What’s in a name? Ask the Japanese!

By Chris Game

I happened recently to read two seemingly unconnected news stories in swift succession.  One reported Japan’s instantly historic victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, with frequent mentions of the name by which the Japanese players (average weight: 100kg) are improbably known: the Brave Blossoms. Hold on to that image!

The second story was of a district council’s proposal to change its name in a bid to eliminate confusion and “give it a clear identity” (Local Government Chronicle, September 19th) – my first thought here being: Oh yes, and which of the dozens of possibilities might that be?

Maybe one of the 40-plus vague compass-point names: North Warwickshire, South and East Staffordshire, and the like.  Or one of those geographical feature names of the very last places you’d think of looking for a council HQ – Wyre Forest, Malvern Hills, Staffordshire Moorlands, High Peak, Three Rivers.

Or one of the almost-lost-in-the-mists-of-time names – like Birmingham’s neighbouring borough, Sandwell, its councillors and officers finally despairing of explaining that it’s absolutely not West Bromwich, just one of its six towns, but a commemoration of the sadly less-than-universally-famous Benedictine Sandwell monastery.  Or my personal favourite, Kirklees (Huddersfield in old money), whose real Kirklees Priory is the fictional burial place of the fictional outlaw Robin Hood – from Nottingham, 70-odd miles away down the M1. No confusion there, then.

It’s cheap and unfair, though, to mock the products of the task that faced local officers and councillors in 1972-4, when up to seven councils at a time, with real or long-established place names, were statutorily merged into inevitably artificial constructs – and required new, preferably meaningful but at least minimally divisive, district identities.

It was a near-impossible ask, the only slam-dunk winners being toponymists.  For theirs is the profession – the study of place name origins – charged with preserving a place’s culture through the origins, meaningfulness or associations of, in this case, its new name.

Like all professions, toponymists have an extensive jargon, which I’ll dip into here, focusing on Suffolk, given that one of its seven 1974 districts is the belated name-change seeker: Babergh (pronounced ‘Bayber’, please – that’s part of its problem!).  It’s predominantly rural – think ‘Constable Country’ extended north – with two main towns, Hadleigh and Sudbury, both of which lost their own councils in the five-council merger and neither name on its own being politically acceptable for the new contrived creation.

Of the other Suffolk districts, Ipswich was easy, barely changed since the Anglo-Saxon Gippeswich.  Almost equally historic Bury St Edmunds switched from one Eponym – a place named after a person – to another, St Edmundsbury, after its cathedral.

But then there’s Forest Heath.  If Babergh has an identity problem, then pity Forest Heath, which could be in almost any county in the country.  Toponymically it’s a composite Geonym, named after two geographical features: bits of Thetford Forest and the heathlands of Breckland.  Except it isn’t any more, having been merged yet again in April with St Edmundsbury to become West Suffolk DC – population 180,000, which seems quite large for a district … until you see East Suffolk.

Which brings us to Waveney. A six-and-a-half council merger in 1974, it was one of many that politically just couldn’t take the name of the largest and most recognisable, Lowestoft, and so opted for a Hydronym – a place named after something watery, here the River Waveney.

Probably almost as unrecognisable as Babergh, but then, again this past April, something toponymically rather touching happened.  A second ginormous district, West Suffolk, was created – its 250,000 population making it the biggest in the country – by combining one Hydronym with another, Suffolk Coastal.  How simpatico, I thought, though whether it’s compensation for the loss of nearly 250 councillors since 1974 is, I suppose, for residents to decide.

So, after all this, what or who is or was Babergh?  Well, it’s another Geonym, in that there is a Babergh Heath around the Waldingfield villages. But that name itself was seemingly a Choronym – a place named after a large geographical or administrative unit of land. Here it was Babergh Hundred, one of the areas of (very) roughly 100 square miles into which Saxon counties like Suffolk were for centuries divided for administrative purposes. And – pause for drumroll – that area was originally known as ‘Baberga’, or the ‘mound of a man called Babba’, and thus another Eponym.

So, Quite Interestingly, ‘Babergh’ turns out to be a Geonym AND a Choronym AND an Eponym.  Which, though it’s nothing whatever to do with me, still made me slightly sad: all that history and toponymy jettisoned in the ambition of becoming … the utterly bland and imprecise ‘South Suffolk’.

I know, moreover, exactly what my Japanese friends would say. Follow the Brave Blossoms!  Give up the pointless search for a name with some tenuous connection with the arbitrary boundaries of your area.

Check out the names of Japanese local authorities, and go instead for something beautiful, memorable, or both: Aomori – famous for expensive tuna, but named ‘Blue Forest’; Kagawa – home of Udon, the Japanese wheat noodle, but answers to ‘Fragrant River’; and even Fukushima – scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster, but still ‘Good Luck Island’.  Toponymists – who needs them!

chris game

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

An earlier version of this blog appeared in Local Government Chronicle. 

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