FRANCES PRESLEY: Hazel Eardley-Wilmot and the Vagaries of Language

  I want look at Hazel Eardley-Wilmot’s interest in and ‘acquaintance with the vagaries of language’, to use a phrase from the autobiographical note which opens Ancient Exmoor.  I will discuss two examples of it in her writing: the invented foreign language and the study of place names.  All her words were carefully chosen and I think I should define the word ‘vagary’, which comes from the Latin ‘to wander’ and its primary meaning is a devious excursion.

1.  The uses of language in Coffin’s Burden

I will begin with Eardley-Wilmot’s comic novel, Coffin’s Burden, written in 1948, but never publishedIt was based on her experience of working for the British Council in Czechoslovakia between the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War.  Set in the fictional country of Missaloonia, Coffin’s Burden satirises the neo-colonial attitudes of many in the British Council, while the heroine, Kate, fosters close relations with the local artists and intellectuals, incurring the wrath of her superiors.  The head of the British Council, the eponymous Coffin is notable for his outdated colonialism, as well as his obsession with rigid method.  He bullies both his staff and his downtrodden wife Effie. He is dismissive of the local people and their language, referring to them as ‘the natives’.  He is a linguistic pedant who disapproves strongly of his underlings’ use of the colloquial.

The Council puts on a ‘typically English’ review which includes a sketch in which they pretend to be country yokels, called ‘Us be Varmers’.  They explain to the audience that ‘we might be a bit at sea among Zummerzet varmers ourselves’ and the important thing is to ‘speak the King’s English – plain, simple English’.  Eardley-Wilmot would have been well aware of the drive towards Standard English by the prescriptivists, especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, defined in  Fowler’s ‘The King’s English’ in 1906.  Such attempts were doomed to failure, and amongst both scholars and novelists there had been an equal enthusiasm for the study and recording of local patterns of speech and dialect, which was not always as patronising as the British Council sketch.

The other interesting aspect of Coffin’s Burden is Eardley-Wilmot’s invention of a foreign language, Missaloonian.  It’s partly an exercise in how we, and the English people in the novel, hear unfamiliar and difficult foreign languages.  Much of it is purely for comic effect: some incomprehensible words turn out to be onomatopoeia, or English with the vowels stripped out.  Coffin’s cook Zenana, for instance, rushes in shouting: ‘Grk glmpk, glgl, shswsh!’    After more of this she finally points up in the direction of the bathroom and Coffin’s wife Effie realises there’s a problem with the plumbing. Foreign plumbing, she thinks.  The invented words gradually make sense as the sympathetic characters, such as Effie, engage with local people and their language.  Effie starts to talk to Zenana in a mixture of English and Missaloonian: ‘Is it all right?  Not grnk?’

Robert Hampson pointed out that Malcolm Bradbury does something similar in his comic novel Rates of Exchange (1983), in the mythical East European state Slaka, for which he invents a plausible and notably difficult language:

‘We have one spoken language and one book language.  Really there are only three cases, but sometimes seven.  Mostly it is inflected, but sometimes not.  It is different from country to town, also from region to region… Vocabulary is a little bit Latin, a little bit German, a little bit Finn.  So really it is quite simple’.

The hero of Rates of Exchange, Dr Petworth, a visiting linguistics lecturer with the British Council, is a dilettante in a country where language is a serious matter.  Petworth is ‘only political when roused, has no urgent views, merely a mild irony at the expense of all societies’.  Bradbury is satirising Petworth, but there is also an echo of his own disillusionment with politics in The History Man (1975).  It was a book which foreshadowed the ascendancy of Thatcherism.

There is a question about the extent to which Bradbury takes the people of Slaka seriously, and that in mocking communism he misses the human tragedy, according to the critic Lidia Vianu.  Although she herself would later become obsessed with linguistics, Eardley-Wilmot also cared deeply about the plight of the Czechs (or Missaloonians) and would continue to do so for the rest of her life.

2.  Exmoor place names

Eardley-Wilmot returned to Exmoor to write Coffin’s Burden and many years later she would make it her home. Her studies of local archaeology and history include both dialect and place names.

