Archive for June 2009

Cutting place-labels

June 1, 2009

We know that shortening a person’s name can be a way of showing an easy familiarity with that person. It’s often a way of belittling someone. There’s a reason why diminutives are still called diminutives even when they’re longer than the person’s real name.

But this urge to express ownership through name-shortening extends beyond personal relationships to relationships with places. This can be done with street names by cutting off the second half of the name. Sorrel Road becomes just Sorrel, Cheney Lane becomes just Cheney.

Various communication problems can and do arise with people who persistently cut short street names. One problem happens when different streets in the same area have the same first part to their names, e.g. Newland Street and Newland Close. Another problem arises when a street or road is named after the town or village it leads to, as with Cowley Road or Botley Road in Oxford.

A similar shortening process can also cause confusion between one town or village and another. The inhabitants of Chipping Norton refer to the town as “Chippy”, not caring that the good folk of Chipping Campden and Chipping Sodbury have almost certainly alighted on exactly the same affectionate nickname for home.

It becomes even more confusing when you cross the border into the land of silent post offices and confusing road signs. The prefix “aber” is very common in Welsh place names, which means that saying “I’m off to Aber tomorrow” makes it difficult for anyone without prior knowledge to guess where you’re talking about. The chances are that you mean Aberystwyth, but you might also mean Aberdovey, Aberarth or any of a multitude of places.

But, despite the rich potential for misunderstanding and confusion, the habit of shortening place names will always remain popular. This is because, as far as the kind of people who do this are concerned, it’s worth the risk. If the person you’re talking to instantly understands which place you mean, it’s a good way of bonding verbally. If the other person doesn’t understand, the hassle of explaining is well worth the feeling of superiority: I am from round here and you are not.

Today I chatted to a girl whose boyfriend is doing a tour of duty in Afghanistan. She repeatedly referred to the country as “Afghan”. I got the impression that this is what all his Army friends call it. I wanted to know if she knew that “Afghan” is a word in its own right, but I didn’t dare to ask.