Posted by: anna | May 27, 2010

St Dyfan and tautologies

Today (14 May) we commemorate St. Dyfan (Deruvianus, Damian), Martyr in the 2nd century. Are we coming into a season of obscure Welsh saints, or are there just that many throughout the calendar? Time will tell… Again, I have to fall back on celt-saints: ‘Dyfan is said to have been one of the missionaries sent to the Britons by Pope Saint Eleutherius (f.d. May 26) at the request of King Saint Lucius (f.d. December 3). His church of Merthyr Dyfan shows the popular tradition that he ended his days on earth in martyrdom (Benedictines).’

Merthyr Dyfan is in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, in south Wales.

Another question – ‘saint’ basically means holy, so to say ‘holy saint so-and-so’ is a tautology, and an interesting bilingual English tautology at that. One might as well say ‘holy holy person.’ But English is like that – my favourite example is a place-name, Bredon Hill (bre, Brythonic/Welsh, ‘hill’ + dūn, Old English ‘hill’ + hill). There must have been words for different shapes, steepnesses and heights of hills in a world where travel was mostly on foot and these things mattered. But I like this evidence of the clash of cultures in these islands.

Now that I look, there are more Hill Hill Hills:
1) Pendle Hill (pen, Welsh ‘hill’ + ‘hyll’, Old English ‘hill’ plus hill) – never mind the d, that crept in later, there is 13th documentation as Pennehille, and it’s easy to see how pronunciation might progress Penhill > Pennel > Pendle, and then needed another Hill added because everyone had forgotten it was there in the first place.

2) Torpenhow (torr, Old English ‘rocky peak’, pen, Welsh ‘hill’, hōh, Old English ‘ridge’. My source for all these etymologies is Adrian Room’s Penguin Dictionary of British Place Names, and I agree with him, re the last element of Torpenhow, that given 12th century evidence for spelling (and thus we hope pronunciation) Torpennoc, the final ‘how’ element cannot come from Old Scandinavian (whatever that is – I suppose it means whatever they spoke who turned up from Norway, Denmark, Sweden or somewhere in between, ie The Vikings and other northern invaders, whoever left lots of places ending in –by) ahem, cannot come from OS haugr, ‘hill’, as many other placenames ending in -how or indeed Hoo do. The final h in hoh would have been pronounced in Old English, like Scottish ch, so it would make sense to write it as oc.

Some wonderful person has made a whole wikipedia page of tautological place-names. If as whatsname reports, Torpenhow is pronounced by the inhabitants as Trepenna, this sounds much closer to what in Welsh would be ‘village on a hill’, though it usually turns up as Pentre Somethingorother. And someone else has gone to the trouble of finding out that Hillhillhill Hill (Torpenhow Hill) does not exist! I am glad somebody has time and energy to do these strange things… whoever it is gets a lot out of life!

Holy St Dyfan, pray to God for us.


  1. Here's another not quite tautology:
    Lord PETER BREDON Wimsey. And think, you will be working in the very church where he was married!

    I can't figure out how the pump was working either.

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