Oddly exceptional

In the days before the Internet, the days of the very distant past before the establishment of local radio stations, to hear any reference to local places was rare. Of course, the local newspaper carried snippets from around the villages, but most of the time the names known to us remained known only to us. To go somewhere ten miles from home would be to enter a world where people might know few of the places with which you were familiar.

A name that seemed more familiar than many was that of the River Yeo. It was not until the M5 motorway was built, complete with signs advising drivers of the names of the rivers that the bridges crossed, that I realised that there was more than one River Yeo. It was not until an Internet search this week that I discovered there are no less than eleven River Yeos in south-west England, six of them are in Somerset. The Wikipedia entry lists the six:

River Yeo (South Somerset), which joins the River Parrett near Langport
Congresbury Yeo, which runs from Compton Martin to the Bristol Channel near Kingston Seymour
Cheddar Yeo, a tributary of the River Axe
Mark Yeo, a tributary of the River Axe
Lox Yeo River, a tributary of the River Axe
Land Yeo

Perhaps each of the versions of the Yeo would have been thought special by the people living in its area. Among them, the Cheddar Yeo flows through Wookey Hole caves while the South Somerset Yeo is an important feature of the Levels. The common name for the rivers allowed people from different places to think that others shared their opinion of their home place.

“Exceptionalism,” the idea that your own country has a special or, even, unique place in the world, has become a significant feature of contemporary international politics. It has long been important in the thinking of the United States, and the approach of Brexit has led to the emergence of a British form of exceptionalism. Undoubtedly, numerous other countries might as examples of exceptionalist thinking.

As the word “Yeo” might apply to any of a number of rivers, so “Home” might apply to any country. If there could be a mutual recognition and respect of the differing claims to be exceptional, the conflicting exceptionalisms would be no more troubling than the different notions of what was meant by the River Yeo.

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18 Responses to Oddly exceptional

  1. Vince says:

    Perhaps, and I’m just putting it out there. Perhaps Yeo refers to the size. A middling sort, like how Yeoman is used, not freeman of a stream but neither the weightier corpulence of the landed gentry.
    In the Yeoman sense, Yeo is said to derive from Junge or boy in German.

    • The Blocked Dwarf says:

      Pretty sure ‘yeo’ is descended from, or at least cognate with, the Old English word for ‘wet stuff’: “ēa ” -which I would pronounce as in the German ‘Au’ but others would disagree with that.

  2. Ian says:

    I assume the presence of six such Yeos in Somerset indicates an Old English source?

    • The Blocked Dwarf says:

      Not only does the presence of 6 Yeos indicate an OE source (to my mind) but the fact there is a ‘River Yeo’ for example also indicates such an origin. The word river of course is from the Norman French for ‘river’ so ‘River Yeo’ or ‘River River’ is a typical ‘Torpenhow Hill’ type tautology and not uncommon in England I believe.

      • The Blocked Dwarf says:

        Also interesting (well for me, sad old man that I am ) is that the OE word for ‘water’ was , as said,: “ēa ” and is , apparently cognate with the Norman (and modern French) ‘Eau’. I have said I would pronounce “ēa ” as “au” (as in MG ‘Augen’) but that others, far more knowledgeable than I, would say it ‘eeh-aa’ or similar.
        But if ēa were indeed said ‘eeh-a’ or so then I should wonder that when the Normans came to the Cornwall, that they didn’t pick up on the fact that it was simply the word for water and not the name of the river itself.

