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.
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.
I noted the inherent redundancy of places named River Ouse in England. The literal translation worked out to something like Water River or even River River. Similar repetitions occurred likewise wherever one language overlapped another as new settlers migrated into territory occupied and named previously by earlier cultures. I found a discussion of the Ouse situation specifically on the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage website, including one particularly fascinating comment that illustrated a similar point using a different English location:
Steam Under Pendle Hill by Andrew, on Flickr (cc)
There are other similar anomalies in place names in the British Isles. One of my favourites is Pendle Hill. The word ‘pen’ means hill. Later, the next incomers changed the hill’s name to ‘Pendle’, meaning ‘hill hill’. And then the next incomers, not knowing the etymology (and sadly lacking an internet) called it Pendle Hill or ‘hill hill hill’, so Pendle Hill really, really, really is a hill, because anything said three times is the truth.
In Pendle Hill’s case (map), it came from the Cumbric pen in its earliest form, then combined with Old English hyll to form Pendle, then later appended with the modern English hill. Pen, Hyll and Hill all meant the same thing essentially. There was another place in England, Torpenhow Hill, that was alleged to translate to Hill, Hill, Hill, Hill, however its etymology was debunked. What a pity.
Wikipedia contained a long list of similar tautological place names; "A place name is tautological if two differently sounding parts of it are synonymous. This often occurs when a name from one language is imported into another and a standard descriptor is added on from the second language." Dictionaries described tautology as a logical or rhetorical redundancy that applied broadly; much more widely than just geography.
The frequency of tautological place names surprised me. They included familiar names like Mississippi River (Mississippi being Algonquian for Big River, making it Big River River) and Lake Michigan (Michigan coming from Ojibwa via French mispronunciation as Large Lake, making it Lake Large Lake).
I stole a handful of examples from the very expansive list and ruminated upon them further.
Chora, Astypalaia by Henrik Berger Jørgensen, on Flickr (cc)
The Dodecanese Islands (map) in the Aegean Sea formed Greece’s southeastern extreme. The largest and most well know was probably Rhodes, famed since ancient times for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The island of Kos also had a lengthy pedigree and was even mentioned by name in Homer’s Iliad. Still another, Patmos, was where the apostle John wrote the biblical Book of Revelation
s. Clearly there were renowned places amongst the Dodecanese Islands. The major islands within the group numbered twelve in total plus numerous smaller island.
Dodecanese was Greek (Δωδεκάνησα) for Twelve Islands, so the commonly Anglicized place name was equivalent to Twelve Islands Islands.
Lake Hayq by Manogamos, Algunas veces Mujeres Violentas, on Flickr (cc)
I selected the next example in Ethiopia because, frankly, I wanted to put a push-pin on Ethiopia on my Complete Index map. Africa had been sadly underrepresented on 12MC. I need to add more. Lake Hayq (map) offered an excellent opportunity. Plus it gave me an excuse to write Hayq in that funky Ge’ez script used by Ethiopians: ሐይቅ
Hayq had an interesting creation myth:
According to a local legend, the lake was created to avenge a pregnant woman who was wronged by a princess. God was greatly angered by this injustice, and in his wrath turned all of the land surrounding the woman (except the ground she was sitting on) into water forming a lake, destroying the princess along with her friends and family in the process. Where the pregnant woman was sitting became an island (now a peninsula) where Istifanos Monastery, founded in the middle of the 13th century by Iyasus Mo’a, is located.
Hayq was Amharic for lake, so calling it Lake Hayq was equivalent to calling it Lake Lake.
La Brea Tar Pits
La Brea Tar Pits – Los Angeles, California by ashabot, on Flickr (cc)
I visited La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California a number of years ago (map). It made the list for that simple reason. I found it oddly wonderful that I was able to visit an important paleontological site in such a completely urban environment. Natural deposits of tar oozed up to the surface over thousands of years. Sometimes leaves or dust would blow across the surface making it appear solid and indistinguishable from surrounding terrain. Along would wander some Ice Age critter stumbling into the tar, unable to extricate itself, and die. Repeat that innumerable times and scientists are still removing their bones for study today.
