Monday, May 30, 2016

The origins of English names

Edward Rutherfurd
Edward Rutherfurd's novel London not only serves up a history of the city in story form, as I wrote about last Friday, it also provides something of a history of the English language. Take for example the name of the city itself. At one time, more than 2,000 years ago, it was called Londinos. When the Romans came, they called it Londinium. Still later, according to Rutherfurd's narrative, it was Lundenwic, Lunden and finally London.

On page 88, he gives a primer on English place names. What was once Chalk Island become known as Chelsea because in Anglo-Saxon "island" was pronounced "eye." Similarly, Badric's Island became known as Battersea. The suffixes -ham, -ton and -hythe meant hamlet, farm and harbor, respectively. Thus we now have place names such as Fullham and Kensington.

To us today, the phrase "the clink" is slang for jail or prison. Yet in London at one time there was actually a small prison named the Clink.

We all know that many English surnames reflect back on the work once done by members of that family, but Rutherfurd gives us a few we may not have known: "Glovers making gloves. Saddlers making saddles. Lorimers making bridles. Coopers making barrels. Turners making wooden cups. Bowyers making bows. Fletchers making arrows. Skinners dealing in furs. Tanners curing leathers ..."

Those who bought large, or gross, quantities of goods for resale were known as "grossers," which later became "grocers."

The English word impeachment dates back to Norman times, Rutherfurd tells us. It comes from the French word ampeschement, meaning embarrassment.

If the English place name Piccadilly sounds amusing to us, that is how it was originally meant to sound. Writes Rutherfurd, "The name, originally, had been a joke, because the merchant who had bought up the land had made his fortune supplying 'picadils' -- ruff collars -- to the Elizabethan and Stuart court."

And so it goes. Rutherfurd tells us all this and more about English words without ever seeming to interrupt his story.

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