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Editorial

That there is more in a name than the sum of its letters is one of the enchantments of local history. Forget that place-names are labels to facilitate identification and they become, with, pleasing frequency, compelling finger-posts to the past. Often the terse message is unmistakable, but sometimes it is obscure, even ambiguous or meaningless, without the historical witness long lost in antiquity. Dan y castell nestling beneath the ancient ruins invites no speculation; Dan y gaer, in the absence of the appropriate topographical association, turns the local historian into an obsessed detective searching for the camp he may never find.

But toponymy is a subject for the scholar equipped to avoid the pitfalls which lure inexpert wishful thinking into foolish falsehood. Adulteration, English and Welsh, confounds even the wary; the corruption by the one of the other's vernacular perplexes Englishmen and Welshmen alike; and the misleading similarities between the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tongues are traps for the unschooled. All of which brings to mind the man who appealed to those learned in Anglo-Saxon to explain the meaning of Reilth, name of an abode in the Welsh March. Least surprising was the unanimity of the response, for all agreed on a derivation from Yr Allt, a deduction confirmed, as it turned out, by the dwelling's association with a hillside. One suspects that he was as disappointed as the Welshman who learns that 'betws', seemingly of unimpeachable Welsh ancestry, is a counterfeit loan-word from Old English.

Despite the philological hazards even because of them place-names are the caskets of local history, chased and jewelled to allure the mind. Open a casket and history escapes; despair of forcing the unyielding lock and conjecture is provoked to true or false conclusions. A gift in the present volume is a collection of caskets presented by Wales Herald in his article about Cwm Cych along the border in the north-west of the county, for the names of the fields and landmarks he recites are more than a catalogue; they give clues to the forgotten history of this enchanted valley. To trek with him is to wander and wonder. Who, behind the long centuries, was the escort that lies in an anonymous grave ? Who the hermit in the ancient clearing? What army; what forgotten battle? And the 'gweision'? Surely they can be no other than those Who served the Lord of the Seven Royal Courts?

Such is the teasing romance of the nameless history that lies in countless place-names, which is very much more than can be said about the surnames common in Wales. A recent complaint drew attention to the difficulty of tracing an inadequately specified Jones in the telephone directory; likewise, any Welsh gazetteer is heavily loaded under 'Llan'. For the paucity of untypical surnames that was inflicted upon the unwilling Welsh blame might be laid elsewhere, but the host of 'Llan' names is a native creation ordained by syntactic rule which those across the border have reversed.

What might have happened had not an impatient English bishop, for the sake of administrative ease, refused to contend with the Welsh use of 'ap' to the third and fourth generation? As it was, the sixteenth century result produced a surfeit of Joneses, Evanson, Williamses, Davieses, Thomases and the rest of a small bag. Left alone, would the Welsh have persisted in their ancient custom or would they have succumbed to the idea of the cognomen in their own way? To contemplate surnames like Wern, Coed, Goch (not Gough), Gof (not Gove, either) and any number of associative names is an agreeable speculation. Is it too late to acquire them now? Some latter-day bureaucrat might complain, but does anybody care?
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Historian.Vol6Editorial moved from Home.Vol6Editorial on 11 Sep 2005 - 21:17 by ChrisJones - put it back
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