Stepney.

I just got to the end of the TLS letters section featured in yesterday’s post, and found another gem:

Stepneys

It seems odd that a child born at sea should have a birthplace “Stepney” because of a Welsh street where a car’s attachable spare tyre design originated, as Bernard Richards suggests (Letters, December 11). A quick delve into historical commentary shows that the link is likely to be traceable to an old rhyme in London’s East End, taken to mean that children born on British ships can claim to belong to Stepney parish: “He who sails on the wide sea / Is a parishioner of Stepney”. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stepney borough was formed and its official seal highlighted a sailing ship, at least partly in acknowledgement of the legend. Shipping had been the area’s major industry from its medieval maritime origins.

Alex Faulkner
Lewes, East Sussex

The “spare wheel” sense of the word was mentioned here in 2006, and our favorite Martian, Siganus Sutor, said:

Re: stepney. The word is (still) used in another language in which it also means “spare wheel”, and it is in Mauritian French.

The OED has an entry (not updated since 1933 except to add citations):

Etymology: < the name of Stepney Street, Llanelli, the place of manufacture.

1. A spare wheel for a motor vehicle, comprising a ready-inflated tyre on a spokeless metal rim, which could be clamped temporarily over a punctured wheel. Also stepney wheel. Now Historical except in Bangladesh, India, and Malta, where = any spare wheel.

1907 Westm. Gaz. 3 Dec. 4/3 The popularity of the Stepney Wheel has never been more clearly demonstrated than at the Olympia Show.
[…]
1910 G. K. Chesterton Alarms & Discursions 179 Then he said, ‘And I left the Stepney behind.’
1911 Daily Chron. 5 Jan. 4/7 Wales claims the origin of the ‘stepney’, the spare wheel and tyre.
[…]
1929 H. Nicolson Let. 22 July in J. Lees-Milne Harold Nicolson (1980) xvi. 376 [In Berlin he was like] a stepney wheel of a car that is seldom taken out of the garage.
[…]
1971 Listener 11 Nov. 653/1 After jacking up the car, one of them turned to me and said: ‘Have you a Stepney?’ ‘Yes, in the boot,’ I answered… It takes an old Edwardian like me to know that a Stepney was an attachable wheel-rim, which came in about 1907 and went out about ten years later. You wouldn’t hear the term in England now, but in Malta it is the ordinary word for a spare wheel.
1973 Opinion (Bombay) July 31 It helps to have a few holes in the roof of the car and to go about without a Stepney.
[…]
1980 L. Lewis Private Life of Country House iii. 35 About 1920 we bought a secondhand T model Ford… In case of punctures there was a Stepney wheel to be clamped on to the rim to get you home.

2. figurative.
1928 E. Sutton tr. A. Londres Road to Buenos Ayres ii. 18 I told her I had a woman already in Buenos Ayres, that she could only be my little sweetheart, as we say, or my ‘stepney’, if you like that better.
1929 E. Linklater Poet’s Pub xxvi. 282 Redemption being carried as a kind of stepney on the best of all possible worlds.
1979 P. Nihalani et al. Indian & Brit. Eng. i. 167 Dr X may not be able to give his talk—we’d better arrange for a stepney.

It’s a charming word, and I’m sorry that it’s gone out of fashion in the mother country; I hope it hangs on in the subcontinent and Malta.

Incidentally, the Lewes in East Sussex from which the letter-writer hails is pronounced /ˈluːɪs/ (as if “Lewis”); Wikipedia’s etymology section is interesting (and ends with Welsh, which will please the Eddyshaw faction):

The place-name ‘Lewes’ is first attested in an Anglo-Saxon charter circa 961 AD, where it appears as Læwe. It appears as Lewes in the Domesday Book of 1086. The addition of the <-s> suffix seems to have been part of a broader trend of Anglo-Norman scribes pluralising Anglo-Saxon place-names (a famous example being their rendering of Lunden as Londres, hence the modern French name for London).

The traditional derivation of Læwe, first posited by the Tudor antiquarian Laurence Nowell, derives it from the Old English language word hlæw, meaning ‘hill’ or ‘barrow’, presumably referring to School Hill (on which the historic centre of Lewes stands) or to one of the five ancient burial mounds, all now levelled, in the vicinity of St John sub Castro.

However, this etymology has been challenged by the Swedish philologist Rune Forsberg on the grounds that the loss of the initial ⟨h⟩ in hlæw would be unlikely phonologically in this context. He suggested that the name Læwe instead derives from the rare Old English word lǣw (‘wound, incision’), and reflects the fact that from the top of School Hill Lewes overlooks the narrow, steep-sided ‘gash’ where the River Ouse cuts through the line of the South Downs. This theory was endorsed in 2011 by A Dictionary of British Place Names.

A third possibility has been advanced by Richard Coates, who has argued that Læwe derives from lexowia, an Old English word meaning ‘hillside, slope’ (of which there is no shortage in the Lewes area). This unusual word was borrowed into Old English from Old Welsh, the Modern Welsh spelling being llechwedd.

