My town is not an ‘open sewer’! How false etymologies can be harmful
If there’s one local ‘fact’ everyone in the town of Goole in East Yorkshire knows, it’s that its name originally meant ‘open sewer’. This is taught to us in Geography lessons in school, it’s on Goole Town Council’s website, and heck, it’s even printed on the wall of our local Wetherspoons. But as a Goole resident who became a historian, I think something really stinks — and it’s not a sewer.
Google ‘Goole name origin’ and you’ll get this result, clipped from the town council’s website:
“The word Goole is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘open sewer’, or ‘outlet to a river’”, it says. And this is what you’ll find on dozens of other websites, including those devoted to local history.
‘Anglo-Saxon’ is an outdated term for the language Old English, the main language spoken in England in the early medieval period before the Norman Conquest. This happens to be the period I study, and though I have read quite a bit of Old English, and I have never come across a word like ‘Goole’. A flick through my Old English dictionary for anything resembling Goole indicates that this isn’t an Old English word at all. So where does it come from, and what does it mean?
Let’s look to the historical documents. There’s no record of the town of Goole existing before the Norman Conquest or even in the centuries after. The earliest records of the settlement appear in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when it was called variously ‘Gull Lewith’, ‘Gulle’, ‘Gullath’, ‘Goulle Lathes’, or ‘Goule’. It’s very normal for place names in this period to have different spellings in different records.
The ‘Gulle’ part is pretty straightforward. The Oxford English Dictionary records the words ‘gulle’, ‘golle’ and ‘gul’ in Middle English (a form of English that came between Old English and modern English), all of which mean a small stream or water channel. These words originated from the French ‘gule’ meaning throat, which came from the Latin ‘gula’. This same origin is where we get modern English words like ‘gully’ and ‘gullet’.
The second element of the name sometimes used, ‘laith’, seems to have been dropped since the middle ages, but this is originally from an Old Norse word, ‘hlatha’, meaning storehouse or barn. There are many places with ‘laith’ in their name, almost all of which are in the north of England. This indicates ‘laith’ was only used in northern dialects.
The name indicates that in the Middle Ages Goole was a storehouse on a water channel. This name origin makes perfect sense given that Goole is a port that lies on a river confluence, and even 700 years after its first mention in the sources has many silos and storehouses.
Case closed! So wait, there’s no stinky open sewer then? What is going on?
‘Open sewer’ is a very unflattering interpretation of the name Goole. Okay, a sewer might be considered a type of ‘water channel’, but the name Goole contains nothing that might reflect this meaning. This origin is simply wrong. When fake explanations for the origins of words or place names are invented, this is called a ‘false etymology’. False etymologies don’t tell us anything about the actual history of a word, but getting to the bottom of why they were invented can be revealing.
I tried to track the origin of the this false etymology and I couldn’t find out which book or website used it first. But I did find something else — this myth about Goole being an ‘open sewer’ has been used to stress how bad Goole is, over and over again.
A travel book published in 2009 discusses how charmless and boring Goole is, adding “I can’t say I was surprised to discover the name Goole was derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning open sewer”.
Another travel book published in 2013 says “if Goole doesn’t sound bad enough in its own right, consider its etymology: the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘open sewer’”. It then imitates what a journalist might say about the town: “Goole was named after an open sewer — and now that sewer is metaphorically choked with drug dealers, and no doubt actually choked with their horrible druggy poo.”
This is likely an unkind reference to the reputation Goole had for high levels of drug use in the 1990s. Disappointingly, the author of this travel book was basically right about what a journalist would say — in my search I found newspapers reporting on this social crisis at the time that did find the space to mention that Goole means ‘open sewer’. Sigh.
Instead of portraying Goole as a place that needs a bit more investment and attention from politicians, the fake medieval etymology of ‘open sewer’ has been used to create the impression that it’s always been, at its core, a Bad Town.
I don’t think Goole is a bad town, or that a history of difficult social problems means that it should be made fun of in books and in the press. Many towns, especially in the north of England, went into a decline after their industries suffered in the 1980s. But people who want to make Goole look awful seem to have been dining out on this ‘open sewer’ myth for a long time, even using it as evidence of how bad the town has apparently always been.
It’s not clear who invented this false etymology or why, but my suspicion is it was to make the town look bad. The ‘open sewer’ false etymology is often shared around the town with a knowing self-deprecating laugh and a joke — It’s SO BAD in Goole even the name means shit hole! While laughing at ourselves is different from being laughed at, I don’t see the point in repeating something that not only makes us look bad, but isn’t even true!
To me the real history of Goole, and the fact it has existed in some form since the thirteenth century, is much more interesting. Goole was transformed from a small settlement consisting of storehouses on a river into a prominent and wealthy port town in the industrial era of the early nineteenth century. That past can still be seen in the town in the form of its grand buildings (such as the Victorian Market Hall and Britain’s oldest hotel), and iconic grade II listed structures like Europe’s only surviving coal hoist.
Like any other town Goole has a rich and complex history which is more than its social ills. I propose we stop repeating this ‘open sewer’ lie and start concentrating on what is good about Goole. A good place to start would be updating the Goole Town Council website!
Florence H R Scott is a medieval historian and doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds. Florence writes the popular newsletter Ælfgif-who?, Biographies of Early Medieval Women. Subscribe here.