DARK AGE BADGERS AND CAPTAIN COOK’S KANGAROO
London is a city that hides its ancient face well, yet not far from where I now live there is a remarkable series of placenames: Penge, Leatherhead, Addiscombe, Caterham, Chertsey, Wallington, Walton-on-Thames, West Wickham and Croydon. All of these names include Celtic or Latin elements that point to a continuity of placename from the Roman period or before down to the present day.’ Such names are very rare as there was an almost wholesale replacement of placenames in England (and particularly the east) during the early mediaeval period (AD400-700). These names set me thinking a little about other place names and just down the railway line from Croydon is a suburb of London called Brockley.
Brockley means something like ‘badger’s wood’.’ Not a very exciting placename on the face of it and a reminder of a time when London was not the great urban sprawl it has become over the last two centuries. However, the `brook’ element (meaning badger and still in dialect use) comes from the Old English brocc, which is itself one of only a handful of Celtic loanwords into Old English.’
During the aftermath of the Fall of Rome, people moved across the North Sea from what is now northern Germany and Denmark. The scale of that population movement and its consequences are fiercely debated but it did lead to an almost total linguistic shift: English is a Germanic language, unlike the Romance languages of France and Spain for instance. Recent research has suggested that one explanation for the lack of Celtic words being borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons lies in the fact that both societies were essentially very similar. You only borrow words from another language for things you are not familiar with. One example of this (although whether it’s true lies obscured by layers of myth) comes from Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia in 1770. Apparently, Cook saw a peculiar creature, asked a local what the beast was called and the local replied, ‘I don’t know’ or kangaroo!
So were the Germanic peoples entering eastern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries unfamiliar with badgers? Badgers exist in continental Europe and modern German has a word, dachs, which means badger and gives us dachshund or ‘badger dog’. However, British soils support a far higher population of earthworms (a badger’s main foodstuff) than continental soils. This is apparently due to Britain’s maritime (for which read wet) climate. This means that badgers, reclusive nocturnal animals, live in Britain in far higher numbers and in larger individual groups than they do on the continent. If we then look at somewhere like Denmark, where some of the migrants may have originated, the soils are quite sandy and acidic. Earthworms dislike acidic soils and fewer earthworms means less badgers.
I am not trying to say that there were no badgers in the regions where the Anglo-Saxons came from, rather that during the fifth and sixth centuries the odds of seeing a badger were that much less in Jutland. Hence, one of the differences between living there and living here was that you saw more badgers and in greater numbers. Perhaps this is what led to the Celtic word for badger being borrowed into Old English.
1 Gelling, M. 1993 ‘Why aren’t we speaking Welsh?’. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 6, 51-56. Pg 51
2 Mills, A, 1998 Dictionary of English Placenames. Oxford, Oxford University Press, Pg 58
3 The modern word ‘badger’ is apparently a fairly late term stemming from either the animal’s `bag’ shape or its facial markings or ‘badge’.