Zeals where the willows grew

Despite having lived in Sweden for over 40 years, I still find new links between the English and Swedish languages from time to time. These have often come about through Old English (Anglo-Saxon), the language of England before the Norman Conquest. Both Old English and Old Nordic had common Germanic roots and the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons would have been able to understand one another after a fashion (and misunderstand one another as may be evidenced by the tortured tangle of “shall” and “will” in English, which lead a much calmer life in Swedish as two neatly separated verbs).

I’ve recently acquired “The Place Names of Wiltshire” by Gower, Mower and Stenton, I caught sight of the derivation of the name of the small village of Zeals on the county’s western border with Dorset (and with Somerset not far away). I’ve always thought it a strange name, giving incorrect associations to the word “zeal” meaning enthusiasm from the Greek zelos. This Zeals, however, has a different etymology and comes from the Old English “sealh” (sealas in the plural) meaning a type of willow tree, We have “sälg” in Swedish with the modern English equivalent “sallow”, used for a low, shrubby willow tree, I must check to see whether there are still any willows around in Zeals next time I’m there. The western English dialect has made its presence felt in the spelling of the village’s name, leading the s sound to be pronounced and written as a z.

The philologist and antiquarian William Barnes and his wife Julia ran a school in nearby Mere, a slighter larger community. He had a grasp of a great number of European languages as well as Sanskrit and Hebrew and I believe even Hindi. I’ve no record of him learning Old English but I suppose he must have known it. The Barnes ran a school in Mere from 1823-35 before moving to Dorchester, where Barnes later knew Hardy. Barnes became enthusiastic later in life on stripping the English language of words of French origin and replacing them with alternatives based on Old English so that, for example, Social Science as a school subject might be renamed “Folk Lore” in William Barnes’ English.

It pleases me to think of this serious community of educated and self educated in Dorchester in mid Victorian times. Hardy, Barnes and the Moules, well versed in the Bible and Classical Rome and Greece, with some of them having a command of Hebrew and great knowledge of the local Dorset dialect and the history and culture of the area. It’s a much more pleasing thought than Hardy’s death in 1928 when he wished to be buried in Stinsford churchyard where his family had lived. But he was regarded as too much of a national treasure to escape Westminster Abbey, After a few shillies and shallies, a nightmare compromise was achieved whereby Hardy’s heart was removed to be buried in Stinsford while the rest remained in Westminster Abbey. I think this was and remains a horrible ghoulish solution – perpetuating the split in Hardy’s life between Dorset and London high society, where the Hardys were drawn to hob nob with the rich and fashionable during the season.

 It’s probably apocryphal but there is a real Hardyian twist to this story as a cat is supposed to have interfered with the container in which Hardy’s heart was being transported to Dorset.

I think the solution would have horrified Hardy too but he would have been amused by the cat.

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