Wham – a mixed bag of meanings

The Wham in Arkengarthdale has a steep-sided marshy hollow by a bend in the road.

The Wham in Arkengarthdale has a steep-sided marshy hollow by a bend in the road.

Swaledale and Arkengarthdale have between them three places with the word-element wham in the name. It’s an obscure northern dialect word occurring in the Pennine hills of Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, as well as in Lancashire, Cheshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and as far north as the central belt of Scotland from St Andrews to Stirlingshire.

The geographical spread suggests it was a word introduced by the Norwegian Vikings who migrated from Ireland in the early 900s to settle in northern England and Scotland. Wham is used as a word for a land formation. However, the topographies of the places called wham vary so widely, and the range of interpretations of the word given in dialect and place-name dictionaries is so great, that maybe it’s time for someone to undertake a careful study of all the whams in a search for greater clarity.

The three wham places in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale illustrate the point. All are different from each other. Two of them fit some of the meanings offered by the dictionaries, and the third struggles even to achieve that. The Wham in Arkengarthdale is a perfect match for the most common interpretation of a marshy hollow.

Two root words have been identified by the experts, the Old Norse hvammr, meaning a grassy slope or vale, and the Old English hwamm meaning a corner or angle, usually of a building. Both seem to be some distance from a meaning of a marshy hollow. So maybe there is another root word at play and maybe over the centuries they have become confused or conflated.

Images and descriptions of the three wham places in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale are now entered on the website associated with this blog, and can be seen at The Wham, Wham Bottom, and Whamp. Comments and feedback will be very welcome.

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About Will Swales

Amateur historian with a special interest in Swaledale, Yorkshire.
This entry was posted in Swaledale place-names and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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