Wednesday, January 20, 2010



“Where does your boyfriend live?”

“In London.”

“Which part?”


I either get a quizzical look from this, or else an involuntary snort of laughter. If you have trouble seeing it yourself, pronounce the word. Resemble a vegetable? I confess I didn’t see the humor in it for a long time, as I had read the word before I ever heard it said. I know I initially thought Bill Bryson made too much of strange place names in Notes on a Small Island, but incidents like this make me realize he’s absolutely right. The British Isles have some absolutely bizarre and ridiculous place names.

I suppose we should start with the obvious: Mumbles. This is something like why Brits drive on the left side of the road and MOST OF THE REST OF US drive on the right side: everyone thinks they know the answer, but no one has yet given me a convincing explanation. The explanation quoted in tomes such as Real Wales is that the strange name comes from the French “mammelles,” meaning “breasts,” which is supposed to be what the two rocks going out toward Mumbles Head resemble. And then there’s the chestnut: is Mumbles or THE Mumbles? I noticed the sign as I walking referred to it as THE Mumbles, which makes something silly-sounding appear even more poncy, in my opinion.

Llantwit Major is somewhere I’ve never been, and I can’t say I’d want to with a name like that. Sounds like “Half-Wit Major,” or “Dim-Wit Major” (though I’m told Llan, a common prefix, has to do with a saint). It took Adi’s delighted yet perplexed point of view to remind me of the absurdity of Sketty: in Welsh it’s Sgetty, which she knowingly misconstrued as P’sgetti. Then there’s Mold . . . yes, that’s a Welsh town name. If you’ve watched Torchwood you may remember Splott (which Ianto helpfully informs us is prounounced “Sploh”)—it’s an estate area of Cardiff. I remember several co-workers at the Museum had a really good time over the etymology of Tai Bach—Welsh for “small houses.” Which is really the same as the little boys’/girls’ room. “Sarn” isn’t particularly funny unless you’ve seen “Planet of Fire”! The mother of them all is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll'llandysiliogogogoch, a disappointing place to visit.

Apparently the little county of Dorset has a large population of strange place names, among them Briantspuddle, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Speen, and Droop. Scotland has some winners, too, of course, like Ecclefechan, Dunbog, and Spittle. I’m sure you can Google some good ones on your own. I haven’t been keeping a list particularly when I was working for an inset company that required calling secondary schools across the UK, but a few place names were so memorable they do spring to mind: Cobwebs Cottage (in Newton, near Caswell), Woollacot Mews (a street), Giggleswick, Biggleswade, etc.

It seems every time I go to London I find a new funny or interesting street name. Chorleywood, Ickenham, Hanger Lane, Sudbury Hill, Pinner, Putney, Burnt Oak, Tooting Bec (especially when there are Yetis to be found), Goodge Street, Cockfosters, Canada Water (sounds like a brand of soft drink), Rotherhithe, Epping, Fairlop, Barking, the Hams, Cutty Sark. I’ve never heard a concrete origin story for Elephant & Castle or Angel. It’s always struck me as ironic that all the Ripper murders went on in Whitechapel, surely a place of holiness at some stage in its history? The Original London Walk, of course, is a good way to discover some of these obscure and interesting areas. And then when you’re a Doctor Who fan, the silliest things can set you off: J and I first met near Eccleston Bridge. You can imagine why the Ninth Doctor was on both of our minds.

Finally, since I do get asked this on a fairly regular basis, where does the name “Swansea” come from and what does it mean? The Welsh name for Swansea is Abertawe, which simply means “the settlement on the Tawe River” (which is indeed the river that runs through Swansea. The truth is no one can really say where “Swansea” comes from, though it is generally believed it comes from the Norse and that a Viking called Svein (or some variation thereof) settled the place. The Norse contribution to this area is undeniable but whether that story is apocryphal or not, we don’t know. One thing’s for certain, it has nothing to do with swans!

1 comment:

LSJansen said...

Being a Hitchhiker's Guide fan, I was delighted to find Fenchurch Street in 1999. Fenchurch is the name of the lady Arthur Dent falls for when he finally makes it back to Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. She was named after the street.