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How England made The English

Harry Mount

Placenames tell a lot about history. The 'over' in Shotover comes from A/S ofer meaning a flat top ridge; the 'shot' comes from sceot meaning a steep place. The 'hoe' in Ivanhoe literally means heel - a hoe looks like a foot upside down, with the heel sticking up.

The early A/S not only provided the names, they decided where modern settlements were. Almost every modern village and town appears in the Domesday Book, a survey of what was there when the Normans arrived.

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Celtic names survive in things like rivers, which predate settlement. Avon comes from afon, Celtic 'water'

The Vikings settled in east and gave names with words like 'beck' (river), 'fell' (hill) and 'thwaite' (forest clearing).

But mostly A/S terms. "Dun' in a placename means not just a hill, but specifically a hill that was the site of a large village. Towns with versions of beorg were built round a church. Leah, meaning a clearing, or glade, is the most common term - Bexley, Bromley etc etc.

A/S had forty different words for different shapes of hills. In the days before maps or widespread literacy, the best way to direct someone to an unknown destination was to describe its exact physical features - 'the tall, hump-backed hill by the stream'.

Close examination of names showed that Celts were not, as some suggested, pushed to the fringes by later arrivals. So many Celtic names survive that the Celts must have stayed around. This was later confirmed with DNA evidence.

There are over 2000 deserted villages in England, largely the result of the Black Death and the Norman enclosure of royal forests. While English cities have expanded beyond recognition, most villages are no bigger today than they were in 1200.

There are around 10,000 bodies in an average country churchyard, often raising the ground level by several feet above the surrounding countryside.

English property different to Continental Europe. Suggestion that English more secure in their property rights bc lack of revolutions, and so historically they have been happier to commit to ownership. Leasehold system a feature of much development. Landowner would lease plots to spec builders, who would get bank finance on the strength of the lease. The terraces they built would then revert to the landowner when the original lease expired. And often, the developers would build a corner pub first, both as a source of income, and as a place for the builders to eat drink and sleep.

So English prefer houses to flats, and so lower density housing. They also want corridors and hallways rather than inter-connecting rooms, thus avoiding the threshold anxiety of German schwellenangst of moving through someone else's space. For both these reasons, English houses end up smaller, and with smaller rooms.

Influence of weather - the temperate south preferred to the colder north, in same way that northern Italy preferred to the blazing heat of the south. The further you go from the harsh weather, the more civilized you are. That changed with the Industrial Revolution as the factory towns like Manchester and Birmingham became metropolises. The north-south divide balanced out. But it has changed again in the last 20 years - it's now London and Not-London.

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