I first came across the word wapentake about 12 years ago when I started working at the record office – I understood that it described an ancient jurisdiction, similar in meaning (though not necessarily in geography) to the district and borough jurisdictions we have today. I also discovered that the term hundred was also an area delineating a particular ancient jurisdiction.
I am currently reading Viking Britain, a very interesting book by co-curator of the British Museum’s 2014 Viking exhibition, Thomas Williams and actually learned the etymology (origin) of the word: it comes from the Old Norse vápnatak meaning weapon-taking thus telling us about the people (men) who would have attended the meetings from that area, i.e. those who carried weapons (Williams, 2017, p. 222).
This got me thinking about lots of other words that we come across quite regularly at the record office but perhaps just take for granted without thinking about where they come from. So here is a bit of, did you know… as well as some words unfamiliar to the modern vocabulary that favourites amongst our staff.
manuscript – comes from the Latin, manu meaning ‘by hand’ and script meaning ‘to write’
mortgage – a word common in the world outside of historical research, but do you know where the word comes from? Literally meaning ‘dead pledge’, as per the mort in mortuary, and the Old French for pledge gage
frankpledge – a medieval system of self-governance whereby men in groups known as tithings accepted mutual responsibility for the good behaviour of other members of the group. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word itself comes from a mistranslation of the Norman word friϸ–borh [frithborh] which in turns translates as peace-pledge
wardrobe – did you know that this was also a royal financial institution, evolving out of the role of the keeper of the king’s robes who was also responsible for managing his personal expenses?
hundred – in context of local administration, hundreds, like the wapentake was a subdivision of the shire. First explicitly mentioned around 940 AD but the hundreds with their regular judicial gatherings are undoubtedly earlier.
infangthief: formed from the following components – (1) the adverb in (2) fangen, being the past participle of fon meaning ‘to seize’ and (3) ϸéof meaning ‘thief’. Literally it means “thief sized within”, and in practical legal terms meaning the right of the lord to of a manor to try and to amerce (i.e. fine) a thief caught within the manor. By contrast, outfangthief is the right of the lord to pursue a thief beyond the boundaries of his jurisdiction and bringing him back to the manor court for trial.
roods and perches – historically land was measured in acres, roods and perches (a r p). Whilst we are still familiar with acres today, roods and perches have been lost to posterity. Traditionally, an acre is the area that can be ploughed by eight oxen in one day (the word itself coming from the Latin for field), there are four roods in an acre, and 40 perches in a rood.
messuage – an Anglo-French word originally referring to the portion of land for a dwelling place. It is probable that the word originated from a misreading of mesnage referring to economical management and the verb ‘to husband’
husbandman – husbandry refers to work in the domestic economy, not with respect to the domestic duties we think of today, but rather the agricultural side of domestic life. Husbandman refers specifically to the occupation of those employed in the field of husbandry. Although the original Middle English use of the word does relate more to the management of the household.
hereditament – from the Latin hereditamentum and referring to property that would be inherited by the common law descendent of its owner unless explicitly stated otherwise in a will. This is a common term in early modern and later title deeds, but the specific legal implication may not always be appreciated by its modern reader.
appurtenance – another very common term in title deeds referring to a ‘thing’ or minor property that pertains to another. It comes from the Latin appertinentia, and has equivalents in Middle English and Anglo French.
demesne – historically pronounced de-main, but now usually pronounced de-mean, this word has the same origin as the word ‘domain’ and ultimately comes from the Latin for lord, dominicus. It means the land owned and occupied by the lord rather than being let out to tenants – nevertheless, the work on the land was generally done by his feudal tenants.
nervous – did you see Melanie’s recent post about a letter in the Miller Mundy collection sent two days after the Battle of Trafalgar, which includes the following sentence relating to Admiral Nelson’s message to the sailors before the battle: “The Captains of course turn’d their men up and read the short but nervous sentence to them”. It was pointed out to me that ‘nervous’ did not mean apprehensive (perhaps about the impending the battle), but rather it is the Middle English meaning sinewy, vigorous and strong.
What about place names? We can’t unfortunately provide a full list here, but here are some of the favourites of record office staff:
Fenny Bentley – meaning boggy grass pasture.
- Like the Fens, fenny refers to marshy or boggy land
- ‘bent’ comes from the Old English beonet and refers to ‘grass of a reedy habit’ or to a ‘place covered in grass’
- -ley is a very common place-name ending meaning pasture
Nearby Hungry Bentley probably relates to the poor quality of the land or possibly the poor food of its inhabitants.
… bourne – there are lots of places in Derbyshire and across the country ending with ‘bourne’ and it means small stream or brook. Ecclesbourne then means ‘church by the small stream’. Although it might be tempting to read Ashbourne as referring to a tree by a small stream, ash also means stream so Ashbourne literally means ‘stream stream’.
And did you know that the £ sign evolved from the abbreviated form of the Latin word for pound – libra. Contracted to li with a line through to indicate that it was abbreviated.
Thomas Williams (2017) Viking Britain: a history (link to library catalogue)
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1959)
Kenneth Cameron (1959) Place-Names of Derbyshire
Do you have any favourite words or Derbyshire place names with an interesting origin?
4 thoughts on “Wonderful words”
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That was an interesting account! And stream stream made me smile (so good they named it twice!). Thank you
Thanks Judith, glad you enjoyed it – I had to stop myself getting carried away, so might do another one day