From the land of pudding-eaters to the fiefdom of Snot

The city of Nottingham is known around the world principally for its historical associations with a certain Robin Hood. What fewer people know is that the origins of its name derive from an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon clan leader called Snot, a word which doesn't have quite the same ring in tourist brochures.

Similarly, Yorkshire is a county famed for the beauty of its Dales, the talent of its cricketers and the all-round grit of its inhabitants. But to Romany culture, it is a county known only for one particular dish - which is why they call it Guyo-mengreskey, which means "pudding eaters," which includes both meat and batter varieties.

Such absorbing trivia are among many to be found in a new "phrase and fable" gazetteer on the linguistic and historical background of more than 7,000 places in Britain and Ireland. Brewer's Britain and Ireland delves into the stories behind the towns and villages, the physical features such as hills, rivers and forests and what the publisher Cassell describes as "a multitude of curiosities of locational nomenclature".

The 1,300-page work was compiled by two writers who specialise in reference books, Ian Crofton and John Ayto. It draws extensively on the English Place Names Society's existing works for each of the English counties and similar books for Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

The origins of many place names illustrate graphically how various parts of the British Isles were inhabited at different times by Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Vikings and Romans. Mr Ayto told The Independent: "I think the book shows what a seriously mongrel nation we are, with our ethnic backgrounds coming from a number of different sources.''

But it also shows, he added, how the original Anglo-Saxons derived their place names from the most basic of influences. "If somewhere had a lot of oak trees, for instance, they would use that in the name; if there were a lot of herons, that name would figure, and so on,'' he said.

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