Throughout the ages, imagination and creativity have inspired various writers and storytellers to try their hands at place-name etymology. Fanciful guesses and onomastic tales appear as early as the medieval prose masterpieces collectively known as The Mabinogion.
In the story of Branwen Ferch Llyr, the narrator uses the tale of a horse trading transaction between Matholwch King of Ireland, and Bendigeidfran King of the Island of Britain, to try and explain the meaning of Tal ebolion which he interprets as ‘payment for colts’. Unfortunately, his interpretation is flawed.
The actual place-name is Talybolion, (Talboleon 1291/2, Talybolion 1489), and consists of three elements tal, y, and bolion, the plural of bol ‘belly’. As bellies can be convex or concave, (they are usually concave in young people, while older folk tend to carry convex forms) Talybolion signifies a place at the end of rolling hills and vales. The tale of Math Fab Mathonwy includes the story of Blodeuwedd and her maidens. They fled into the mountains to avoid the men of Gwynedd. In their fright they walked backwards to look out for their pursuers, and so fell into a lake where they were all drowned except for Blodeuwedd. It appears that this was written to explain the name Llyn y morynion, ‘the maidens’ lake’, but strangely, the medieval scribe omitted the punch line - ‘and that is why Llyn y morynion is so named’.
A story told in Ystalyfera relates how a farmer and his labourer were harvesting the wheat one late summer afternoon in a field bordering the river Tawe. The young assistant had positioned the collected sheaves (‘bera’ is Welsh for a sheaf) close to the river bank.
They hadn’t noticed the dark clouds over the Black Mountain and in due course the level of the water rose and eventually ran over the banks into the field carrying away some of the sheaves. On seeing this, the farmer turned to his farm-hand and shouted “Wys – dal y fera!” (“Servant, catch the sheaf!”), and ever since, the place has been known as Ystal y fera.
Ystalyfera was Ynys Tal y Veran in 1582. This consists of four elements. The first is ynys ‘river meadow’ and is followed by tal y ‘the end of the’ and Veran which is ber rhan ‘short land share’, giving ‘the river meadow at the end of the short land share’.
Mind you, though totally fictitious, the story of the farmer and his farmhand is far more entertaining!
A Swansea author explained to her readers that Landore was so called, as it was situated on the banks of the river Tawe where ships docked to land their cargo of copper ore!
Landore is an anglicised form of Landwr 1802, Tir Glandwr 1686, from Welsh glan and dwr giving a literal meaning of ‘water bank’, more realistically, ‘river bank’.
While on holiday in a well known holiday village near Kidwelly, I was asked by a friend from Birmingham why a town would be given the name of a kid’s welly? I suppose that the English spelling of the place-name suggests such an etymology. The Welsh spelling of Cydweli is etymologically the more accurate. Having said that, I once heard on the radio, a Welsh speaker explaining that the place was called Cydweli because it lay between the beds (gwely) of the Gwendraeth Fawr and fach, i.e. cyd wely (joint beds). Both of the above explanations are fanciful and incorrect. Cydweli contains the personal name Cadwal plus the territorial suffix ‘-i’.
Cadwal became Cedwel under the influence of the final ‘i’, hence Cedweli.
C.f. Ceri from Car and a final ‘i’. The earliest recorded form is Cadweli, 1119. Cedweli has a meaning of ‘Cadwal’s territory’. I remember reading to a class of junior school pupils, an account of how the Pembrokeshire village of Wogan acquired its name. I believe the writer said that the village was occupied by an invisible dragon, and every morning the dragon would stand in the middle of the street and roar, ‘Who can see me’? As he was a Pembrokeshire dragon, this sounded like ‘Wogan zee me’? Frightened residents named the dragon ‘Wogan’ and the place where he lived was also called Wogan, hence the village of Wogan. The Wogan 1595, was in fact the name of a great cave, thought by many to be from Welsh ogof ‘cave’. Finally to the poet Idris Davies. In his poem ‘Gwalia Deserta’ he writes: "The village of Fochriw grunts among the hills;
the dwellings of miners and pigeons and pigs".... These lines endorse the common belief that the place-name contains the Welsh word moch - 'pigs' as a first element, giving a perceived meaning of 'hill of the pigs'. Bohrukarn c. 1170 contains the Welsh words, boch, rhiw and carn, giving a meaning of ‘cheek shaped hill of the cairn’. Sorry Idris, it has nothing to do with pigs, but thanks for the wonderful poetry. And to all the other writers and story tellers, thanks for the entertainment.
The Sirhywi river has an onomastic tale in "Folklore of Blaenau Gwent": "Some people claim that the name Sirhowy comes from the answer given to the Welsh general by his men when he asked who was willing to fight for him: 'Syr wyf i' - 'Sir I am'," (Courtesy of Emyr Morgan, Facebook Enwau Lleoedd 31.10.15.). The early forms - Serewi c.1190, Glyn Serwy 1315, Syrywy 1467, are etymologically challenging for this difficult place-name.