    • Vince says:

      It is almost impossible to be exact for a number of reasons. Mostly because the languages were quite plastic between each other and when the process of codification began the tools used were designed for Latin and Greek, and sometimes Aramaic.
      So here we have a word that may be Old Irish, the progenitor of all the Celtic languages on these islands. Or may even be the Common Celtic that existed in Europe before the Romans. It could be Anglo-Saxon. It could even be Norse of one sort or another. Or even French north or south given the entire area was held by French religous orders from before William.
      There’s a few reasons I lean away from the Water argument. One, using the same word across many in the one area is pointless. It’d be like when people were name John by the thousand in a county but then required sub designators like Little John, John o’the Hill and so on.
      But also water in that area would be like Intuit’s naming snow. That’s why I think it’s a type of river, akin to how we use the word Rapids.
      You’ll also have noticed current usage places a definite article and then the name of the river as in ‘the Mersey’, and only in very formal settings will you get ‘the river Mersey’.

      • The Blocked Dwarf says:

        Vince, all you say is entirely possible , perhaps even likely. Indeed I believe the Norman word for ‘river’ originally meant ‘river bank’ -in the same sense of the French Riviera. I hope I didn’t come across as thinking i had any kind of answer. I’m musing, pondering , that’s all. One thing I learnt as soon as I started learning OE was there are precious few (Saxon style litotes there) absolute , solid 100%proof, 24 carat ‘solid facts’ pertaining to the linguistic ancient history of this Island. Indeed last night I happened to watch a program that expounded the theory that OE did infact ‘absorb’ (better perhaps ‘borged’?) a whole heap of the Celtic and not , as is the current theory, a sum total of almost sweet FA beyond some geordie words for rocks.

        • Vince says:

          Yes, I tend to that opinion too. Indeed I was listening to a girl from Inverness being interviewed. And on a query about the Loch Ness monster, answered ‘oul schnecky was… .’, Schneck is the German for snail.

          • The Blocked Dwarf says:

            I think we’re probably boring the rest of the tearoom, dear, but Francis Pryor (whose videos I stumbled across by chance) has given me much food for thought. It might even explain the mystery of English.

  3. Ian says:

    Considering the amount of Somerset under water at the time when “Yeo” began to be used, I wonder if it was a case that there were so many water courses that some were simply given a generic name? The rivers Yeo are short and unremarkable for the most part, so perhaps a general term was considered sufficient? A bit like the number of places in Ireland simply called Knock (Belfast has an area called Knockhill!)

    • Vince says:

      Not quite. Knock is hill, and usually you have ‘hill of the something or other’. Knockree =hill of the king. And if you go to the O’Donovan OS name books you’ll usually find the Knock on it’s own comes from a comment of the local JP or magnet.

  4. Ian says:

    My sister, who took far more notice of classes than I, thinks that at school they were taught that “Yeo” meant “river.”

    Blocked Dwarf, there is no-one else in the tearoom! I get ten or dozen readers here on a typical day; perhaps fifteen on a good day. Fainthearted usually has between forty and sixty readers a day, but it has almost five thousand posts, so a new post might only be read by a dozen people.

  5. The Blocked Dwarf says:

    ” I get ten or dozen readers here on a typical day; perhaps fifteen on a good day. ”

    As blogs are very much a dying art these days, that’s actually rather good for a new blog. The days when, say Anna Raccoon or Grandad, counted readers in the thousands daily are long gone. It seems that if you can’t say what you need to in 144 characters or less….
    I was gobsmacked the other day when my most recent post on Headrambles attracted more than 2 comments.

  6. Ian says:

    The most visitors I ever got in a day was 979, after I wrote about the grief of being in a workhouse on Boxing Day 2012. It was a post that has been read 45,000 times in the years since – which is the number of times an editorial in a small provincial newspaper might be read in a single day!

    Generally, the only response I get to anything is from Vincent.

    • Vince says:

      Yeah, I don’t get that. I think if you have enjoyed and engaged with a blog post it behoves one to respond. Writing, or any other form of creative activity can be quite lonely I feel.

      • Ian says:

        Writing has always been therapeutic for me. I think if I had lived in Victorian times I would have written voluminous diaries! For the first three years of For the Fainthearted, I would have had a tiny number of readers – in 2006 I was pleased to have six sessions a day. At the moment, Somerset Lad has about fifty unique readers a week registering a hundred or so sessions.

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