Just the -fax, Ma’am

On March 2, 2014 · 0 Comments

Police sergeant Joe Friday never actually said "just the facts ma’am" on the vintage television show Dragnet, according to Snopes. Rather, the character played by Jack Webb uttered different lines that were later confused with the classic phrase now erroneously attributed to the show.

A similar confusion surrounded the suffix "-fax" appended to surnames and place names, and also to surnames that later became place names. -Fax had an interesting etymology as described in Wiktionary and in other sources:

From Middle English, from Old English feax (“hair, head of hair”), from Proto-Germanic *fahsą (“hair, mane”), from Proto-Indo-European *poḱs- (“hair”, literally “that which is combed, shorn, or plucked”), from Proto-Indo-European *peḱ- (“to comb, shear, pluck”).

It also noted cognates that existed in Dutch, German, Norwegian, Icelandic and Sanskrit generally translating to something like hair, head of hair, mane, and so on.

This might lead one to conclude that English place names ending in -fax might have something to do with hair. Those theories certainly existed with frequency, with some substantiated, some wrong and some uncertain, not unlike Joe Friday sort-of uttered his famous catchphrase using different words. A second title for this article — since I’m in the mood for bad puns — might have been, "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow."

I focused on four -fax place names that traced to England. I’d be interested to know if there were more, and particularly, their etymologies.


Fairfax, Virginia, USA

I was sensitized to Fairfax right away because it was both a county and an embedded independent city in Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, and quite near where I live. Longtime readers might recall my epic journey to the City of Fairfax highpoint, the so-called Water Tower Tour a number of years ago.

Fairfax had the cleanest history, etymology and past association with hair. County and city were both named for Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the county earning its name during the colonial era and the city afterwards. In this instance the peerage was named for the surname so one must start there. I’ll help readers avoid a pile of sleazy baby-naming pages and sketchy genealogy websites peddling advertisements and skip directly to an etymological dictionary. Fairfax meant "fair haired." The million-plus residents of Fairfax, Virginia can decide whether that confers some kind of exalted level of status upon them or not.


Nearly every Colfax was located in the United States, and many traced their naming origin to Schuyler Colfax, the scandal-plagued Vice President who served under President Grant during his first administration (1869-1873).

One such Colfax town named for him, the one in Louisiana, had particular historical significance.

Colfax Massacre, Colfax, Louisiana, USA

As described by the Public Broadcasting Service,

On April 13, 1873, violence erupted in Colfax, Louisiana. The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashed with Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia. The resulting death toll was staggering. Only three members of the White League died. But some 100 black men were killed in the encounter. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.

The other side of the story, as noted by an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier Online, was reflected by an historical marker placed outside the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax in 1950. The marker stated, "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpet bag misrule in the South." To be fair, the nation was undergoing racial turbulence during the 1950′s and the marker reflected certain sentiments of that period. Nonetheless the marker hasn’t been removed either (street view image).

American Surnames discussed two possible etymologies for Colfax. From German, Kohlfuchs referred to a specified color for horses, "dark sorrell or liver chestnut," with the fuchs part referring specifically "a very dark red." Alternately, from Old German, it could refer to the previously-noted hairy explanation. I couldn’t find anything definitive either way.

I worked hard to make sure I didn’t make any typographic errors on that last paragraph! This is a family-friendly website.


The preponderance of Halifax place names in North America were traced to George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax (1716-1771), for example Halifax in Nova Scotia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Unlike Fairfax, the Halifax peerage derived from a place name rather than a surname. The original underlying Halifax used both for the earldom and the primary North American locations was Halifax in West Yorkshire, England.

Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, UK

Legends floated across the Intertubes about how Halifax descended from "holy hair" with some fanciful tale about a pious virgin who was executed and her hair displayed in public. The explanation had fallen out of favor though, making way for a much more mundane theory about how it may have derived "from the Old English halh-gefeaxe, meaning an ‘area of coarse grass in the nook of land.‘"


Readers from the United States likely did a double-take after seeing Carfax mention because it’s better known there as a company that bombards viewers relentlessly with advertisements for vehicle history services. No worries, the Carfax reference in England seemed to be completely coincidental.

Carfax Tower by Holly Hayes on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Carfax, a crossroads, marked the central point of Oxford, England. Carfax itself also had a central point, Carfax Tower, the remnants of a medieval church (map). It’s a tourist attraction now and visitors can climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views for a modest fee.

Most sources seemed to believe that Carfax derived from the French carrefore, "a place where four ways meet" and and earlier Latin quadrifurcus, "four-forked." Some earlier sources discounted that etymology largely on the grounds that French place names weren’t common in England, and halfheartedly wondered if hair figured into the etymology. Those theories didn’t seem to reach beyond the 19th Century, though.

