A few weeks ago I read an article about the origins of English county names. It’s an interesting, well-written article and definitely worth a read, except for one little statement towards the end:
“There’s also the Isle of Wight, at one time a part of Hampshire, but today a proud and independent county whose name reflects the fact that it’s the Isle of Wight.”
That annoyed me, because I’m a hopeless pedant. (Proof-readers generally are. It rather goes with the territory.) You might as well say that Hampshire is called Hampshire because it’s Hampshire*, and so on for all the other counties, which would be both dull and unenlightening.
To be fair to the author, the origin of the word ‘Wight’ seems to be the subject of some debate. Credit for the oldest attempt to identify the origin of the name goes the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written in the late 9th century AD. The Chronicle states that the word derives from the name of a Jutish king, Wihtgar, who ruled the Island in the 6th century AD; there is no evidence that any such person ever existed, though, and the name may well have been a back-formation from ‘Wight’, meaning the Chronicle has things exactly the wrong way around.
Other, more modern attempts to resolve the matter have suggested that the name comes from the Celtic (Brittonic) word ‘wiht’, meaning ‘raised’ (presumably ‘above the sea’) or from the Proto-Germanic ‘wextiz’, meaning ‘something small’ (which, in comparison to the rest of Britain (or indeed to most pieces of land), it certainly is).
The definitive answer has yet to be found, it seems.
The Island certainly wasn’t named after its county town, which is Newport. Newport is so named because it was… well, a new port. This is the UK, though, where ‘new’ is a decidedly relative term: the town was founded in the early 12th century.
(The ‘old port’, I suspect, was Brading, a small, quiet town in south west Wight. It is now a mile or so inland, thanks to a build-up of silt and later land reclamation schemes, but was once a bustling Anglo-Saxon harbour. The name Brading derives from the town’s Anglo-Saxon name Brerdynge meaning something like “the people living by the ridge of the Downs”.)
The origin of place names is an enduring fascination of mine, so I will doubtless be revisiting this topic many times. For now, though, I will leave you with an Island ghost story which does, I promise, have a wordy connection.
The story concerns a small patch of woodland named Centurion’s Copse, located not far from Bembridge (as far West as you can get on the Isle of Wight without falling into the English Channel, for those unfamiliar with the place). Stories say** that people passing the area have heard marching feet and seen phalanxes of ghostly Roman soldiers disappearing into the trees that mark their last resting place, leaving behind only their name to mark their passing.
The problem with this is that the name ‘Centurion’ has nothing to do with Roman legions, ghostly or otherwise. It is a corruption of ‘St Urian’, after a medieval chapel that once lay nearby.
So, what has this brief diversion into geographical etymology taught me?
- A simple linguistic question doesn’t necessarily mean a simple answer. This was intended to be a short, light-hearted response to an article I had read, and has ended up as a mini-essay that has taken me several hours, over two days, to research and write.
- The Isle of Wight isn’t so called because “it’s the Isle of Wight”, but no-one is entirely sure why it is so called.
- Footnotes breed.