Gilbert: English names in VT

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(HOST) If you’re fascinated by words and like to stare at maps, VPR commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has a book for you.

(GILBERT) A few years ago a friend who’s a talented linguist put me on to a scholarly reference book. It’s not for everyone, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names. It tells you what all those charming English town names mean – like Falkenham, Fangfoss, and Farcet – to cite a few town names from one page chosen at random. (For the record, those names have to do, respectively, with a forge town, a ditch, and a bull’s head.)

Of course, the names of many Vermont towns are also names of English towns; some Vermont town names come from the English towns, some are named in honor of individuals. But where the individual was English royalty, it’s worth noting that their name came originally from a place. Chester, Vermont, for example, was named after the eldest son of King George III, who was the Earl of Chester – a place. But originally, Chester meant Roman station or walled town. And so Colchester, in England, meant the Roman walled town on the River Colne.

I wondered what some of the other town names here in Vermont meant originally, back in England. They don’t necessarily have the same meaning over here. After all, the meaning sometimes goes back to the sixth century, when the Romans occupied England. For example, the etymology of Stratton in England is town (‘tun’) on a Roman road or straet – with an ‘AE’ – thus Stratt-ton.  What made Roman roads special is they were paved. That’s where we get our word street – a paved road.

Tunbridge meant, of course, town bridge. Monkton meant town of the monks. And Arlington meant the town of the people of the earl: Arl-ing-ton.  

In England, Woodstock meant "place in the woods" since "stoc" meant place in Old English.

Newbury originally meant new fort or castle.  Bradford meant broad ford.

Dover meant waters or stream.  And so Andover, back in old Hapshire, referred to the River Ann: Ann-dover.

The suffixes "-wich" and "-wick" both meant village, dwelling, and especially dairy farm. And so Norwich – as they say in England – meant North town. And Hardwick meant sheep farm – as in "herd-wick."

Sometimes meanings differ: in 1203 Fairfield in Derbyshire meant "beautiful field," but Fairfield in Worcestershire meant "hog field," because "for" meant "hog" in Old English!  Originally, Middlesex was the tribal name for the Middle Saxons; later, Middlesex became the name of their territory. And so, Essex originally meant East Saxons, and later referred to the region where,in the ninth century, the East Saxons lived.

Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." Similarly, it’s amazing how much you can learn just by paying attention to names – and to words in general.

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