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Tag: Etymology

What’s in a name: toponymy and risk

What’s in a name: toponymy and risk

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Two years ago I sat on the underground with my friend Martin and studied the tube map for places with the suffix –ham, which means farm (I’ve found activities like this make the journey go quicker!). It was clear from those place names that London’s metropolis actually grew from a large number of farms, and that a lot can be understood about history just from what we call places. I didn’t then realise that I’d come back to blog about this in relation to risk!

Recently I attended a presentation from Somerset County Council on their experience of flooding in Winter 2013/14. The presenter made one comment which really resonated with me

“Muchelney…by the way, any place names which end in ‘ney’ means island…”

It was just a passing comment, but one which I’ve been reflecting on for a little while. Place names reflect local history, so can toponymy tell us anything about risk?

If a place has a history of repeated emergencies (lets say flooding), does that become part of its present and future through being incorporated into its name? To explore this a little I thought I’d investigate the meaning of place names on the Wikipedia UK flood list.

Modern Place Name Meaning Place name is a possible Indicator of flood risk?
London We’re often told that London has its roots in the latin Londinium however, Richard Coates suggests it could derive from the earlier Old Europeanplowonidā meaning ‘river too wide or deep to ford’. Flooding from a wide and deep river could have significant consequences. Yes
Sheffield Open Land by the River Sheaf Yes
Lynmouth Mouth of the River Lyn (meaning ‘torrent’) Yes
Canvey Island Not a lot of consensus, but either means Island of Cana’s People or Island Island. Possibly
Glasgow Green hollow Possibly
Boscastle Botreaux Castle No
Cockermouth Mouth of the River Cocker (meaning ‘crooked one’) Yes
Cumbria Compatriot Land / Countrymen No
Somerset Levels Somerset – Settlers by sea lakesLevels – refers to level marine clays Yes
Wraysbury Wïgrǣd’s fort No

A quick Google later and I found this map via Being The Hunt, which provides the meaning of country names in Europe. At this level it doesn’t say much about risk (with the exception of Land of Revolt), but I wonder whether the same could be done for place names in the UK/London, and what hidden patterns this might reveal?


And it’s not just place names. Our own names may give some indication about historical events and could potentially be used to infer future risk…

The map below shows the prevalence of the surname Flood in England in 1891. What strikes me is that the surname is more common in coastal areas or those which anecdotally are prone to flooding. It’s impossible to infer much from this, but would be interesting to do a longitudinal study to see how these surname clusters have moved over time, and it’s an interesting pattern nevertheless!


I’m not sure, other than being interesting, what a detailed exploration of this would reveal. However, I’ve recently been doing some work on risk perception, and wonder whether people who live in places which have flood-related names have a higher degree of risk awareness?

Your thoughts and comments would be welcomed. This is very much just a collection of half-formed ideas rolling around in my head, and if anyone could help me make sense of them that’d be great!

Londonist have just released another alternative Tube map – I wonder if their next one could be ‘meanings’ of current places?

Right Royal Resilience

Right Royal Resilience

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve been thinking lately, motivated by on-going projects at work, about what influences our resilience. My ponderings tend to wind up at etymology, what did the word or term originally mean and what does that tell us, if anything, about how we should or could understand it.


Whilst many people believe ‘resilience’ has roots in 1970s environmentalism, in his paper (Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey) David Alexander suggests resilience traces back considerably further to classical cultures, I therefore got to thinking about the broader history of resilience.

Fittingly, I visited Rome earlier this year and recognised the symbolic nature of the Colosseum – both as a reminder of the destructive power of the 1349 earthquake, but also that such destruction doesn’t always equate with decline. Similarly London has also exhibited significant ‘ability to endure’ and to prosper in the face of catastrophic events. Flooding, Fire and Plagues have befallen the city, but it remains standing as a leading world power.

My first post on this blog nearly a year ago concerned Doomsday Preppers, who have taken preparing to the next level compared to the general public. Staring across the River Thames at the Tower of London today, I realised that the notion of a ‘Prepper’ isn’t new.

The Tower of London is typical of medieval castles, and employs some similar strategies those of modern doomsday preppers.

  • Multiple layers of defences (see image above), including ditches and moats, fences, stone walls and towers – even the ancient wall of Roman London also served a defensive purpose – and the origins of The Barbican are in a fortified outpost or gateway to the city
  • Self sufficiency – in order to withstand a prolong siege, the area inside the castle was used for farming, water, and small industries.

As important as the Kentish ragstone walls, pots of boiling tar or portcullises no doubt served to be, they alone do not define resilience. As I reflected on the link between royalty I realised that the parallels weren’t just in the hard measures either.

The British Monarchy has demonstrated resilience as an institution (having had it’s fair share of low points from which it has ‘bounced back’) but I wonder whether monarchical rule itself exerts any influence on wider resilience? Does it represent continuity between the past and the present, or provide hope of stability and order during times of uncertainty and change.


Image Source: Wikipeadia

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Don’t worry, my knowledge of Shakespeare runs to just two quotes (both from Romeo and Juliet). David Alexander posted recently about the origins of the word ‘Resilience’, however, today I caught a blog post from Durham IHRR and it got me to thinking…does it matter what we call what we do?

In the office we often have conversations about what ‘Resilience’ means. I think we’ve finalled settled on a definition, based on the UK Civil Protection Lexicon, which includes the ability to detect, prevent, handle and recover from disruptive challenges. Whether this is my preferred definition or not isn’t so important (I’d actually have prefered something more reflective of the Latin eymological root of the word resilire “to rebound, recoil”).

I found the Google Ngram graph for ‘resilience’ interesting, although the scale of the graph probably runs the risk of us reading too much into the patterns. The period of growth since the 1960’s is particularly interesting and probably reflects the term being used by a wider range of fields (ecology, psychology, climate science etc).

Resilience 1800-2008 Google Ngram

Time Magaine called it the buzzword of 2013, so I took to Google Trends to see if there were any more recent pattens. Whilst there is a definate upward trend, to me it’s still inconclusive.

But the actual issue here, is does it matter? Call it resilience, call it Emergency Planning, call it Disaster Management, and the rose still smells the same, even if it doesn’t smell sweet.

I’ve always found definitions restrictive. Perhaps embracing the malleability and imprecision of the definitions could be a good thing? After all, in the event of an emergency/disaster/crisis/catastrophe/act of god, do we, as individuals or communities really care about definitions?