scottish town that referred to its processed milk factory: “**, the home of contented cows”. But ** was Dumfries, and the Dumfriesians weren’t amused.

  7. Wasn’t Boston (the English town) originally St. Botolph’s Town? It would be ironic if the largest Puritan community was named after a saint.
    Yes, that’s addressed earlier on the same page: “With Boston, however, the Court had thoughtlessly erred a little, for in England that town took its name from Saint Botolph. So in later years the divines had this matter on their consciences, and even disowned the saint. Thus Cotton Mather wrote: ‘Old Boston, by name, was but St. Botolph’s town. Whereas thou, O Boston, shalt have but one protector in heaven, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.'”

  8. Those black-and-white cows you see a lot in Britain: dumb friesians?

  9. dearieme says


  10. I think the very same cows are called holsteins in the USA. They’re both black-and-white, they don’t seem to have cows called friesians in the USA and Schleswig-Holstein is very close to Friesland.

  11. Ha! My long-held cow theory is confirmed by Wikipedia.

  12. clodhopper says

    holy cow

  13. Dumfries…dumb friesians
    I’m glad somebody explained that one. We didn’t have fresians, but I remember Holsteins. There was a brown cow too (“how now brown cow”), but I don’t remember hearing a name for it.
    JE, wasn’t there a wild cow used by the Vikings? I think one of the runes might be based on it.

  14. brown=Jersey? brown+white=Guernsey?
    What is it with cows and small islands?
    I once tramped about on Iona for a day with a friend of mine. Very small island off west coast of Scotland, with magical past. The whole day had been pretty magical. In wandering through the twists and turns and ups and downs of a lovely landscape, green grass with scrubby stuff and rocks poking up, all bathed in sun — you get the picture — we came around a corner and looked up to see a lone cow high above us on a knoll, placidly chewing and apparently gazing out to see. We both laughed with delight, and then I thought of the punchline: ruminant with a view. One of the happiest moments of my life.

  15. to sea, I guess I meant

  16. dearieme says

    Thanks to AJPC for explaining the joke; I hadn’t known that Americans wouldn’t see it, for lack of Friesians. One theory of the origin of the name “Dumfries” is that it started as Dun Fries i.e. fort of the Friesians. I don’t know whether the Friesians in question are thought to have been the Friesian cavalry that the Romans used for operations north of The Wall, or an ealy Anglo-Saxon-Friesian incursion through the Tyne Gap and onto the Solway plain.

  17. How long did it take the Frisian cavalry to get up there, riding on “chevaux de frise”?

  18. Or did they use the cows instead, with their superior speed, when fighting took them far from home.

  19. merely counters without meaning
    That’s an understatement. You’d think them capable of noticing at the very least that it was illogical to call a place
    Dartmouth that was not at the mouth of a river named “Dart”. Then again, the most famous Dartmouth in the U.S. is Dartmouth College, which is not in Dartmouth, Massachusetts (where UMass Dartmouth is located), but in Hanover, New Hampshire; its original funding came from the Earl of Dartmouth.

  20. Ah, here it is. The Viking rune for wild cows is aurochs, the second letter of the futhark.

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