AI generated Britain pt 3: Fuckley

July 28, 2017

Pt 1, Pt 2

Let’s be honest, this is the one everyone’s interested in. Just where is Fuckley? And why is it called Fuckley?

A lea/ley/leigh is a clearing or glade. It’s not uncommon to see it paired with a tree (see Oakley, Ashley, Elmlea) but to my knowedge the Fuck Tree has yet to be discovered.

It could literally be ‘the glade frequented by fucks’ (maybe the people there are just utter, utter shits) or it could be ‘the glade people visit to fuck’, like a medieval forest version of Makeout Point.

For a more plausible option we could place Fuckley in Cornwall, a county already home to Feock, the town named for St Feoca (I’ll be honest. while I know Feock I couldn’t find a whole lot about St Feoca other than the church in Feock is dedicated to him/her and she/he gives her name to the town). This would make Fuckley the Glade of St Feoca.

A quick scan of the list for other filthy names finds us:

Cum on Street: Cum means with (e.g. summa cum laude) on Street is fairly self explanatory. It’s nonsense, but either way I wouldn’t want to go for a walk here.

Titter’s End: Great name. Significantly less rude than the very real Titty Ho from my home town. Titter is likely a person, and Titter’s end would be his or her end of town.

Handick: Dick is either ditch (Old English dic) or beach/bay (see the arguably ruder Brodick up on the Isle of Arran). As for Han(d), this could be from the Old English for dog (see German hund), or could be someone called Hanna. So Hanna’s Bay, or Dog’s Ditch. There’s also the chance that this was once Handwick (a real place) and the w was dropped (it’s often not pronounced, see Stanwick, Warwick), if so then it’s referring to a farmstead rather than a beach/bay/ditch.

Eassfister: Thank gods for the E. I’d hazard this is East something but wouldn’t want to comment on the rest.

Twatford: This one’s pretty solid. Twat crops up more commonly as Thwaite (unless you’re in the Orkneys or Shetlands). A thwaite is another word for a clearing (so Fuckley could actually have been Fucktwat) so this is ‘the clearing by the ford’ or ‘the ford by the clearing’.

AI generated place name pt 2: Wet and wild

July 21, 2017

(In which I investigate the etymology of place names generated by a neural net. Pt 1 here.)

Let’s talk bodies of water.

-mer, -mere, -mar, -mare

In British place names this can refer to lakes (Windermere), or the sea (Weston-super-mare) though not exclusively, a mere can also be a boundary as in Mersey or Marple (as a kid I could never work out why the 4 mile run around my town was know as the Mere when there wasn’t a lake for miles). Note: I’m going be a bit interchangeable about which one I use, if these were on a map it would probably be clearer which one it meant. Let’s see what we’ve got.

Mare-unby, this could work. -by is a fairly common ending meaning farm or settlement. Un is a bit trickier, it doesn’t crop up a huge amount in British place names as far as I know. The best I can find is Unsworth near Manchester which comes from a personal name (Hunds became Uns). Or it could be ‘un’ as in to oppose. So this could be the Lake by Un’s Farm, or maybe the Settlement opposite the Lake.

Mareby Cole. It’s our friend -by again, so Mareby could be the farm or settlement by the lake, sea or boundary. Cole could mean a lot of things but before we get into them I like that the net has generated this name extension. Settlement by the sea is so generic that the town would need a qualifier to distinguish it from the other towns by the sea. Back to Cole:

  • The River Cole, not far from me, comes from a word for Hazel, so this could be The Lake Town by the Hazel Trees.
  • Col is a Norman French word for hill so we could be talking – on the Hill
  • The least plausible (but my favourite!) comes from the Irish word cúil which means corner or nook, I like to picture the town nestling in a little bend in the coastline, but the mash up of Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic is probably a bit iffy.
  • It could be a personal name appended to the original town name when a family took ownership of the land (this fits the convention of Norman lords appending their names to town names e.g. Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Layer de la Haye, but Cole isn’t a particularly French name AFAIK; it’s German if anything)
  • Or it could literally come from coal, perhaps it’s a port that moved a lot of charcoal

Mareland is fairly clean (and no doubt famous for it’s quality kitchenware). Marenton could’ve once been Marine-town, or Ocean Town. Mares End, I like as an island or coast town: Sea’s End. Or it could be a farm at the top of a lake. Maresfoot on the other hand would be at the bottom of the lake (again, not in a Lancelot du Lac way).

Marcomb introduces another generic form in -comb. This is equivalent to Welsh cwm and means valley so Marcomb is Lake-Valley. Marcott is Sea Cottage.

Mar Hemby St Andentharo. Now we’re talking. We know what Mar is, what about Hemby. The Hem could be equivalent to -ham (a beast we’ll tackle in full another day) which means settlement, or homestead,  so Hemby could be Home Farm. So we have Home Farm by the Lake, St Andentharo. Who is St Andentharo? What language do we even start in? I think the best I can do is a South American saint I just invented named after a lighthouse atop an agricultural terrace (Anden-faro? Apologies to everyone who speaks Spanish), no doubt the patron saint of pre-Colombian soil aeration and flotsam.

Buttfield Marthor *chuckles*. Buttfield is actually a perfectly valid place name, a butt can be a strip of arable land that’s not quite a furlong, a plot of land that abuts another, or could refer to archery butts so Buttfield would be a little field or maybe archery field. As for Marthor, aside from being Thor’s mum’s name, this could be a contraction of Marthorp which refers to a secondary town, so this would be the Lake Town with or by the Small Field.

Boy howdy there are a lot of place names! Next up we might look at moors and marshes.