Overall, -fax was a mixed bag: one usage likely related to hair; one maybe and two probably not.


On January 30, 2014 · 0 Comments

All that talk of bowling greens in the previous article increased my curiosity about the sport of bowls (or lawn bowls) in general. It’s similar to a family of Continental lawn bowling games including Bocce and Pétanque and it spread wherever the British Empire extended. I’m not sure why I didn’t discover Bowls a couple of years ago when I tracked down Sports Facilities I Never Imagined because it would have fit in perfectly with that theme.

The Hong Kong Lawn Bowls Association provided a good concise explanation of the sport.

The game of Bowls is played on a 34 to 40M square of closely cut grass called the green. The green is divided into playing areas called rinks. The green is surrounded by a small ditch to catch bowls which leave the green, and a bank upon which markers indicate the corners and centrelines of each rink. Players deliver their bowls alternately from a mat at one end of the rink, towards a small white ball called the jack at the other end. The bowls are shaped so that they do not run in a straight line, but take a curved path towards the jack… the objective of the game is to get one or more bowls closer to the jack than those of the opposition – one point is scored for each counting bowl.


The World Bowls Board oversees the sport, setting laws and regulations for "55 member National Authorities in 51 Member Nations." The Board governs Bowls from its location in Rutland Square, Edinburgh, Scotland. I drilled-in to the address using satellite view and noticed a verdant lawn at the square. I thought that would be a wonderfully appropriate spot for a bowling green. Apparently the managers of the World Bowls Board thought the same because…

No Ball Games!
World Bowls Headquarters, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
via Google Street View, March 2010

… someone had to erect a "No Ball Games" sign in the square. That was amusing. Imagine those hellions at the World Bowls Board running amok on Rutland Square during their lunchtime, with unsanctioned pickup matches, unruly ball rolling and bothering the pigeons and such. I bet they still sneak-in matches when the authorities look the other way.

Commonwealth Games

Bowls is a significant sport in several nations, and World Bowls is justifiably proud that Bowls is "a core sport in the Commonwealth Games." At the upcoming 2014 Games in Glasgow,

Athletes will compete for eight Gold medals across the men’s and women’s singles, pairs, triples and fours, beginning with a round robin format before knockout finals determine the medal winners. Set in one of Glasgow’s most famous parks, the Lawn Bowls competition will take place at the picturesque Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre, adjacent to the renowned Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

The Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre has six, count them SIX, bowling greens, with at least five of them upgraded to international standard.

The Oldest Bowling Green

Southampton (Old) Bowling Green
Southampton (Old) Bowling Green, Southampton, England, UK
via Google Street View, June 2012

The oldest surviving bowling green is believed to be the Southampton (Old) Bowling Green in England. This green has been in continuous use since 1299. I guess I’ll have to take that on faith because "everybody" in the sport said it was true and the history page on the club’s website was down. Nonetheless I was more fortunate with I drilled down to Lower Canal Walk in Southampton using Google Street View. There I observed and captured an image of club members in action. It may not be possible for me to confirm that anyone played at Southampton in 1299, however Google proved that matches took place in June 2012.

Bowls in the United States

Bowls certainly had devoted fans in the United States even if it didn’t have quite the same recognition as found in the UK. Bowls USA governs the sport across an extensive list of Divisions and Clubs.

Leisure World, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

I found the club closest to my residence. It turned out to be located at Leisure World of Maryland, "a private, age-restricted community." I guess I’ll have to defer my dreams of Bowls glory awhile longer. That seemed to be a recurring theme in the United States. Twelve clubs existed in Florida while none existed in huge swaths of the Midwest. Bowls seemed to skew towards an older demographic.

Most Isolated Green?

Murray Barracks Bowling Green, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

I examined the list of international member countries recognized by World Bowls to locate the most isolated bowling green. I probably could have selected any one of several South Pacific islands. Instead I chose to focus on Papua New Guinea for no particular reason other than it seemed improbable. Instead, I discovered that Bowls was apparently quite popular and worthy of television coverage.

Port Moresby has an international standard bowling green at Murray Barracks, the headquarters of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.


Congrats or Something

On December 29, 2013 · 4 Comments

It was like one of those mystery shopping contests where someone enters a store and suddenly confetti and balloons rain from the ceiling when the one-millionth customer crosses the threshold, and wins a big prize. Except it was four thousand. And I couldn’t provide anything valuable. Congratulations to "Peter" for posting Twelve Mile Circle’s 4000th comment from an actual human(¹).

