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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

When is a Lake a Lake? Or a Mere? (or a Maer?) Or a Water? (or a Vatr?)

If you're at all familiar with the English Lake District in Cumbria (or spread over Cumberland, Westmorland & Northern Lancashire for the traditionalists,) you'll know that amongst the myriad of tarns, pots and smaller bodies of water, there are nineteen major lakes.

You might also be familiar with the standard trivia quiz question that arises from time to time: 

"How many lakes are there in the Lake District?"

...to which the answer is surprisingly "Only one!" This is down to the fact that only one of them actually contains the word 'lake' in its name, the others being an assortment of 'meres' and 'waters'.

But this all stems from the fact that the names we have for them now are all corruptions of the names they've traditionally had in various languages.

Historically, in what is now Cumbria, there have been various languages in use, by the different communities, the different classes and in the different areas. These include:
  • Cumbric which was a variation of Brythonic Celtic and was similar to modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
  • Old English, spoken in many parts of the area from the 8th century onwards.
  • Old Norse, as a result of the Norse colonization of areas of Cumbria in the 10th century, and predominant in many areas until the 12th century.
  • Anglo-Norman which came into use after the Norman conquest and co-existed with the more traditional languages, being spoken or at least written in some areas until the advent of Middle English in the 12th century.
Most of the places in the Lake District were named in one or more of these languages, and most of their names are still in use today. The origins of the names of each of the nineteen major lakes are as follows:


Bassenthwaite Lake : (Bastun Thveit or Beabstan Thveit) which means "Bastun's clearing" from 'Bastun' an Anglo-Norman nickname (for an Old English name Beabstan) and Old Norse thveit for clearing.

Bassenthwaite Lake "The lake in Beabstan's clearing"

Brother's Water : (Brooirs Vatn or Breior Vatn) From the Old Norse brooir for brother or breior for broad and vatn for lake. The true original name is somewhat lost in history due to the confusion in translation from the Old Norse, though it was known until the 19th century as Broad Water despite being anything but broad (?) which would suggest that the alternative origin is correct. There are unsubstantiated legends of two brothers drowning there, though these are more likely to have been started to support the change of name, rather than being the cause of the name change. 
Brother's Water "The brothers' lake"


Buttermere : (Butere Maer) from the Old English for "Lake by dairy pastures."
Buttermere "The lake by dairy pastures"

Coniston Water : (Konigs Tun Vatn) "Lake in the kings pasture" from Old Norse konigs tun for 'kings pasture' and vatn for lake.
Coniston Water "The lake in the king's pasture"

Crummock Water : (Crumbaco Vatn) "Lake of the crooked river" from Cumbric crumbaco for 'crooked river' and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Crummock Water "The lake of the crooked river"

Derwentwater : (Derwentio Vatn) "Lake of the oaken valley" from Cumbric derwentio for 'oaken valley' and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Derwentwater "The lake of the oaken valley"

Devoke Water : (Dubaco Vatn) "Lake of the little dark one" from Cumbric dubaco for small/dark and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Devoke Water "The lake of the little dark one"

Elter Water : (Eltr Vatn) "Lake of swans" from Old Norse eltr for swan and vatn for lake.
Elter Water "The lake of swans"

Ennerdale Water : (Iain Dalr Vatn) "Lake of the valley of the cold river" from Cumbric Iain for cold, and Old Norse dalr for valley and vatn for lake.
Ennerdale Water "The lake in the valley of the cold river"

Esthwaite Water : (Est Thveit Vatn) "Lake in the eastern clearing" from Old Norse est thveit for 'east clearing' and vatn for lake.
Esthwaite Water "The lake in the eastern clearing"

Grasmere : (Graes Maer) from the Old English for "Lake in pasture."
Grasmere "The lake in pasture"

Haweswater : (Hafs Vatn) "Lake of the he-goat" from the Old Norse hafs for 'male goat'; and vatn for lake.
Haweswater "The lake of the he-goat"

Hayeswater : (Either Vatn or Eith Vatn) which means "Eithr's lake" from an Anglo-Norman nickname 'Eith' (for an Old Norse name Eithr) and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Hayeswater "Eithr's lake"

Loweswater : (Lauf Saer Vatn) "Lake by the leafy place" from the Old Norse lauf saer for 'leafy place'; and vatn for lake.
Loweswater "The lake by the leafy place"

Rydal Water (this is a modern name, named for the valley of Rydal;) it was previously called...
Routhmere : (Rauoi a maer) "Lake of the trout river" from the Old Norse rauoi a for 'trout river' (the River Rothay) and the Old English maer for lake.
Rydal Water (Routhmere) "The lake of the trout river"

Thirlmere : (Thyrel Maer) from the Old English for "Lake with a gap"
Thirlmere "The lake with a gap"

Ullswater : (either Ulf Vatn or Ullr Vatn or Ulphus Vatn) "Ulf's lake" or "Ullr's lake" or "Ulphus' lake" from the Old Norse for either Ulf (a norse chief) or for Ullr (a norse god) or from Ulphus (a local saxon lord) and from vatn the Old Norse for lake.
Ullswater "Ulf's lake"

Wast Water - originally Wasdale Water : (Vatns Dalr Vatn) "Lake in the valley of water" from Old Norse vatn for lake/water and dalr for valley.
Wast Water (Wasdale Water) "The lake in the valley of water"

Windermere : (Vinandr Maer) "Vinandr's lake" from an Old Norse personal name 'Vinandr' and from Old English maer for lake.
Windermere "Vinandr's lake"

Personally I feel that if instead of using the corrupted names, we used the translations of their names from the original languages, they'd sound a whole lot more romantic:


"The lake in Beabstan's clearing"
"The brothers' lake"
"The lake by dairy pastures"
"The lake in the king's pasture"
"The lake of the crooked river"
"The lake of the oaken valley"
"The lake of the little dark one"
"The lake of swans"
"The lake in the valley of the cold river"
"The lake in the eastern clearing"
"The lake in pasture"
"The lake of the he-goat"
"Eithr's lake"
"The lake by the leafy place"
"The lake of the trout river"
"The lake with a gap"
"Ulf's lake"
"The lake in the valley of water"
"Vinandr's lake"

...and it would finally put an end to that stupid trivia trick question!



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