The meaning of field names unearthed in a new book

Borrow Bread, Dear Bought and Purgatory are just some of the dark names given to fields across history by angry farmers frustrated with poor crops, according to a newly published dictionary of field-names.

The history of the English landscape is showcased in ‘A New Dictionary of English Field Names’, by Dr Paul Cavill from the University of Nottingham, published by the English Place-Name Society.

The dictionary delves into the past of the English Landscape and finds that fauna and flora are used in many unexpected ways. Did you know, for example, that there are hundreds of fields named after the holly (Holly, Hollin, Holling), which was used for cattle fodder in hard times?

Dr Cavill said: “Field-names are a rich source for the history of farming and management of land. This book shows in minute detail some of the uses, benefits and perils of the land. It reveals not only what made the land distinctive, in shape, size, crops, resources, animal or bird inhabitants; it also illuminates the power of the imagination used by farmers throughout the ages to personalise their land.”

Other facts unearthed in the dictionary are that the history of monastic communities can be found in names like College Field, Frying Croft (belonging to friars), Temple Field (the Knights Templar), Mincings Ley (belonging to nuns), and Monks Acre. The names of fields like Firmity (wheat), Gaudy Close (weld, a dye-plant), and Tare Field/Vetch Field (vetches, a fodder crop), give clues to what was grown there.

The two birds most frequently named in fields are the peewit (lapwing, peewit, pyewipe, tewit; horniwink in Cornwall) and the magpie (chatterpie, madge, mag/meg, magot, magpie, pye). And even the most ordinary piece of land could become poetic by use of a name like Ding Dong (land for a bellringer), New World Farm (possibly a distant field) or Palace (fenced land).

The dictionary builds on research carried out last century by the aptly named John Field. John Field was the leading expert on English field-names, whose pioneering work was published in his Dictionary of English Field-Names (1972) and A History of English Field-Names (1993). The new dictionary provides a treasury of information, with thousands of new entries, the addition of early forms for most of the names, a list of elements used in field-names, a new introduction and updated bibliography.

A New Dictionary of English Field-Names by Paul Cavill is published by the English Place-Name Society. lii + 495 pages. Hardback ISBN 978-0-904889-987, 30; Paperback ISBN 978-0-904889-994, 22.