The ‘banner picture’ today is one of an extraordinary series sent to me by Bob Williams. They show various delivery lorries adorned with eye-catching trompe-l’oeil designs that trick the eye into seeing three dimensions instead of two. It’s delightful to see that time and money has been invested in ‘public commercial art’ like the optical illusions so meticulously painted on these waggons. They are, I think, German and surely give the lie to that country’s stereotypical staid humourlessness. It must be an unexpected joy to one of them trundling along the autobahn. Thanks Bob.

As I’ve said before on the blog, my predilection for toponymy ( - I’m terribly sorry about my incurable verbal diarrhoea today - ) sometimes lands me in deep er.....trouble when I encounter someone who is certain that they know the derivation of some local place-name or other. Well, it’s happened again.

As usual, it was Pity Me that started it. (See elsewhere on this blog for examples of me fulminating against the locally-accepted derivation of Pity Me as ‘little lake’.) This time, my fellow drinker assured me that it was a reference to a Pieta, a kind of oath uttered by pilgrims as they approach their destination - in this case, the shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. Naturally, it means no such thing.

Wrong place-name derivations are, though, extremely difficult to dislodge once they’re bedded down in folk-memory, as the ensuing brimstone conversation proved yet again. Jesmond was ‘Jesus’ mound’ (which it never was), Quakinghouses commemorated a powerful underground pit explosion (which it doesn’t) and Glororum was a corruption of ‘glower o’er ‘em’ (which it most certainly isn’t).

I’ve decided that what irritates me about these glibly accepted but nevertheless incorrect derivations is not that their adherents are ignorant of the true explanations but rather that they don’t want to acknowledge a stark and simple truth: that (except for Jesmond) there aren’t any indisputably accurate explanations for the place-names I’ve mentioned at all. And there are dozens of other place-names in the same boat; names so ancient and/or so corrupted through time that even inspired guesswork comes a cropper when confronted by them. (Why do we say ‘comes a cropper’?)

Furthermore - if I may extend my contention into the realms of the faintly philosophical - the issue seems to me to tell us a common truth about ‘the human condition’. We have a brain the size of a planet (to quote Douglas Adams) and have consequently come to believe that there is nothing we don’t, or can’t, know. The corollary of this is that, when we are confronted by something patently inexplicable by any means known to us, we must invent an explanation rather than accept the bald fact that ‘we just don’t know’.

This need to be certain that there MUST be an explanation for everything - from the Meaning of Jesmond to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything - has resulted in some of the most flamboyantly incredible and bizarre theories in religious history; that the moon is made of green cheese, that the Earth is flat and really WAS created by God in about a week or so or that the entire universe was sneezed out of the nose of a divine elemental frog fairy.

And all because of Pity Me.

Post comments on this blog or contact me in any one (or more) of these ways....
text 07786 200954 (while the programme is on-air)
call (between about 0545 and 0630 Monday to Friday) 0191 232 6565
Ian Robinson, The Nightshift, BBC Radio Newcastle, Spital Tongues, Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE99 1RN

Please bear in mind that the views expressed in this blog are my own and NOT the views of the BBC.


Vivienne said...
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gilly said...

ive laughed about the frog fairy..sneezing out the universe where do you get these snippets ?

i,m trying to think of other quaint little ditties you have uttered over the years,

one of the best i think would have to be..
... i wouldnt know it if it stood up in my best suit..
or something there abouts..
brill...more please.