I’m glad it was Peter because he’s been a longtime reader and commentator on Twelve Mile Circle. I thought about doing something similar for a different big round number awhile ago and lost interest after it was some random one-time visitor with a particularly bland observation. Peter deserved better treatment, though. I offered to research an article featuring the geo-oddities of a town of his choice.

Medford, New York, USA

Peter kindly suggested two options, Waterbury, Connecticut and Medford, New York. I set aside Waterbury. I could never serve Connecticut-style (Connecticutiana?) weirdness like the fine writing of Steve over at Connecticut Museum Quest. I’d probably want to talk about the Waterbury Button Museum(²) or Holy Land USA, and of course Steve already covered those way beyond my skills.

Thus, 12MC moved on to Medford. I could have talked about a lot of things:

  • The oddly oval street with the awesome topiary
  • The rare sight of an actual street cleaner in action
  • The street named for a cheezy newspaper cartoon character that I didn’t realize still existed but does
  • The confounding connection to Virginia, or maybe that’s just because I’m sensitive to all things Virginia (e.g., Mt. Vernon Ave., Richmond Ave., Virginia Dr., Blue Ridge Golf Club). There was a veritable confederacy of Virginia place names in Medford!
  • The 12’9" low clearance bridge (however, do not stare at the billboard. That would be rude)
  • The partial alphabetical-order street grid in one section of town where every other street followed the pattern (ACORN, rhode island, BEECHNUT, newport, CHESTNUT, new london, DEVON…)
  • The salvage company with its own railroad connection
  • Carvel Ice Cream? Cookie Puss®.(³)

Indeed, any of those threads may have been worth pursing. Once again I uncovered supporting evidence of a hypothesis that extended way back to the very earliest days of 12MC, that geo-oddities exist everywhere. I found sufficient material right there for probably a half-dozen articles. I sidestepped all of that. In fact, it led me to an earlier time and another continent.

Horseblock Rd., Medford, New York, USA

What in the world was a horseblock other than the name of a major road through Medford? Obviously it bore some significance, perhaps extending back before the village coalesced around a Long Island Railroad station in the mid-19th Century.

Horseblock by Andrew Skudder on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

A horseblock, put simply, was "a step or block of stone, wood, etc., for getting on or off a horse or in or out of a vehicle." They were once quite common. Practically every church, hotel, shop or public square catering to polite society would have offered such a horseblock as a matter of modesty or convenience. Imagine a woman in a long, flowing dress attempting to maintain some dignity as she climbed into a carriage, or an elderly gentleman no longer quite as nimble as he once was, wishing to ride horseback. Only barbaric establishments would have lacked a simple horseblock.

Few horseblocks remain outside of equestrian centers except as quaint, nostalgic reminders of centuries past. Wellington’s horse block in London serves as one such example (map and above). The Duke of Wellington, as described on the plaque attached to the block, "desired" this specific convenience at this spot in 1830 and so it exists in perpetuity. It serves members of the United Services Club, a social group of high-ranking military officers that no longer exists. Even today the parking space in front of this horseblock, and its companion horseblock on the other side of the road, must remain clear in case Wellington’s ghost shows up on spectral horseback and he needs to dismount.

Duddingston Kirk
Duddingston Kirk Horseblock, Edinburgh, Scotland
via Google Street View, August 2012

I found a brief list of horseblocks, as well as a couple of alternate names for them such as mounting blocks, or as in Scotland loupin’-on-stanes (stones to be leapt upon?). Speaking of Scotland, notice this wonderful example of a horseblock in front of Duddingston Kirk on Old Church Lane, Duddingston Village, Edinburgh (map). It’s not exactly a stairway to heaven, more like a stairway to nowhere.

Sorry, Peter, I never discovered the specific horseblock that influenced the naming of Horseblock Road in Medford. It might be lost to history or it may be waiting for someone to post it on the Intertubes. It was likely more memorable as a local landmark a hundred or more years ago when people actually needed horseblocks.

(¹) But Tom, you say, clearly that’s comment 5743, to which I reply, yes, and now you understand the dimensions of comment spam. Those extra 1743 were the particularly persistent ones that made it through two levels of filters and had to be deleted manually from the moderation queue. The filters probably blocked many hundreds of times that amount.
(²) I would never suggest that anyone go over to CTMQ’s button page and ask Steve to appraise a button. That would be mean.
(³) I think the Washington, DC area may have been at Carvel’s far, far, far southern extreme. We’d get those awful homemade advertisements only on the televisions stations that weren’t part of the big-3 networks, the ones that required extra jiggling on the rabbit ears just to catch a staticky signal with reruns of Gilligan’s Island

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