Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Fancy a trip to the Shank of Inchgrundle?
Fanny Barks, Lickers Lane, Cockplay Hill, and Behind Butts—whoever gave Great Britain its more suggestive place names must have had a fertile imagination. The island has long been known for possessing hundreds of villages, peaks, rivers, and lanes with oddball, even obscene names. Now the British company ST&G Marvellous Maps has compiled them all together on a single, expansive wall map.
The map certainly exposes the more raucous side of Britain’s many improbable place names. Some of the names are so rude they’re scarcely even innuendo anymore. I might blush when asking for directions to Derbyshire’s Lady Hole, Hampshire’s Naked Man or—proof that a verb can also be a noun—Gloucestershire’s Hunting Butts. Cumbria’s Cock Hag and Lincolnshire’s Basic Slag Road sounds like egregious early cases of slut-shaming, while only someone who loved our furry friends a little too much could name a place Badger Dingle. Still, because I have a suggestible mind, I’m actually less disconcerted by all these than the euphemistic ick of Kent’s Bishop’s Ooze.
Indeed, browsing the map, you wonder if these towns first settlers didn’t actually hate the places where they lived. Not many people would be tempted to visit Leicestershire’s Stinking Wood, Lancashire’s Trashy Hill, or Yorkshire’s apocalyptic-sounding Old Waste. Whoever named Northumberland’s Shitlington Crags apparently wasted little love on them, while Scotland’s ominous Shank of Inchgrundle sounds like a child-eating chasm dreamt up by Edward Gorey. These names are at least evocative—spare a thought for the inhabitants of the mildly-but-no-less-devastatingly named Cumbrian hamlet of Bland.
The truth, of course, is that these place names were never intended to be rude at all. When these places were first founded or named, their titles were no doubt sensible. Since then, they’ve become rude thanks to linguistic shifts: the archaic place names hold on even when they’ve long since departed everyday speech.
For example: Cocksfoot, Cock Bridge, and so on either refer to a person (perhaps an innocently named Anglo-Saxon called Cocca), or the presence of many woodcocks for trapping. The island’s numerous “bottoms” refer to valleys. Hampshire’s Nether Wallop refers not to a slapped backside, but to the lower (or “nether”) reaches of a stream’s valley—or, in Old English, “wallop.” Orkney’s Twatt is actually an old Norse word meaning land cleared in a forest.
Scratch a little deeper and these names thus reveal a fascinating tapestry of information on landscape and settlement, illuminating the waves of people and languages that have swept across the British Isles. Then again, there’s also a slight sense of disappointment in realizing that Britain’s early settlers weren’t necessarily as sexually and scatologically obsessed as we are.
Maps, from £24 at ST&G Marvellous Maps.