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Peter O'Connor a.k.a. anemoneprojectors, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

From Ham to Sandwich: 40 Odd British Place Names (And What They Really Mean…)

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Peter O'Connor a.k.a. anemoneprojectors, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s easy to forget that all proper nouns, including first names, surnames, and place names, are all just words in their own right, and as such have their own histories and etymologies behind them. But as the language develops and older words fall out of use, words can end up drifting closer to more familiar words until they eventually become identical—and that happens more often than not with place names.

As Old English became Middle English and eventually modern English, the ancient word elements used to form place names in Old English became obsolete, and as a result some of the names themselves drifted towards other pre-existing and more familiar words in the language. A tour of Britain ultimately could take in the likes of Badger, Droop, Lost, Nasty, Ogle, and Thong—and here’s why.

1. The village of ARROW near Stratford is named for the river Arrow that flows through it, which in turn might take its name from a long-lost Celtic word meaning something like “swift” or “fast-flowing water.”

2. The tiny village of BADGER in Shropshire probably derives from an ancient Anglo-Saxon first name, Baecg, plus ofer, an old English word for a flat-topped promontory.

3. BEER on the coast of Devon in southwest England has nothing to do with liquor: it’s a derivative of an Old English word bearu, meaning “grove.”

4. BOX, just a few miles outside of Bath, takes its name from Buxus, the Latin word for the boxwood tree. (Bath itself is named after the city’s famous Roman baths.)

5. Nothing to do with rabbits, unfortunately: BUNNY in Nottinghamshire is a compound of the Old English words bune and eg, and literally means “reed-covered island.”

6. CARGO in Cumbria, just south of the Scottish border, has a name derived from carreg, a Celtic word meaning “rock,” and haugr, a Scandinavian word meaning “hill.”

7. COTTON in Suffolk takes its name from an Old English word meaning “small houses.” Cottage and dovecot are derived from the same root.

8. Among the strangest of English place names, CRACKPOT in North Yorkshire takes its name from an ancient Scandinavian word for crow, krákr, whereas…

9. … the village of CROW in Hampshire likely derives from one of two ancient Celtic words, crie or crou, meaning “weir” or “sty” respectively.

10. The unfortunately-named hamlet of DROOP in Dorset takes its name from an Old English word, þrop, for an outlying village or farmstead.

11. EAGLE in Lincolnshire literally means something like “oak-tree wood” or “oak-tree clearing,” and derives from a combination two Old English word roots.

12. There are a handful of villages in Essex in southeast England named EASTER, which despite appearances probably take their name from an Old English word, eowestre, meaning “sheep-fold.”

13. Likewise, there are towns and villages all over England called EYE, including examples in Suffolk, Herefordshire, and Cambridgeshire. All of them take their name from the Old English word eg, which, as well as meaning “island,” was also used to refer to a relatively well drained area of land in an otherwise marshy or boggy landscape. The words island and isle, incidentally, also derive from Old English eg.

14. The Derbyshire village of FLAGG in the Peak District probably takes its name from a Scandinavian word for a place where turf could be cut.

15. The village of HAM in Gloucestershire—as well as the “ham” found at the end of countless place names like Birmingham and Nottingham—is derived from a widely-used Old English word, hamm, for a town or farmstead, or else an enclosure or otherwise isolated or enclosed area of land, like a hill or an area of land surrounded by a river bend.

16. An Old English first name, Haegel, is at the root of the name of the Lincolnshire village of HEALING.

17. Probably nothing to do with being high, the Wiltshire village of HIGHWAY actually takes its name from being a road for hay.

18. Like “ham,” HOPE is another common element in ancient English place names—as well as the name of villages in Derbyshire, North Yorkshire and Herefordshire—and derives from an Old English word, hop, meaning “valley” or “enclosed plot of land.”

19. The Isle of Wight off the south coast of England is home to “Seven Wonders”—namely seven local places (Lake, Ryde, Cowes, Freshwater, Newport, Newtown, Winkle Street, and The Needles) whose names seem to contradict their meaning: you can’t thread The Needles, there are no winkles on Winkle Street, you can’t bottle the Newport, drink the Freshwater or milk the Cowes, you walk in Ryde, and there’s no lake in LAKE. Instead, the village of Lake takes its name, somewhat confusingly, from an Old English word, lacu, meaning “stream.”

20. LOOSE in Kent takes its name from an Old English word for a pig-sty, hlōse.

21. The Aberdeenshire village of LOST is so small it’s probably impossible to get lost in it. It takes its name from a corruption of a Scots Gaelic word, taigh-òsda, meaning “inn” or “hotel.”

22. MAKER on the coast of Cornwall takes its name from an old Cornish word, magoer, meaning “wall” or “ruin.”

23. One of the smallest islands in the Inner Hebrides, the Scottish island of MUCK derives from a Gaelic word, muc, meaning “pig.”

24. NASTY in Hertfordshire isn’t as nasty as it sounds: it derives from a compound of the Old English words ēast and hæg, and literally means “eastern enclosure.”

25. OGLE in Northumberland derives from Ocga, an Anglo-Saxon first name, and hyll or hill.

26. The village of OLD in Northamptonshire was originally called “Walda,” then later “Wolde,” and took its name from wald, an Old English word for a woodland.

27. PLUSH in Dorset comes from an Old English word, plysc, meaning “pool.”

28. REDDISH near Manchester probably has nothing to do with color and instead combines the old English words hreod and dic, meaning “ditch by the reed beds.”

29. The “sand” of SANDWICH in Kent is precisely that, but the “wich” comes from the Old English word wic, meaning “trading place,” “dwelling,” or “farm.” Put together, it probably originally referring to a coastal market town.

30. SEND in nearby Surrey derives from the Old English word for sand, sende

31. … while SETTLE in West Yorkshire comes from an Old English word, setl, meaning “high dwelling place.”

32. and 33. Both SHEET in Hampshire and SHUTE in Devon derive from sciete, an Old English word for a corner or bend of land.

34. Another fairly unfortunately named village, THONG in Kent derives from the Old English word thwang, meaning “a narrow stretch of land.”

35. TIPTOE in Hampshire takes its name from an old family name, Typetot, that has been recorded in the area since the 13th century at least.

36. TONGUE in the Scottish Highlands actually means “tongue,” in the sense of a projecting tongue of land. In that sense, it derives from an ancient Scandinavian word, tunga.

37. UPHILL in Somerset isn’t actually uphill, but rather “above the stream”—it would have once combined the Old English words uppan, meaning “higher” or “upon,” and pyll, meaning “tidal creek.”

38. WHALE in Cumbria is 40 miles from the coast, and unsurprisingly has nothing to do with marine mammals. Instead, it derives from hváll, a Scandinavian word for a rounded hill.

39. Likewise WOOL in Dorset has nothing to do with sheep, but comes from an Old English word for a spring, wiell.

40. And no one really knows why YELLING in Cambridgeshire is so called, but one theory is that it is named after someone who had the Anglo-Saxon first name Giella.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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