The study of place names is a branch of philology which was well established by the late 20th century.   Eardley-Wilmot’s article on the name of the Neolithic longstone ‘Naked Boy’ is an example of an attempt to uncover its true Celtic origins through linguistic investigation.  This is contrasted with the salacious flights of fancy which the name had inspired in local myth and storytelling, and which are perpetuated in popular accounts such as Jack Hurley’s Myths and Legends of Exmoor.

I made use of both her account and that of Jack Hurley in ‘Naked boy beaten’ and ‘Naked Boy as linguistic confusion’: two sections of the ‘Naked Boy’ sequence in Lines of Sight.  Hurley claims that the rock is called ‘Naked boy’ because boys were literally stripped naked and made to stand on the stone.  He goes further and claims that the boys were beaten, in a supposed enactment of the ritual of ‘beating the bounds’ of the Forest of Exmoor.  Eardley-Wilmot is entirely dismissive of this claim, pointing out that no local evidence supports his ‘fantasy’.  Her own account of the phrase is that it derives from the Celtic words for hill ‘cnoc’ and cattle ‘bo’, which became Knackyboy and also Naked Boy.

Her fascination with place names and their etymology goes further than this, and even within her discussion of ‘Naked Boy’ she makes reference to Bu or boy  meaning ox or bull or cow to the earliest farmers ‘before the tribes parted’.  She also notes that one of Homer’s epithets for Hera, Queen of Heaven, was ‘ox-eyed’, bo-opis.  It is in the extended footnotes and digressions of Ancient Exmoor, that her investigations become an intriguing metatext.  She explores the etymology of place names as far back as Sanskrit, which may be tendentious, but is also highly imaginative.  One example is the river Mole or Nymet (p. 45):

 ‘The Mole was once called Nymet, a prehistoric name meaning holy, or divine, surviving in the Nympton village names further downstream’.

   She traces Nymet back to the Sanskrit word ‘Nimi’, which was a royal name, and the word ‘nimna’ associated with rivers.  In the later Indo-European languages, ‘nim’ meant holy, noble or divine, like the Greek nymphs, and linked with water.  She is quite convinced that there is a river connection to this name, rather than just woodland.  Her love of streams and springs and the desire to trace their names, leads her to connect Kinsford to the Sanskrit word ‘Kunti’ for spring, which is also a girl’s name in Hindi.  This verges on Neolithic water worship, by way of philology.
Nympton or Nymet was also of interest to Roger Deakin in his book Wildwood and the chapter on ‘Sacred groves of Devon’.  I notice that Deakin doesn’t venture further back than Celtic.  In a study of place-names by Margaret Gelling (1978), a chapter on Roman place names refers to settlements called Nymet in Devon, related to the Roman name ‘Nemestatio’, the first part of which probably means ‘sacred wood’ and Nymed may have survived as the name of a forest, which would reinforce Deakin’s interpretation.  However P.H. Reaney in The Origin of English Place Names (1960) wrote that the British word ‘nemeton’ meant holy place and was also used of a holy river.

Eardley-Wilmot’s article on place names which derive from tree names is also significant.  In ‘Oak, ash and thorn’ (1984) she examines the dialect versions of tree names and how these still exist in local place names:

 Exmoor was such a wild wind-swept waste that a single tree was a notable landmark; and on the old commons outside the royal game-preserve, where the land was a little easier, tree names still recall lost woodlands and old ways of life.

  In one passage she speculates about ‘hazel’:

 What of the hazel, though?  That has been here from time immemorial and has left no obvious names – no Haslemere or Haseley or Hesleden.  But a clue appears in dialect, in the reversal of sounds, so prevalent in the south-west – haps for hasp, crips for crisp.  Halse for hazel is one of these.

  More contentiously she derives from place names such as Driver, Dryslade and Dyre the Indo-European word ‘dru’: ‘dru …first meant any tree and specifically an oak.  It would imply woodland where none remains’.

