curious thread [deleted] 9:32am, 23 June 2009
Have you ever wondered by what process a river gets its name throughout its whole length? I do not mean the important rivers - transport links, boundaries (ancient and modern), etc - but the countless ordinary meandering rivers passing through numerous towns and villages. Originally in history they must have had different names throughout their lengths. I mean no-one has walked up the river and said to every community "This river shall be called XXX. - or else !!!"
A case in point is the river through my home town called the River Bollin (of no consequence in the nation's history) but nearby is the village of Bollington though which the Bollin does NOT run. But it used to! No, it has not changed its course but apparently the stream which does flow through it (the River Dean) was once considered to be the Bollin. Where the two streams eventually meet the watercourse (now the Dean) was called the Bollin and what is now the Bollin was called something else. Someone, at some stage, has decided that the watercourses were wrong and the old Bollin was renamed the Dean and the other was given the name Bollin which they carry to this day. But who decides such things? Yes, I know it's not really important - but it is intriguing.
Wider World 9 years ago
Interesting question, and interesting example. Do you have any idea of the meaning of Bollin?

I suspect that much of the standardisation of river names comes from the original surveyors for the Ordnance Survey - tidying things up; mishearing what locals called a particular river; and making up names should the need arise. Also, at about that time, the names of some rivers were changed by antiquarians and other men throwing their weight about, eg, the Arun had been the Tarrant.

I could well believe that the names of the larger rivers are relatively stable over time, but not the names of smaller ones. If, for example, a village is depopulated by plague, it is quite likely that the river name could be forgotten. I am particularly suspicious of the Gaelic names for various burns in the Highlands - far too descriptive and long winded; perhaps earlier names there were lost at the time of the clearances.

It appeals to me that several rivers still have more than one name, e.g., the Piddle or Trent in Dorset; the Thames or Isis; the Cam or Granta; the Rhee or Cam; the Lovat or Ouzel.

Of course, a lot of names are essentially pretty boring, all the rivers called Avon, for example, and the Esks. You get Avons from well up in Scotland right down to the South coast of England. Avon, the word for 'river' in Welsh and Scots Gaelic, suggests that our distant ancestors were all speaking a similar tongue. The word may have carried additional associations, such as the place where you bathed and where you got your food, so perhaps its meaning was closer to river-larder-bathroom; it is understandable why there would have been early agreement along an Avon about what it was called, particularly if few knew that there was another Avon in the next valley. Indeed, one reason rivers were given other names may be because people got confused about which Avon was being talked about.
curious thread [deleted] 9 years ago
Thank you for that considered reply. Sorry for not replying myself earlier but I have only just noticed your contribution.

I have not yet looked at the meaning of Bollin but there are several features on its early course with the name Hollins. In fact, the area where it may have its source was once called Higher Hollintongue (but is now simply Macclesfield Forest !)

Have you come across the books by the English Place Names Society? They are set out in Counties and then Hundreds. That is where I got the information about the change of name. They are not in print but local libraries may have them and second hand book sources certainly have them. Well worth a look for local historians.

As for Ordnance Survey, well I question its accuracy. I do know it has itself changed spellings for no known reason. There is a prominent hill near us which locals call, and spell, Shutlingslow but which, from about 1912, OS suddenly spelt Shutlingsloe (there is a Flickr group called The Mighty Shutlingsloe.) All sources, including the Place Names Society and OS itself in early days, use the "w" ending, so why the change and where else has that taken place?

Isn't local history interesting? Good group, by the way.
electropod 9 years ago
Interesting points. Wider World and I have discussed in this pool, for instance, just where the Clyde stops being Daer Water and becomes the Clyde. The OS doesn't attach the names to the rivers very often, so it can be hard to tell.

When you live and work near a river, 90 times out of 100 you will just call it "the river" and another 9 times "the water." Hardly surprising that the names have stuck, even through a change in the dominant language.

Like most spellings, place names have become standardised only fairly recently in history. Pressure to standardise must have reached a peak in the 19th century as the railway network spread nationwide. Some spellings are not really standardised yet.

Whittlesea/Whittlesey comes to mind (Old English witles ieg, "Whittle's Island").

There's Stow Maries (Essex), more officially known as Stow St Mary - but this is a classic reverse etymology as the suffix comes from the Marey family.

The village of Ashtead (Surrey) until quite recently had a station called Ashstead (OE æsc stede, place of ash trees).

Like the railway companies, the OS has to pick a spelling and stick with it.

Coming back to rivers, I found what the OS calls the "Porter or Little Don." I also recently photographed the Lea or Lee (or is it the other way round?). I was standing in Lea Bridge Road, by the Lee Valley skating rink. Sometimes we just can't decide.
Ian Calderwood 8 years ago
You only need to take a look at the Ravenna Cosmography (from circa 700 A.D.) to see how many river names have not survived or are incomprehensible from that time.

According to my Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names "Bollin" is an "old river name of uncertain origin and meaning"
curious thread [deleted] 8 years ago
Thank you electropod and Ian.

Electropod, sorry for not acknowledging your comment but I must have missed the new message signs in the River Group. As mentioned above, I do know that OS has itself altered a name for no good reason. It adopted a spelling not used by anyone except itself. That spelling has now become set in stone and that's it !!

Ian, I now have my own copy of the English Place-Name Society Volume XLIV Place Names of Cheshire Part One Macclesfield Hundred which basically says the same !! In 1190 it was Bolyne which may include 'hlynn' meaning "a torrent, a noisy stream." How unusual for a stream to be a torrent and noisy ;-)) The author was not sure of the first part of the name so, yes, a name of uncertain origin and meaning. Someone at some time must have known. How thoughtless of them not to have left us a definition ;-))
sootyskye PRO 7 years ago
My parents live near the River Camel in Cornwall (from the Cornish cam = crooked). However, the lower reaches used to be referred to as the River Hayle (Cornish Hayle = Estuary), and this still survives in the name Hayle Bay for the mouth of the river between Stepper Point and Pentire Point (shown on the OS map as off Polzeath beach). However the middle part of the river used to be know and the River Allen which then transferred to one of the tributaries.
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