Thursday, May 21, 2009

Donning your wellies and using your eyes

From the Economist's obituary of Margaret Gelling, doyenne of English toponymists.

She was a neat, keen, merry woman, 'prissy' as she described herself, and sensibly shod and clad. The gear was appropriate for slopping through slæp, fenn, myrr and slohtre (the disappointing origin of Upper and Lower Slaughter), or stomping through leah, hurst, holt and græfe, where trees were felled and coppiced and axes rang in the woods. Though she spent much of the time with her nose in one-inch Ordnance Survey maps, tracking the contour lines, she found them a 'coarse instrument' for her purpose. When it came to understanding English place names, there was no substitute for donning your wellies and using your eyes.

Mrs Gelling worked for the English Place-Name Society, formally and informally, from 1946. From 1986 to 1998 she was its president. She never held an academic post, but lectured widely, wrote a dozen books and produced three of the county surveys of place names. She was devoted to the proposition that names drawn from the landscape were not trivial or accidental, but original and important. All her passion for argument was employed to prove that hamm, a piece of land almost enclosed by water, was as vital a suffix as ham, a man-made enclosure; that an ending in -den might come from denu, a long and sinuous valley, rather than denn, a woodland pig-pasture; and that the hall in Coggeshall came from halh, a nook or a hollow, not some grand building. Cogg's nook, a little recess tucked into the 150-foot contour line, was perhaps the best place where he could put his hut. With Mrs Gelling, topography always came first.

No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but "scrubland at the edge of the forest". The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—"land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly". She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land "as if a plug had been pulled out". A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal...