The Science Hidden In Your Town Name

Unusually heavy winter rains have flooded the town of Chertsey, west of London, twice in the past three years. Only its old center—a raised plot on the bank of the River Thames where Anglo-Saxon monks built an abbey in the seventh century—has remained consistently dry. For most residents, the rising waters, often stinking with sewage, have come as an unwelcome surprise after centuries of a relatively dry, stable climate. They seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, this telling fact about the place they call home: In Old English, Chertsey means “Ceorot’s island.”

The name harkens back to the Early Medieval Period, when Germanic tribes began to settle, and name, many of the places dotting maps of modern Britain. Back then, water was ubiquitous. Sediment deposits dating to this era paint a picture of overtopped riverbanks and runoff rushing down slopes. “Anglo-Saxon England was a water world,” says Richard Jones, a landscape historian at the University of Leicester. He studies how early English settlers used place names, or toponyms, to encode practical information about their watery environment. For instance, Byfleet, a village in southern England, indicates a “tidal creek,” or “estuary”; Buildwas, in the west, describes “land subject to rapid flooding and draining”; and Averham, in the east, a “settlement at the floods.”1

But starting around the 11th century, the British landscape got drier as its climate stabilized and glaciation drew moisture from the biosphere, and many of these toponyms lost their original meaning. Development spread from “island” sanctuaries like Chertsey Abbey into

Stai leggendo un'anteprima, registrati per continuare a leggere.

Altro da Nautilus

Nautilus7 min lettiEnvironmental Science
If Only 19th-Century America Had Listened to a Woman Scientist: Where might the US be if it heeded her discovery of global warming’s source?
Human-induced climate change may seem a purely modern phenomenon. Even in ancient Greece, however, people understood that human activities can change climate. Later the early United States was a lab for observing this as its settlers altered nature.
Nautilus5 min lettiTechnology & Engineering
My 3 Greatest Revelations: The author on writing his new book, “The Ascent of Information.”
1  The “Dataome” Is Huge The dataome is shorthand to describe all of the externalized information we generate in symbolic representations: drawings, music, books, computing, data storage. It’s all of the information we utilize and propagate, along wi
Nautilus11 min letti
How Taboos Can Help Protect the Oceans: Pacific Islanders are charting a new course for ocean conservation.
In 1777—after whipping local people for trivial offenses, spreading venereal disease, and clumsily avoiding a plot to kill him—the English explorer James Cook left the shores of Tonga laden with treasures. Not least among them was a word scrawled in