Country Matters Aug 21: How Bow Wow

The elegant Jethro, standing by the Bow Wow road sign in South Cerney.

Discover more about misleading local placenames with Arrowsmith.

Over two thousand years ago the Dobunni’ established their Iron Age town at Bagendon.  Then Roman incomers arrived.  Building roads, new-fangled villas, and driving their chariots around as if they owned the place. Which they did.  They called their place Corinium and spoke a strange language. After about three centuries they mostly went away, but they left quite a lot of stuff behind, some of which got reused.  Apart from the bits that keep turning up when people dig holes for new construction projects, they left a lot of words behind too. Some of them are still used two thousand years later, including placenames.  Anglia became England, Britannia became Britain, and Corinium became Cirencester.  The ‘-cester’ part of many placenames comes from ‘castra’ – the word the Romans used for a camp and adopted by the Saxons.

At one time it wasn’t uncommon to hear people call Cirencester ‘zoiren’ or ‘sissitur’.  It’s like Chinese Whispers – trying to pronounce foreign words changes them.  Many people have come here and added words to our language.  Although the Saxons influenced many local placenames, Cirencester and the West escaped the Viking additions which are common in Yorkshire and the Eastern counties. The Daneway is nothing to do with Vikings and is just a corruption of ‘Dene-way’ – the way along the dene, or valley.  The word ‘way’ is actually from the Saxon; ‘weg’.

But if you want to blame anybody for messing about with the English language, then the Normans are the worst offenders. But to be fair, the English have got their revenge by deliberately mispronouncing French words.  Blanc – white wine – became ‘plonk’, and Beaulieu is pronounced ‘Bewlee’.  Weird pronunciations are a great way of misleading foreigners who think they’ve got the hang of English.  Even unwary Americans have trouble with Bicester and Loughborough.

Despite thinking we know what we are talking about, it’s easy to imagine that some words mean something – like Daneway – that they don’t. It’s particularly tricky when it comes to placenames.

The Normans have form. Close to Durham’s Norman cathedral, are the villages of Pity Me and Bearpark.  Legends have been spun about both.  Although wild boar were plentiful near Bearpark, there were no bears in evidence when the Bishops of Durham used the place as a retreat from their usual home in Durham Castle and their role as Prince Bishops.  The place was called “Beau-Repaire” – which translates as ‘beautiful refuge’.  Spare no tears for Pity Me.  The place was frequently flooded, and the French called it; “Petit Mer” – ‘Little Sea’.

Closer to home, in South Cerney, visitors and residents alike often speculate about the origins of ‘Bow Wow’.  Since All Hallows church has notable Norman features and was the site of the finding of part of a Norman crucifix now kept at the British Museum, ‘cherchez le Norman’ seems appropriate.

Bow Wow is flanked by two watercourses; the River Churn and a mill-stream which was probably there at the time of the Domesday book. Was the name originally Norman French?  Could it have been described as ‘beautiful waters’?

Then ‘Beaux Eaux’ would soon fall into Cotsulification, as Bow Wow … read more about the Cotsul dialect and accent next month.

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