From linen-land

Both of the recent Russell books I’ve worked on, The Language of Bees and The Green Man (which final name is still to be decided…), look at the roots of what we now know as Britain. Thomas Brothers particularly is fascinated by the Norse and Roman roots of British society, and significant place names touch on the plot at various points.
We are currently staying in Oxfordshire: the shire (or roughly county) surrounding the town built up around the place where oxen can ford safely. The town of Burford is a medieval market town, as the sign at the entrance of town proclaims, and it, too, is a ford—in this case, one built around a fortification, or in Old English, Burh. The nearest village to me is Shipton under Wychwood, or the sheep-farm (scep tun) below Hwicce’s wood. The nearby Milton under Wychwood is the middle farm below the wood. And our hamlet (no church or even village shop) is Lyneham, the place where flax (lin—you knew that, right?) grows. Although I have yet to spot any flax. And last night I drove into the other town to buy fish and chips—appropriate, for Chipping Norton (ceping/north/tun, or market/north/settlement, the village in the north that has a market. Which incidentally it does: a Sainsbury’s.) And lest we forget that the busy farmers and monks in the middle ages made a lot of changes to the land, the big town (a two-supermarket town) of Witney translates as Witta’s island.

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  1. Laidee Marjorie on August 30, 2009 at 3:14 am


    Well that all makes me dizzy. But in a wonderful anglophilic, wish I was there, couldn’t be happier for you, sort of way! Thanks. No wonder you love maps so much. There are great things to ferret out all over the place.

    I lived in Boston for eight years and my mother grew up there, but I only just found out that it’s real name was Saint Botoph’s Town and the English whittled it down to ‘Bos’ton way back when.

    The world can be a wonderful place. Litterally. Full of wonder.


  2. Sara on August 30, 2009 at 4:35 am

    Why do we find the names in England so quirky? I love it- so weird and wonderful simultaneously. Brilliant.

    I hope the trip finds you well-received at book events and relaxed at the rest. Thank you for the updates- living vicariously through a jaunt in England is as close as I can get yet! 🙂

  3. Tim H. on August 30, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Not so very strange, check out some of the town names on a Missouri road map. Peculiar and Tightwad among them, might cause British eyes to roll heavenward.

  4. Strawberry Curls on August 30, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Love the name derivations, and the website that lists by county. Who knew Lewes came from the old English for injury? Meaning the gap or fissure that allows the river Ouse to flow to the sea. Fascinating.


  5. rebecca on August 30, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I spent the past summer in Saskatchewan, where there is an Elbow and Eyebrow. And, of course, a Moose Jaw.

  6. Carlina on August 30, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Love it! Love it! I love how names of towns are easily broken down if one knows the meaning. I think I’ve lived in many towns like that. Won’t elaborate on them all here, but there are plenty in the Midwest and even the south.

    Who on earth thought of Boca Raton?

    I think the neat thing is the functionalism in the names of towns in the old country in Britain. That may be the anthropologist in me, but I love breaking those things down and tearing them apart morpheme by morpheme.

    I hope your visit to the olde country goes fabulous. Do enjoy the shire!

  7. Canzonett on August 30, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I remember how we were being told about the Danelaw and the Viking influences in Britain in my introductory course in Scandinavian studies. And all of a sudden, all those strange “English” place names started making sense and turning into wonderful linguistic toys since they could be derived from words we learned in our Old Norse class – like “tún”, the meadow surrounding the house, which turned into “-ton”. So much history hidden in those names!

  8. annie on August 30, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Last week I posted loads of information about Luton & surrounding area in “author’s study” – or rather, I thought I did – there is no trace, I must have pressd the wrong button..
    As you are now in the UK, I thought I’d post it here. Looking forward to seeing you in multi-cultural Luton – a town that has manufactured hats, bicycles, electric goods, beer & cars; now has an airport that serves London. Waves of people have come here for work over the last century: Welsh, Scots, Irish, Italians, Poles, West Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and from the many countries of Africa. One of our schools alone has 28 languages spoken in it. Our libraries are wonderful!
    Here are pictures of carnival:

    The surrounding countryside is quietly lovely. Dunstable Downs is the best known Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty:

    However, if you have little time, can I direct you to the tree cathedral, planted after WW1 in “faith, hope & reconciliation”. It is barely a few minutes off the route from Burford to Luton:

    See you in Luton!

  9. La Donna on August 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Only thing better than geographic names are the pub names … “our hamlet (no church or even village shop) is Lyneham” … and the local pub name is?? Something fun?

  10. Michael on August 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    It’s not always that clear. I live on the edges of Darwen Moor in Lancashire. It could be argued that Darwen means several different things depending on which dialect or era of Celtic language development it is derived. This sort of stuff is what makes historical linguistics so interesting.

  11. Megan on August 31, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Lovely stuff! I think my favorite town name so far has to be Kamloops, in British Colombia. In my state we have Drain, Curtain, and Boring.

  12. Artemisia on September 5, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Place names: May I interest you in Pass-a-Grille, the land’s end of St Pete Beach here in Florida? No one knows the origin, tho many fanciful explanations have been made.

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