It sat there in front of me, so tempting, so wanting to be bestowed with a clickbait title on this 12MC article. I could have called it Sex Folk or maybe Folk Sex. Certainly that would have attracted some undeserved attention and a few extra eyeballs. However, for what purpose? People who came to the site on that flimsy premise would create the classic one-and-done scenario, never to return again anyway. It’s not like Twelve Mile Circle ever tried to appeal to a wider audience beyond its faithful core of geo-geeks. I avoided the temptation. However now I have to describe what this article is all about because I spent the entire opening paragraph on a completely unrelated tangent.
The situation became apparent as I started my research for an upcoming trip to Cape Cod and environs in the next few weeks. Massachusetts, I noticed, had counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The prefixes seemed directional, east, middle, north and south. The suffixes, well I knew they came from England during the colonial era although I’d never examined their meaning before. What did -sex and -folk mean, anyway?
At this point the UK audience can probably stop reading. This will likely be old news. It may also be old news for much of the North American audience too. I don’t know.
Oh, I have another interesting tidbit since we’re running down irrelevant tangents today. More 12MC visitors arrive on the site from London than from any other place in the world except for New York City. By that I mean 12MC has a surprisingly robust British audience and a lot of people could probably stop reading right around now and get on with their day.
Harvard Bridge, crossing between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts (my own photo)
Once on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts I walked across the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties. I’d gone there to observe the birthplace of the Smoot in person. That simple stroll allowed me to travel from -folk (Suffolk) to -sex (Middlesex) and back to -folk. Let’s begin by evaluating -sex.
The geographic prefix -sex came from the Old English seaxe, meaning Saxon. The Saxons were a Germanic people who arrived in Great Britain in the fifth century and formed part of the larger Anglo-Saxon grouping that remained in control until the Norman conquest in 1066. Sorry to disappoint everyone with that rather mundane derivation. Thus, in England, Sussex was south Saxon, Essex was east Saxon, Wessex was west Saxon and Middlesex was middle Saxon. That middle Saxon was centered near London and the other lands of Saxons were correspondingly south, east and west. England in modern times split Sussex into West Sussex and East Sussex which are west and east of each other (generally southwest and southeast of London), all logically enough. It made sense.
Things got a bit turned around in the North American colonies when settlers arrived and brought their familiar English placenames with them. In Massachusetts, Essex was east of Middlesex and that was fine. In New Jersey, Sussex was north, Middlesex was south and Essex was in the middle (although one tiny corner extended farthest east). In Virginia, Middlesex was in the middle and Sussex was south as they should have been, however Essex was north.
Boston skyline by Bert Kaufmann, on Flickr (cc)
The City of Boston was located within the -folk when I crossed the Harvard Bridge. Many counties in New England have been disestablished and Suffolk has joined the list. It exists for various statistical purposes although Suffolk no longer has a separate county government. Nonetheless it retained its historical name with it’s pertinent suffix.
Suffolk and Norfolk in England were aligned geographically in an appropriate manner. Massachusetts was completely flipped. Suffolk was north and Norfolk was south. Either the etymology had been obscured or nobody cared by then.