The Secrets of Names

Burrush (sic), home of Kipling, fairies and swearing

James Lloyd visits some towns and villages in Kent and Sussex, the innocent names of which hide most dark associations.

On the road from Hawkhurst to Hastings, perched atop a rise in the Weald of Sussex, is the picture-postcard village of Burwash, graced with an ancient church, a High Street innocent of lamps and Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s house, where he wrote some of his best-known stories. The village was also home to a nineteenth-century Vicar, who, in a blunderingly amateurish piece of etymology, derived the village’s name from the ablutions of a Roman dog in a nearby stream, so Christening the subsequent settlement “cur-wash”.

Contain your mirth. The learned Vicar made a string of errors too obvious to require recitation but one that is less obvious is the fact that Burwash is not actually pronounced with a w. As is common in many place-names, the medial w had dropped out of usage, if indeed it was ever in usage. Medieval forms of the name include not only “Burgwassh” but also “Burghersh”. The Vicar was, of course, both an outsider and an educated man, so he pronounced place-names as he read them but, if he had had more faith in his parishioners’ ability to know what their home was called, he would have bowed to their experience and pronounced it “burrush”.

“Burrush” makes sense. “Burrush” is a better reflection of the Old English “burg-ersc”, stubble hill. Today, however, everyone is educated and most of the village’s inhabitants are outsiders, so it has become invariably “bur-wash”, which means nothing and yet this nonsense inspired a piece of amateur etymology that created a dainty little folk-tale. (In other respects, however, it may have been better that the Vicar did not listen to his parishioners too closely – so proverbially foul-mouthed were they reputed to be that, in the Wealdan dialect, bad language was known as “Burwash grammar”.)

Sussex was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be converted to Christianity (despite being parked next to Kent, the first) and the Weald in particular, being remote and inaccessible, was one of those districts that clever, well-educated Victorian anthropologists considered a Petri dish of surviving superstition. The Weldsmen, they remarked, still believed in fairies, even to the extent of citing the Bible as evidence for their existence. This was because their dialect employed a double plural, with the result that the Pharisees of Ancient Israel were confused with the “fairieses” of the Weald.

Evidence for the belief in fairies can also be found in place-names. The Old English words “puca”, diminutive “pucel”, are an element in place-names in many parts of England but they are disproportionately common in Sussex, where one finds Pookhill in Alciston, Puxty Wood in Wadhurst and Puckscroft in Rusper, among many others. It was not a coincidence that Kipling wrote Puck of Pook’s Hill while living in Burwash.

“Puca” does not actually mean “fairy” in the modern sense. Some Old English dictionaries translate the word as “goblin” and this is rather closer to the traditional perspective. The medieval fairy was not an effete sylph that flitted through parks and woods, having supper around toadstools. Fairies were fickle, untrustworthy spirits that helped humans when it pleased them and molested them when slighted and it did not take much to slight them. They had a particular delight in stealing unbaptized children and substituting their own demonic offspring. The puck-places of Sussex testify to an ancient dread.

Neighbouring Kent boasts some equally sinister place-names. Near the village of Elham is Grimsacre Farm. “Acre” is simply the Old English word for a field but “grim” could mean one of several things. It is possible that it reflects the opinion of some Anglo-Saxon who first ploughed this field but that is highly unlikely. An alternative suggestion points out that Grim was one of the names of Odin, the king of the Gods of Asgard, who was worshipped by the Ancient English under the name Woden. Perhaps, therefore, this field was once set apart for his devotion.

In an early nineteenth-century map, however, the farm appears not as Grimsacre at all but as Greenacre. Furthermore there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons ever called Woden Grim. It is only in Norse sources that Odin is explicitly given that name and all of the Grim-names that have been confidently associated with the Norse god are in areas of heavy Viking settlement (though there is a dangerous circularity to this argument). Could it be that the farm’s name is in fact completely innocuous and that its association with pre-Christian worship, like Burwash’s association with a well-groomed dog, is nothing more than a scholarly myth derived from a later mispronunciation?

No. The truth is far worse than that. Greenacre is itself a misconstruction, possibly a deliberate one, from an earlier Grimenacre. “Grimena” is an Old English genitive plural, so Grimenacre means not “the field of Grim” but “the field of the grims”. Although it is uncertain that the Anglo-Saxons called Woden Grim, “grima” is an Old English word. It properly means “mask” and it was adopted in Norse mythology as a by-name for Odin as a reference to his penchant for going about in disguise. In Old English, however, it also has the secondary meaning of “apparition”. Grimsacre, in other words, is the field of ghosts.

Yet Woden was not without his worshippers among the Kentish. A mile and a half south-west of Sandwich is the village of Woodnesborough, “winzbruh” to those who have checked. The spelling, even if the Kentish pronunciation has departed from it, preserves its meaning: Woden’s barrow, presumably some Iron-Age burial mound (now lost) that the earliest English to invade Britain designated as a place for meeting to worship the chief god.

Far from Sandwich, five miles east of Maidstone, is the village of Wormshill. This the studious reader will instantly recognize as the hill where a dragon was thought to lurk but this initial appraisal is mistaken. In medieval records, the village is not called Worm’s Hill but “Wodnesell”. In other words, it is another Woden’s hill. Indeed, it appears in the Domesday Book as “Godeselle”, presumably representing an early attempt at cleansing the site from its embarrassing connection with the pre-Christian religion.

We live in them, we drive past them, we see them on maps or road-signs and yet we seldom really notice place-names. In them our ancestors continue to advertise their presence, their fears or their beliefs and even though the majority of place-names are innocuous, lacking the divine or demonic associations of the sample exhibited here, they are still packed full of information about the history of a town, a village, a home. Place-names are fascinating things, little bundles of history waiting to be unwrapped and, although they are full of traps for the incautious student, the truth, once accessed, can sometimes be more surprising, more startling, or more disturbing than the fiction.

Photo credit: Burwash War Memorial (Colin Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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