Place Names

The importance of place names as historical evidence has been acknowledged since the sixteenth century but it was only in Victorian times that widespread analysis was undertaken. There was then a good deal of informed guessing at the derivation of names. That guessing was informed but we have to be sceptical, unless there is actual documentary evidence from the dates of foundation, which is very rare.

Personal names incorporated in a place name usually have a known marker, the most noted from Anglo-Saxon times being ‘ing’ as in Nottingham, Reading, Epping etc. Normally, the name is joined with ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ as in ‘Wallington’ or again ‘Nottingham’. The village of Ettington in Warwickshire is authenticated as the township of a people called Eata.

The extra indicator is clearly not present in the case of Etwall.

One of the problems is that the Domesday Book, written in Latin, could not accurately reflect the range of vowels and diphthongs in early English. So it is possible that ‘Et’, ‘t’ or ‘t’ is not a person’s name but a common word meaning meadow – usually a meadow beside a river or stream. Examples of this are found in Eton, Long Eaton, Little Eaton and many other well-known place names. Domesday has these as Aet, Ait, Et amongst others formulations.

The word ‘welle’, sometimes spelt with and ‘o’ rather than a ‘w’, is also ambiguous. It means a water source, either a well as we know it, a stream or a spring; we still say that water ‘wells up’ at the source of a spring. What is more, wells were not at all remarkable. All the local villages have them.

So ‘Ettewelle’ could be Etta’s well, Etta’s people’s well, the water meadow or the meadow with a stream nearby. It could even be something completely different. At all events, the very existence of the founding Etta is uncertain.

Burnaston, literally ‘Burnulf’s Farm’, is a clear case of an informed guess being almost certainly correct.

Bearwardcote is a problem. The ‘ward’ is likely to share that monosyllable’s customary connection with ‘guard’ – ‘gu’ was often used where we now use ‘w’ and the confusion between William and Guillaume continues it. Cote and cottage are known equivalents but the ‘bear’ simply looks like ‘bear’ and we are left with the widely assumed ‘Bear keeper’s cottage’. This is the least unconvincing conjecture.