My second edition of A Dictionary of British Place Names, from the 1990s, still has the ‘burial mounds’ etymology, so I’m glad to have the update. Also, “St John sub Castro” is a great name.

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Lewes, Delaware (way downstate in Sussex County*) is pronounced the same way. Is there a Lewes that’s pronounced differently?

    *Wm. Penn supposedly changed the names of both the town and the county to those they still bear and did so simultaneously, so likely not a coincidence.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, I recall being in my teens and listening on the Hot Rocks collection to Rolling Stones songs as old as myself without having the London-centric cultural context to make sense of a line like “Now she gets her kicks in Stepney / Not in Knightsbridge anymore.”* By contrast, “Your mother, she’s an heiress / Owns a block in St. John’s Wood” was enough to convey that St. John’s Wood was probably a pretty upscale neighborhood, but the intended Stepney/Knightsbridge contrast was trickier to suss out just from context.

    *From a song both recorded and released on 45 while I was in utero, although not released on album (in the US version) until I was a newborn.

  3. So we’re about the same age 🙂

  4. Stu Clayton says

    the rare Old English word lǣw (‘wound, incision’)

    PIE-something -> laedo -> lesion and lǣw ?

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    After a long early morning journey down the country I once found myself on a train which was insisting that it was going to Lewis, Berwick and Hampden Park, among other places, which was kind of disconcerting to my tired mind.

  6. PIE-something -> laedo -> lesion and lǣw ?

    For what it’s worth, Wiktionary derives it from Proto-Germanic *laiwą < PIE leyh₂- ‘to die, disappear.’

  7. Stu Clayton says

    This is just not my game. Thanx anyway.

  8. Rainer Brockerhoff says

    In Brazil, “estepe” is still a common word for a spare tire/tyre; no doubt this is derived from Stepney.
    https://context.reverso.net/translation/portuguese-english/pneu+estepe

  9. If I were going to be persnickety — and dagnabbit, I am — I would say that Lewes isn’t pronounced exactly like Lewis. (I lived there for a summer years ago and I have a brother who lives there now).

    I say the name Lewis with a short i for the second syllable (is this what’s referred to as ‘happy tensing’? I’m not sure).

    But I say Lewes with more of a schwa or perhaps a short u, lew-uss.

    It’s a very tiny difference and I may be imagining it.

  10. If I were going to be persnickety — and dagnabbit, I am — I would say that Lewes isn’t pronounced exactly like Lewis. (I lived there for a summer years ago and I have a brother who lives there now).

    Are you talking about the UK Lewes or the US Lewes?

  11. The UK one

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    When you say ‘the name Lewis’, are we talking Capaldi or Eilean Leodhais?

  13. I say the name Lewis with a short i for the second syllable (is this what’s referred to as ‘happy tensing’? I’m not sure).

    But I say Lewes with more of a schwa or perhaps a short u, lew-uss.

    I can’t answer for your version, obviously, but both my dictionaries of UK pronunciation give short i (/ɪ/) in the second syllable, agreeing with Wikipedia, and neither has a schwa variant.

  14. That’s funny, I just happened to click on a LH bookmark I had kept for some time, which points towards the page “JEREMY/AJP, RIP”, and out of curiosity I checked the latest post — just to see that my name was mentioned there. (Thanks, Hat.)
    A stepney (lower case) as a birthplace when there is nothing else that could do: how meaningful for a few of us on this blue planet!
    But shouldn’t the birth be registered at the next port of call? This would mean your birth certificate would then be from the port in question. Would you then be a parishioner of that city and a citizen of that country?
    Well, I don’t really know; I was born on Mars.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Quoth wikipedia: “Despite a common misconception to the contrary, birth on board a U.S.-flagged ship, airliner, or military vessel outside of the 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) limit is not considered to be a birth on U.S. territory, and the principle of jus soli [i.e. acquiring U.S. citizenship from birth regardless of citizenship of parents] thus does not apply.” OTOH, birth on a foreign-flagged vessel inside the 12-mile limit (whether docked/anchored in harbor or not) apparently does count as birth within the United States for citizenship purposes.

  16. David Marjanović says

    an old rhyme in London’s East End, taken to mean that children born on British ships can claim to belong to Stepney parish: “He who sails on the wide sea / Is a parishioner of Stepney”.

    Really? The meter is so off that I wouldn’t have noticed the rhyme if it hadn’t been pointed out.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s a 1905 letter to the editor addressing the Stepney/born-at-sea connection (which the actual Stepney authorities were apparently not always enthusiastic about). http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/4th-march-1905/17/to-what-parish-do-those-born-at-sea-belong

  18. I agree with David L. In the UK, Lewis and Lewes have slightly different pronunciations. Maybe the dictionary bods couldn’t quite pick it up so it got lost in translation.

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