Avoiding the Temptation

On April 19, 2015 · 6 Comments

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.


-sex Suffix


Smoots on Harvard Bridge
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.


-folk Suffix


Boston skyline
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.

Sometimes the obvious guess provided the answer, and -folk means folk, i.e., people. Suffolk meant south folk, from the Old English suþfolcci. Norfolk, well, meant north people.

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.

On April 19, 2015 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “Avoiding the Temptation”

  1. Rhodent says:

    There’s also a Norfolk and Suffolk in Virginia, both in the southeastern part of the state. Originally Norfolk was east-northeast of Suffolk. However, in 1974 the City of Suffolk absorbed with Nansemond County*, and as such today Norfolk is due east of the northern portion of Suffolk.

    New York, meanwhile, has a Norfolk and Suffolk which are both hard to argue with. The town of Norfolk is in the far north of the state, about 10 mi/15 km from the border with Ontario (and roughly twice as far from the New York/Ontario/Quebec tripoint). Meanwhile, Suffolk County is part of Long Island, and the only counties in the state that are farther south are those that are also on Long Island and/or are part of New York City.

    * Technically, Nansemond County became the City of Nansemond in 1972 and the City of Suffolk absorbed the City of Nansemond in 1974.

  2. Steve Spivey says:

    Just having “sex folk” and “folk sex” in the text – and in the comments 🙂 – should increase search engine hits for those terms.

  3. Gary says:

    That sort of reminds me a bit of where my parents live. They live in Sevierville, Tennessee. Just in Tennessee, I can think of quite a few places that end in -ville. Ones like Sevierville, Knoxville, Danville and Nashville to name a few. And, my brother lives in the city of Braintree, MA which is in Norfolk County, Mass. We are all from Rhode Island originally.

    Also, where I live near Orlando, FL, various places begin with the word “winter” around here (Winter Park, Winter Springs, Winter Garden and Winter Haven). In fact my favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, had their spring training in Winter Haven for many years (they are now in Fort Myers). The Cleveland Indians trained in Winter Haven after the Sox left, but I don’t think any teams train in Winter Haven now.

    • Gary says:

      Sorry, I was wrong. I meant Dandridge in Tennessee (it is right near where Interstate 81 and Interstate 40 meet). There is a Crossville and a Cookeville in Tennessee between Knoxville and Nashville off of I-40, a Maryville a bit south of Knoxville and not far from Sevierville and an Asheville in North Carolina not far from Knoxville also on I-40.

  4. Joel says:

    I’ve always been a little disappointed that we missed having Norsex, Wesfolk or Easfolk.

    Related: the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire series takes place mainly on the fictional continent of Westeros, but the mother-of-dragons plotline is east of there, on Essos. (Nothing important yet has happened to the south, on Sothoryos.)

    • January First-of-May says:

      Nossex, more likely. Thought of that too (and considered using it as a throwaway reference if I ever wrote a story involving travel between alternate timelines/parallel universes).
      I don’t know enough about English linguistic history to confidently say what the other two would’ve came out to (though my current bet’s on Weffolk and Effolk).

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