I think that Eardley-Wilmot wanted to trace the origins of names, especially place names, back to their Indo-European roots as part of her sense of deep universal human history, our language, rituals and literature which for her had replaced any religious narrative.  As ‘above all, a writer’, to quote a letter from Storm Jameson, Eardley-Wilmot couldn’t resist the imaginative, human, and female resonance of place names, which took her further than philology would allow.  In this she reminds me of the American poet HD and a passage from the novel Her:

  ‘Pennsylvania.  Names are in people, people are in names.  Sylvania.  I was born here.  People ought to think before they call a place Sylvania.

   Pennsylvania.  I am part of Sylvania.  Trees.  Trees.  Trees.  Dogwood, liriodendron with its yellow-green tulip blossoms.  Trees are in people.  People are in trees.’



Ancient Exmoor: a study of the archaeology and prehistory of Exmoor, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, Exmoor Press, 1983

Yesterday’s Exmoor, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, Exmoor Books, 1990

‘Oak, ash and thorn’, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, Exmoor Review, 25, 1984, pp 43-44

‘The Naked Boy: a reappraisal’, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, Exmoor Review, 38, pp 41-42

“Hazel Eardley-Wilmot: a search for origins”, Frances Presley, Exmoor Review, 52, 2011, pp. 48-50 and revised version in Junction Box, 1, 2011

Lines of sight, Frances Presley, Shearsman, 2009

Legends of Exmoor, Jack Hurley, Exmoor Press, 1973.

Rates of Exchange, Malcolm Bradbury, Secker & Warburg, 1983

Wildwood: a journey through trees, Roger Deakin, Hamish Hamilton, 2007

Signposts to the past, Margaret Gelling, Dent, 1978

The Origin of English place names, P.H. Reaney, Routledge, 1960

Her, H.D., Virago, 1984


Hazel Eardley-Wilmot and Exmoor dialect 

This paper was written for a celebration of Hazel Eardley-Wilmot’s interest in language, especially Exmoor dialect and place names.  The event was held in the village of North Molton in April, with the support of the Exmoor Society, and it was chaired by Tilla Brading.

Giles Goodland, who works for the OED, talked about Eardley-Wilmot’s Word List or dialect notebook which was used as a source for some of the material in Yesterday’s Exmoor and composed mainly between 1969 and 1990.  Goodland has transcribed and edited the notebook, which was found in the Hugh Thomas archive, and which is now published by the Devonshire Association:

‘Hazel Eardley-Wilmot’, Giles Goodland, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 143, pp. 381-416

Richard Westcott gave a presentation on Frederic Thomas Elsworthy’s immense 1886 Exmoor dictionary, also described in:  ‘The Speech of Exmoor’, Richard Westcott, Exmoor Review, 52, 2011, pp 117-120

Meriel Martin, of the English National Park Authorities, spoke about her dissertation on language and the Exmoor moorland landscape.  It entails a glossary of terms relating to moorland landscape and its management, including the conflict between the language of policy and that of dialect.  If we lose dialect we also lose our relationship with the landscape.  She referred to Robert Macfarlane’s essay ‘A counter desecration phrase book’, about an environmental campaign on the Isle of Lewis.

Throughout the day local people participated in the discussion and responded to Eardley-Wilmot’s dialect glossary, often with additions or revisions.  In particular Herbie Geen, a local farmer, and one of Eardley-Wilmot’s informants, gave his response to the Word List.


Frances Presley lives in north London.  Publications include Paravane: new and selected poems, 1996-2003 (Salt, 2004); Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976-2005, (Shearsman, 2006); Lines of Sight, (Shearsman 2009);   Stone settings with Tilla Brading, (Odyssey, 2010), and An Alphabet for Alina (Five Seasons, 2012), with Peterjon Skelt.  Her work is in the anthologies Infinite Difference (Shearsman, 2010), and Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (Shearsman, 2011).  She also contributed to a collection of poetic autobiographies, Cusp (Shearsman, 2012).



  • Tilla

    This puts the research and creativity of Hazel Eardley-Wilmot into the public domain; she deserves wider recognition.


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