The Rancho La Brea biota is one of the world’s richest and most diverse late Pleistocene terrestrial assemblages. At the last census, in 1992, the collection exceeded 3.5 million specimens. The diversity of species (~ 600), the quality of preservation, and the large numbers of specimens makes this collection invaluable for the study and understanding of the end of the last Ice Age in North America. Rancho La Brea is perhaps best known for its extensive holdings of carnivorans, of which dire wolves (Canis dirus), saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis), and coyotes (Canis latrans) predominate among the 60 plus species of mammals.
La Brea was Spanish for The Tar, so La Brea Tar Pits meant The Tar Tar Pits. Oftentimes, compounding this, sources referred to the site as The La Brea Tar Pits (even the museum located on the site called itself "Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits." on one of its pages). That would make it The The Tar Tar Pits.
I came across the oddly named River Great Ouse as I researched Pathway to Bedford. The river ran through Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire.
The Great Ouse at St Ives by sean_hickin, on Flickr (cc)
I was amused even further when I discovered that it was pronounced somewhat akin to "Ooze." A body of water likened to a great ooze seemed awful, as if it flowed with black tar or sewage. That wasn’t the case of course. In fact, photographic evidence made it appear quite lovely.
The Great Ouse became great because there were actually several rivers Ouse located throughout England and this one happened to be the largest and longest. In fact this one was the fourth longest river in the United Kingdom extending 143 miles (230 kilometres) from Syresham to the Wash on the North Sea in East Anglia (map).
One of its more interesting features might have been the Cardington Slalom Course in Bedford, the first artificial kayaking facility constructed in the United Kingdom.
Opened in September 1982, Cardington is a 120m long S-shaped trapezoid concrete channel with movable boulders fixed to the base which can be moved to make different river patterns. The maximum drop is 1.7 meters, but it’s enough for a good white water training facility and you can warm up on the main river. It offers safe moving water for paddlers at any level, and is suitable for up to Division 2 Slaloms, and also for recreation groups to hire.
What about some of those other Rivers Ouse?
River Little Ouse
Little Ouse River, Thetford by Alan Winter, on Flickr (cc)
One might consider that River Little Ouse would be an ideal name for a tributary of River Great Ouse, and that was indeed the case. Little Ouse flowed into Great Ouse near Littleport in Cambridgeshire after passing Thetford (map). Indeed it was little, a mere 37 miles (60 km). However it also hid a greater significance, the dividing line between Norfolk and Suffolk for a considerable distance. Portions of it were also navigable by canal boats.
The other Rivers Ouse were not part of the Great and Little Ouse watersheds.
River Ouse, Yorkshire
River Ouse at York by Tim Green, on Flickr (cc)
The River Ouse in Yorkshire (map) might not have been designated as Great, however it flowed through the rather significant city of York. As the city explained, "The city of York owes its existence to the Rivers Ouse and Foss. These natural barriers made it an ideal defensive site which was settled by the Romans in AD71."
A couple of towns incorporated the river’s name, Newton-on-Ouse and Linton-on-Ouse. A Royal Air Force base located nearby adopted the name by extension, RAF Linton-on-Ouse: "RAF Linton-on-Ouse is one of the busiest airfields in the country. Tasked with the training future fast jet pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the Station operates the Tucano T1."
River Ouse, Sussex
The River Ouse at Lewes, East Sussex by Henry Hemming, on Flickr (cc)
Another River Ouse existed in Sussex (map). It was notable for a more painful reason.
The English author Virginia Woolf suffered from depression for much of her life. A number of tragic events befell her during the early years of the Second World War including the destruction of her London home during the The Blitz.
These seemingly insurmountable facts motivated Woolf’s decision to, on March 28, 1941, pull on her overcoat, walk out into the River Ouse and fill her pockets with stones. As she waded into the water, the stream took her with it. The authorities found her some three weeks later.
Why were there so many rivers named Ouse? The Free Dictionary offered an explanation.
Ouse is a perfectly appropriate name for a river, but one whose etymological meaning is likely to raise a smile. The name of these two rivers is derived from the Celtic languages that were spoken in England before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles. Their Celtic name, Ūsa, is derived from *udso-, “water,” which is in turn derived from the Indo-European root *wed-, “wet, water.” The same root *wed- gives us the English words water and wet as well. Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the “Water River” or the “Wet River.” Of course, the speakers of early forms of the English language who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the word—as is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.
So in a since they were all really the River River.