Pale Lane: I saw that sign on the way out of Birmingham today, and I thought I’d stray away from London street names for a moment to look at some other quirky names.
I presume that ‘pale’ in this instance is nothing to do with light and dark, but to do with the obsolete use of the word as a post, as in paling, or to impale Dracula with a wooden stake. The expression ‘beyond the pale’ derives from the fact that often fences (made with pales) would enclose a house or neighbourhood, so anything beyond that was a potential danger.
Before the trip to Birmingham, I had my brother and sister-in-law over from Australia and we did a fair amount of sightseeing together. During a day out in the Cotswolds we saw signs for Upper and Lower Slaughter and naturally that gave rise to some discussion. Was it likely that those villages were the site of some massacre? I hated to be a wet blanket, but I said I was pretty sure not.
Indeed, ‘slaughter’ in this case comes from slohtre, which is an Old English term for a muddy place. Something that resonated with the Australian visitors, as it rained nearly the entire time they were here so most places they saw had been pretty muddy.
There are many compilations of naughty place names, many of which include the word ‘bottom’, but we want to be a bit more intellectual than that. So what about two of the place names that most delighted me when I first came to the UK: Stoke Poges (stockaded place) and Ashby-de-la-Zouche (ash tree farm belonging to the La Zouch family). I’ve visited one, and it was charming, and drove through the other, which was not.
I’ve also been to Christmas Common in Oxfordshire; apparently the origin of that name is unclear. It could either be because holly trees were grown there; because there was a Christmas family with local connections, or because of a 1643 Christmas Day truce during the English Civil War.
In Devon, apart from Westward Ho! you can find Ottery St Mary and Rattery, presumably not necessarily where pet otters and rats are boarded. Rattery may be a variant of ‘red tree’ and Ottery St Mary is from a church on the river Otter. Westward Ho! takes its name from Charles Kingsley’s novel.
But I guess I can’t really write a whole post without mentioning London at some point, so how about all the place names that include ‘Chipping’? Chipping Camden, Chipping Norton, and Chipping Sodbury, for instance. It is likely, or at least possible, that the word derives from the Old English word meaning ‘market’ – as does Cheapside.