AI generated place names, what do they mean? (pt 1)

July 20, 2017

Dan Hon trained a neural net to generate British place names, there are some predictably funny results (oh hai Fuckley), but if you look at the long list you get everything from incomprehensible nonsense to actual place names. Between those two extremes you have a range of names of varying plausibility so let’s look at some and work out what they would mean.

Dan generated around 4500 names so we’ll be here for a while if we take them one by one, but there are ways we can segment the data, the simplest is to look for common place name components, e.g. -ton, -cester, bridge, hill, -comb(e), llan, punctuation. These are common in actual place names so we’d expect them to occur here, and we know what they mean which is, you know, what I’m trying to figure out.

(Pt 2 here)


Ok. I’m expecting a lot of these. Yep, 748, around 15% of our sample. Err… we’ll come back to this.

-cester, -caster, -chester

This is more like it. Aside: derivations of ceastre/ceaster crop up a fair bit in British place names, often in larger towns as it comes from the Roman castrum meaning fort. And many places the Romans built forts we still have towns and cities (Manchester, Doncaster, Casterly Rock etc).

Buncestergans. At first glance this doesn’t look a lot like a place name but let’s break it down. We’ve got Bun which is definitely from Ireland (see Bunratty, Bunclody, Bundoran) meaning bottom of the river, and I believe we’re talking bottom as in the mouth rather than the riverbed (or there are whole lot of magical lady-of-the-lake towns in Ireland, I’m happy believing either). Cester is our Roman fort, then we have -gans.

I don’t think gans has any meaning in British place names. My guess is the net got this from Irish surnames like Fagans, Hagans, Duggans, that sort of thing. My Gaelic’s not so great (my mother, grandmother, and several aunts and uncles would all be better suited to this question!) but I think the -gan ending in Gaelic is a diminuitive, so Buncestergans could be the Small Fort at the Bottom of the River. I quite like that. It’s a weird Gaelic-Latin hybrid but why the hell not!

Elsewhere in ceastre territory we have Tancaster and Casterstone which are both perfectly good. Casterstone is strong: the ‘Fort of Stone’.

Kesterfield gets an honourable mention for being almost Chesterfield (check out the twisted spire!).

I like to think Nether Curster could be a derivation of Caster. The Lower Fort. That works for me.

Skousester could be Liverpool (though I’m pretty sure the nearest Roman fort to Liverpool was Chester, and Scouse postdates the Romans by some amount of time).

Then we have Oasasterhill. This is a funny looking beast. How would it be pronounced? I’d like to think it’s something like Oh-ster-hill or O-er-ster-hill (-cester is usually pronounced ‘ster’, for example Bicester is Bister, Towcester is Toaster, Gloucester is Glossed her etc.). Maybe it’s ‘The Town over the Fort Hill’? Bit tenuous methinks. (Aside: to my knowledge -sester and -saster don’t occur in any British place names as equivalents to -cester but for the purposes of this exercise it seems to make the most sense.)

This is fun.

Will we unlock the secrets of all 4573 place names? Find out in our next instalment!

But realistically, no. Can you even imagine how long that would take? And one of these names is Warks ifffrydddig Villags, which I’m pretty sure is just trying to troll Welsh speakers, grammarians, and anyone who’s seen the word village. Another’s just the word Ba.  Ba. So, er, yeah. Not all of them – but a bunch!

Skirt, shirt, scatter, shatter

April 27, 2017

If you’re not following Dr Jackson Crawford (aka the Cowboy Viking) you’re missing out. Even if you have only a passing interest in Old Norse myth, language, or culture I defy you to not find his videos fascinating. Hell, if you speak English then his content is relevant to you whether you’re interested in Old Norse or not.

This video talks about old Norse words that made their way into modern English.

The Sk/Sh/Sch distinction is fun to think about, I imagine not all pairs are directly from Old Norse but Skiff/Ship springs to mind (it’s our old friend Grimm’s law!) and in the kitchen this morning Laura thought of School (as in fish) and Shoal. Shell and scale might fall into this too?

Stray thought: Wilson Fish sounds like a very different Daredevil villan.


July 19, 2016

TIL that the Dutch and German words for Tortoise (or Turtle) literally translate as Shield-Toad (schildpad ‎and Schildkröte).

Of course, neither are toads, nor (it turns out) did shells arise as a protective adaptation:

For almost a century, biologists argued about how turtles got their shells—a debate almost as slow and plodding as the creatures themselves. Paleontologists mostly argued that the shells evolved from bony scales called osteoderms, which are also responsible for the armor of crocodiles, armadillos, and many dinosaurs. These scales simply expanded to fuse with the ribs and backbone, creating a solid covering. But developmental biologists disagreed. By studying modern turtle embryos, they deduced that the shell evolved from ribs, which broadened out and eventually united.

Everything changed in 2008, when Chinese researchers discovered a 220-million-year-old turtle with a shell that covered just its belly and not its back. They called it Odontochelys semitestacea—literally, the “toothed turtle in a half-shell.” It was as beautiful an intermediate fossil as they could have hoped for. And strikingly, it had no osteoderms at all. It did, however, have very broad ribs. The developmental biologists were right!

First, the lower ribs became wider and fused with each other to give half a shell—the plastron. Then, the upper ribs followed suit and merged with the spine, creating the carapace. (This means that, contrary to cartoons, you can’t pull a turtle out of its shell.) Eventually, through an intricate bit of evolutionary origami, the ribs started growing over the shoulder blades, rather than sitting below them as in you, me, and most other land-living vertebrates.

That takes care of how the shell evolved. “For me, the next question was: Why?” says Lyson. “And there are two huge reasons why not.”

How the Turtle got its shell.

Epitaphs of the War 1914-1918

June 25, 2016

I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

A Dead Statesman, Rudyard Kipling