Every time we drive to Bath, I spot an old rust-stained fingerpost pointing down a country lane to White Ox Mead. One of those white cast iron signs with raised black capital lettering. And I muse on the fact that once upon a time in the dim and distant past, the place was probably named for a meadow with a white ox in it – and the name has persisted all this time. Oxen are a rarity these days – they are steers (bullocks) used as draft animals, so, trained to harness.
As you may imagine, I was pleased to discover that ‘Witochesmede’ is recorded in the Domesday book, so the name dates from 1086 at the latest – that’s at least 936 years, which I think is fascinating – a little fossil of agricultural practice. At that time, the place was a hamlet of a few smallholdings, but today, there are several farms, and scattered houses with gardens, a tennis court and swimming pool – luxuries unknown to the original peasants of course.
And then I mused that ‘oxen’ is one of those old-fashioned English plurals not taking an ‘S’ (oxes, anyone? Foxes and boxes are OK though). And so is ‘children’ – which is in fact a double plural, as ‘childre’ would do alone. By this time, I was in danger of disappearing down an etymological wormhole, so – time to stop!
(About the picture at the top – detail from a drawing of yoked oxen in Tuscany, by Walter Shirlaw, dated in the 1870s. In the collection of the Smithsonian, reproduced under the terms of CC0.)