Thursday, March 29, 2012

Place names and "why the things around me were the way they were"

From Kate Grenville's 2012 novel, Sarah Thornhill.
Gammaroy, he said. You know it's some distant cousin of the word the black natives use for the place. The closest that our English can get. As we've done in Ireland you know.
Well, I didn't know, had not an idea in the wide world what he was talking about.
Take the Irish word for a place, he said. Mangle it into English. We call it Glenmire but in Irish it's ----- and then he said a word that did sound a little like Glenmire, but with more on the end, and a sort of hawk-and-cough thing in the middle. Easier for us English, you see, he said. Make it something we know. As we did with Gammaroy.He glanced to see if I was interested.
Now that I'd caught on to what he meant, I was. In all my fifteen years I'd never wondered where the name of a place might come from, nor ever met the kind of person who thought about such things. Made me ashamed, as Bub's old trousers didn't. The narrow ignorant life I'd led. Never been further than Sydney, never done anything grander than go to the Caledonian Hotel for dinner and catch a glimpse of the governor in a crowd, never learnt to read or write, not as much as my own name, or given a thought to why the things around around me were the way they were."

This makes me think of Tolkein and his interest in the buried history behind personal and place names. And makes me think of Placenames Australia, the Newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey and the endless interest in their work of detecting, tracing, ferretting for evidence and the wonderful stories that emerge from patient pursuit of "why?" Look at demonyms in the last issue for some linguistic fun and nonsense.