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What’s in a name? On language, history and place names in SVG – pt 2


(continued from last week)

by Paula Prescod

In place names like Clifton and Ashton the recurring suffix -ton meant “estate” or “farm” in Old English. These two toponyms may have been merely examples of transplanted place names. It is worth noting that, in earlier writings, St Vincent’s capital is recorded as Kingston. This is found throughout Valentin Morris’ “Narrative” in the 1770s, whereas we find Kingstown in Charles Shephard’s 1831 “Historical Account”. In place names like Cheltenham and Chatham Bay in Mustique and Union, the suffix -ham would typically mean “village” or “estate” in the UK context. These two place names can still be found in Gloucestershire and Kent. Your guess is as good as mine as to why these names held in Mustique and Union Island. Equally noteworthy is the fact that “St Vincent” is not uniformly spelt throughout. We often find the spelling variant St. Vincent’s which has both the possessive apostrophe ’s and a period after the abbreviation of Saint. In fact, Standard British English would require us to eliminate the period based on the premise that a dot should follow an abbreviation whose final letter does not constitute the last letter of the full word. So, whereas Prof. requires a period, St does not require one if it is the short for Saint, nor does Mr if it means Mister.

Some place names came about from a mixture of personal names with a natural physical feature. This may have been the reason why Coulls Hill, Mount Wynne, Mount Rose, Mount Bentinck and Sharpesdale were so named. Thomas Coull owned land around Westwood. Robert Wynne and Andrew Rose were planters in the respective areas. William Bentinck was the Governor who took St Vincent into the 19th century. Dale means “valley” and I suspect that Sharpe could refer to either of the Sharpe families on St Vincent. Besides George Henry Sharpe previously mentioned, Granville Sharp (note the spelling variant), who served on the Emancipation committee with Wilberforce in 1787, was also an influential figure internationally and worthy of commemoration.

Features are also reflected in place names like Falls of Baleine. In French, “baleine” means “whale”. Maybe to the name giver, the waterfall conjured up the image of a whale. Trinity Falls is a waterfall that cascades into a pool from three points, as the name suggests. Black Point and Mount Pleasant may have had features that stirred up related images to the name giver.

Belvidere, from French, is literally a lookout point. Calder Ridge, Largo Heights, and Lower Bay are toponyms that speak for themselves. Port Elizabeth, Princess Margaret Beach (for royalty sake), Georgetown (in honour of King George) and Carenage – from a French word meaning “where ships are streamlined” – are also relatively transparent place names. Maybe less transparent are La Soufriere and Mustique. Although they are French-sounding, given their current spelling and pronunciation, they do not correspond to any standing French terms. Mustique reminds us of “moustique”, the French for “mosquito”, and Soufriere is an old French word derived from “soufre” meaning “sulphur”. In French, the word has fallen out of use, but it can be used to refer to sulphur mines particularly thanks to the fact that several volcanoes in the region carry the name.

Some place names, albeit descriptive, do not seem to say anything about the physical characteristics of the place. We may be lucky to still find a quarry at Quarry, some bamboo plants in Bamboo Range and Palm trees on Palm Island but the times when we could find sugar cane plantations in Cane Garden and Cane Grove are well behind us.

In other cases, the origin of the name might remain obscure to locals. The younger members of the Vincentian population may not readily make the link between Glebe Land and its original meaning. In fact, a glebe is a piece of cultivable land, on which crops were produced for the Anglican priests or to bring in profits for the church. Coxheath is a tricky place name. Was it transplanted directly from England or did it refer to uncultivated land belonging to either of the Cox family members on St Vincent? In Old English, “heath” denoted uncultivated land. The place name Coxheath is not unique to SVG since it can be found in Kent and in Nova Scotia.

(final part next week Friday).

Before being appointed Associate Professor of French Linguistics and Didactics at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne (France) and part-time Lecturer at the Universität Bielefeld (Germany), Paula Prescod taught English and French to speakers of other languages in SVG and in France. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université Paris III, Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Her research and publications focus on linguistics, didactics, language use and the Caribs of SVG from a socio-historical perspective.