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I was planning a little trip the other day when I noticed that a number of rivers in Britain have common names. The ones I spotted were Avon, Ouse and Esk. Is there a reason for this? Are these names derived from something?

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Ouse is quite probably related to the PIE *wed- or *ud-, meaning water as an inanimate substance (whence whiskey, the Greek ύδωρ (hydro-), the English water, the German Wasser (water), the Russian вода (water), ведро (bucket), выдра (otter), the Latin onda (wave), the German Undine, etc.). Not sure about the others. –  RegDwigнt Jan 28 '11 at 18:52
    
For the specifics, Ward gave an excellent answer. There are other similar anomalies in place names in the British Isles. One of my favourites is Pendle Hill. The word 'pen' means hill. Later, the next incomers changed the hill's name to 'Pendle', meaning 'hill hill'. And then the next incomers, not knowing the etymology (and sadly lacking an internet) called it Pendle Hill or 'hill hill hill', so Pendle Hill really, really, really is a hill, because anything said three times is the truth. –  Jonathan Leffler Jan 28 '11 at 20:50
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But anything said four times is apparently too good to be true, alas: Torpenhow Hill –  PLL Jan 28 '11 at 21:57
    
Good Lord. It's these tiny gems of knowledge buried in comments that keep me coming back to this site. I wonder what Linguistics.SE will come up with. Languages are freaking fascinating (and that should be in bold, italics, and all-uppercase). @PLL. –  RegDwigнt Jan 28 '11 at 22:32
    
@PLL: I hadn't heard that one - but your URL led me to Wikipedia's List of tautological place names which does include 'Pendle Hill' amongst its celebrities - though I knew of that independently of Wikipedia. –  Jonathan Leffler Jan 29 '11 at 1:09

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Avon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Avon_%28Warwickshire%29#Etymology

"Avon" derives from the British language abona, "river", which also survives as a number of other English and Scottish river names, and as modern Welsh afon (pronounced [ˈavɔn]), "river".

Ouse

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Ouse+River

The English name for the river derives from its Celtic name Usa, from *udso-, "water," which derives from the Indo-European root *wed-, "wet, water" (and the same root from which we derive water and wet). Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the "Water River" or the "Wet River." Of course, the English who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the wordas is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.

Esk

http://heraldry.sca.org/laurel/names/engplnam.html

At the same time the river names Axe, Exe, Esk and Usk are all derived from the British word isca meaning "water".


It would seem none of the naming was very original to begin with.

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There are at least 10 French cities named "Aix" (Aix-en-Provence being the best known), also from the old French for "water". I guess there were springs or baths there. –  Malvolio Jan 28 '11 at 19:26
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It has always amused me that 'River Avon' translates to 'River River'. Little things please little minds :) –  chimp Jan 28 '11 at 21:42
    
@chimp: My mother is a geographer, I think I was first amused with that when I was about 5, lol. –  Orbling Jan 28 '11 at 22:15
    
Good answer! =D –  Andersson Melo Jan 29 '11 at 2:22
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It doesn't surprise me that there are rivers named River River - having visited Loch Lochy in Scotland and Llyn Llyn in Wales :) –  HorusKol Jan 29 '11 at 12:12

Esk or, Exe from isca I suggest is "Celtic" related to "pisces" hence "fish river". Axe is said not to be cognate with Exe.

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Welcome to EL&U and thanks for your contribution. If you have them, it is helpful if you are able to provide references or other substantiation for your suggestions, so we know that they are not just your personal opinion. Also what does "isca" mean? –  TrevorD Aug 28 '13 at 15:19

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