LOCAL author Alan R Phillips has made a particular study of Island folklore, dialect and place-name origins, and shares some of his latest research with us here.
Hummet – A Problem Solved?
There are three copses in the West Wight which share the name ‘Hummet’, at Porchfield, Calbourne and Wellow, but with no known explanation of the word, whether in the dictionary or works of dialect.
This set me on a piece of research which revealed that, still without finding any Island etymologies, Hummet appears to be a very old surname, probably of medieval Norman-French origin. There was for instance an Agatha Hummet who died in 1180, daughter of William de Hummet, and a Richard of Hummet round the same period. There are also quite a few references to the surname in Devon in the 17th century; a ‘W. Hummet’ was among the crew of the Avalanche, a ship which sank off Portland in 1877; and the name does survive, though rarely, into modern times: an R E Hummet for instance wrote a science paper in 1985.
None of this of course explains why there should be three occurrences of the name on the Island; it is just possible to imagine one individual or family in the distant past who gave their name to a copse, but not to three. Kökeritz (IW Place-Names) simply lists the name among those for which he makes no attempt to give any meaning; Father Hockey likewise appears to have no reference in either of his medieval volumes on the IOW.
All of which pointed to the probability that ‘hummet’ was, after all, an old dialect word that had never been recorded. And one that certainly should not be confused with ‘hummick’, meaning ‘cow’, as recorded by Jack Lavers in his 1988 dialect dictionary.
So there the matter has rested for the last few years. That is, until a recent visit by the Archaeology Group to Locks Copse and Jersey Camp near Porchfield to view some earthworks. With one of the Hummet Copses being in the vicinity, the word came up in discussion, and the landowner said immediately that he recalled it being used regularly by his grandmother to mean ‘hump’ – thereby combining perfectly with ‘copse’ to give the sense of ‘wood on the hill’. Whether any of the ‘humps’ might indicate possible barrow sites – as for example in Michal Morey’s Hump – would require further investigation. What seems likely is that the prevalence of ‘hummet’ in the north-west corner of the Island implies that it was largely restricted to use in this area, or at least lasted in use longer here than elsewhere. So after all the head-scratching, the resolution is almost too simple and obvious for words!
Cheesy Bob & Chissel Bob
I was asked recently about the curious dialect word ‘cheesy bob’ for the wood-louse, as used in Surrey. The word is thought of as having originated in Guildford and is “known only to those from the town” (Urban Dictionary website). Current use is confirmed by, of all things, an up-to-date Facebook entry: “I’m from Guildford in Surrey and have always called woodlice ‘cheesy bobs’. One day sitting round the pool in Portugal I pointed at one and shouted “Cheesy bob!” and my friends looked at me with disbelief”. The word has obviously survived well in the Surrey area as one can now buy cheesy bob mugs, t-shirts and magnets!
Further research revealed a list of Sussex and Surrey dialect words in Notes & Queries for 1921 – by a contributor born in 1841 – giving the form ‘cheese bob’, with a note that ‘chissel-bob’ is/was the form in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire.
Which brings us back to the Island. The local version for the wood-louse, ‘chissel-bob’, is not mentioned in Long’s Dialect of the IOW (1886), but Lavers lists it in his 1988 IOW Dictionary as having been mentioned in Roach Smith’s Glossary of IOW Words (1881). Going back to the original reference, Roach Smith expands on the term: “‘Chissel Bob’ or ‘Chessel Bob’, the woodlouse, was unknown not only to my brother, but to almost, if not entirely, everybody else; but I well remember its use, and it is too purely Saxon and identical with the modern word, to be lost sight of”. He adds for good measure that the insect was formerly also called ‘cheeselypp worme, or Robin Goodfellow’s louse’.
One can conclude therefore that the dialect word was once used on the Island but had almost died out as far back as the 1880s, whereas the Surrey version has survived well to this day – a graphic example of how old words can adapt or die, according to their context and area of use.
On a recent group walk in the Freshwater area we passed a property containing the name ‘Osman’: this also led to speculation as to the origins of the name, especially given the prominence of this family name in this area. Could it possibly have anything to do with the Ottoman emperor? There is certainly a Turkish origin for the name, Osman being the founder of the Ottoman Empire, and the name has since come to be used more generally for ‘ruler’. In literal Arabic the word originally meant ‘tender youth’.
But there is also a quite separate origin, much closer to home. In Scandinavian and English, the name means ‘God’s protection, divine protector’. I had known previously that there was a Runic symbol ‘Os’, associated with Odin, but had never linked it up in any way with this name. So the surname Osman – with variant spellings Osmant, Osmint, Osmer – comes from the Old English, pre-7th century, male personal name Osmaer, oss meaning ‘god’ and maer ‘fame’: hence, ‘god-fame’. The names Osmaer and Osmer appear in the Domesday Book for Leicestershire and Devonshire respectively, and the surname follows in the 13C (Internet Surname Database).
– Alan R Phillips