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Rivers and Streams

Jon Ward-Allen
Stacks Image 1429

Rivers and Streams

Jon Ward-Allen

Following on from our recent blog about the curious names of fish we thought you might like this - about how some of our rivers got their names . . .

Original Names

Many villages and homesteads were originally named after a natural object, or more rarely some product of human activity near, or in which, the place was situated. Oxford, for example, was at first designated as just a ford over the Thames. When the village grew up at the ford it was named after it, and Oxford (when used of the village), originally meant ‘the village at Oxford’. Arrow, the name of a village on the river Arrow, at first denoted just the river, later the village on the Arrow, and finally Arrow village.

There are many habitation-names that were originally the names of rivers, streams, fords, lakes, springs and bays. Most of these names are English compounds or common nouns, such as Sherbourne, Bexhill, Bourne and Mere. Many rivers though had pre-English names, which often came to denote settlements on the river, like Darenth, Isle and Tarrant. Other pre-English nature-names became names of settlements, like barr, cannock, chute and penn.

It is obvious that Cambridge is really of the same type of name as Oxford. Cambridge was just originally ‘the bridge over the Granta’, but came to mean the ‘village at Grantanbrycg' and finally Grantanbrycg village. Of the same kind are names that contain words for road, wall, ditch, pole, memorial-stone, &c., as Barnstaple, Wall.

Names of this kind were usually just an expression for ‘homestead’ or ‘village’. Twyning was originally Bituinaeum ‘between the rivers’, i.e. ‘the place between the rivers’. Many names still preserve the preposition, though its meaning is not now understood except in some names of late origin, such as Undermillbeck and Underskiddaw, the latter of which means ‘the village at the foot of Skiddaw’.

Some well-known British rivers and streams

The following names are to a large extent of British origin, particularly those of major rivers like the Aire, Avon, Dee, Derwent (Darent, Dart), Don, Exe (Axe, Esk), Ouse, Severn, Stour, Tees, Thames, Trent and Wye. Many small streams also have British names and these are common in some areas, like Dorset (Gale, Cerne, Char, Divelish, Frome, Iwerne, Lidden, Lodden, Lyme, and the original stream-names of Winfrith and Wynford); Somerset (Brue, Cam Brook, Chew, Dowlish, Frome, Kenn, Parret, Wellow); Gloucestershire (Cam, Carant, Frome, Leadon); Herefordshire (Arrow, Dulas, Garren, Lugg, Olchon, Worm); Shropshire (Cound, Dowles, Meole, Roden, Tern); Cumberland (Calder, Cam Beck, Cocker, Dacre, Ellen, Lyne).

Aire. Probably from Old Celtic Isara ‘strong river.

Avon. A common river-name that goes back to Old British Abona. The name is identical with the Welsh afon and literally means just river.

Dee. From Deva (the earliest forms of Chester) ‘the goddess’ or ‘the holy river’. The name is related to the Latin divus. The river is also called in Welsh the Aerfen which means ‘the war-goddess’.

Derwent. A British river-name Derventio, found as the name of a place on the Yorkshire Derwent (Derventione), derived from the British derv ‘oak’ and Welsh derw. The name means ‘river where oaks were common’. The Darent, Dart and Darwen all go back to Derventio.

Don. Don is an old river-name from the British Dana, which is related to the name Danube (really an old word for ‘water’ found in Sanskrit danu ‘rain, moisture’).
Exe. A British river-name identical with Axe, Esk and Usk in Wales, also with Esk in Scotland and Isch in Europe. British Isca became Esca, then Old English Esce and Aesce, which gave Esk, Exe and Axe. The name is identical with Old Irish easc ‘water’.

Ouse. A British river-name derived from Sanskrit udan- ‘water’, udra- ‘a water animal’, English otter. The base is udso-, Sanskrit utsa- ‘a well’. Udso became Usso-, Uss, then Us and Old English Use. The river Ouse in Sussex though thought to be a late and artificial formation, possibly from Lewes.

Severn. Known by the Romans as Sabrina, this river name has evolved over many years from Habren(circa 800), to Hafren, Saefern, Sauerna, Saverne and Seuerne (1250). This last incarnation is identical with an old name for a stream at Bedford (the Seuerne) and the Sabrann, the old name of the river Lee in Ireland. The etymology of this ancient river-name is not clear.

Stour. A British river name, identical with stura in Italy and derived from the root steu- in Sanskrit sthavara- ‘firm’. The name probably means ‘strong, powerful river’.

Tees. A British river-name, related to Welsh tes ‘heat, sunshine’ and Irish teas ‘heat’. The name may literally mean ‘boiling, surging river’.

Thames. This British river-name is cognate with Sanskrit Tamasa, the name of a tributary of the Ganges. The name means ‘dark river’.

Trent. A British river name Trisanton, consisting of tri- ‘through, across’ and santon, a word related to Welsh hynt ‘road’ and Old Irish set ‘journey’. The name seems to mean ‘trespasser’ and would be used of a river liable to floods.

Wye. A British river-name identical with Wey. From the Welsh Gwy. Variations over the years include Guoy, Gui, Guy, Guai, Waege, Waia, Waie, Waye and Weye.

Frome. There are many rivers in different parts of Britain that share the same name, like the Ouse, the Derwent and the Avon. The Frome is another one, this time identical with the Ffraw in Anglesey. Both are derived from the Welsh ffraw, which means ‘fair, fine and brisk’. The base is British fram- (whence Old Welsh from and later fraum, frauv, ffraw). The ultimate base of both the Frome and Ffraw may be spram- or sprom-, which is related to Latin spargo ‘to sprinkle’.

Smaller streams

It’s worth noting that there are many river and stream names of English origin. Among them are the Dearne, Irwell, Mersey, Rede, Swale, Wantsum, Wensum and Wiske. Names of small streams are to a very great extent English, like the Blackwater, Enborne and Lambourn in Berkshire; the Hamble and Medina in Hampshire; the Piddle in Dorset; the Loud in Lancashire; the Mease and Sence in Leicestershire; the Greet and Smite in Nottinghamshire; the Blyth in Suffolk and the Sheaf in Yorkshire.

Finally, in the former Scandinavian parts of England many stream names still retain a Norse flavour, like the Greta, Liza and Rothay in Cumbria, the Winster in Lancashire, the Bain in Lincolnshire, Wreak in Leicestershire and the Skell in Yorkshire. Scandinavian names are of various kinds, and apart from the above, there are numerous names of rivers, streams and lakes that have been Anglicised, such as Elterwater, Ullswater and Windermere.

This text was created with reference to English Place Names (1947) by Eilert Ekwall.