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Review of  Sunnyside

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Sunnyside
Book Author: Laura Wright
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 32.1097

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House names are a significant aspect of British life, in a way that is not true of other countries familiar to me. In France, even a house on a rural lane and surrounded by fields will be numbered, but in Britain its name will be its only identifier. In towns, most streets will have house-numbers assigned by the local authority, but at least in leafier neighbourhoods the houses will also have names, bestowed by the developer or by the first residents. It has often been said that Englishmen like to think of themselves as country gentlemen even if they are not, so woe betide a correspondent who fails to include house-name before house-number when addressing an envelope. Now that personal correspondence mainly uses e-mail, perhaps the phenomenon of house naming will fade away, but to date there is no sign of that happening.

Laura Wright sees house naming as a valid topic for linguistic research, though she points out in her Introduction that it is a topic which has been almost entirely neglected up to now – essentially, she believes, for reasons of intellectual snobbery: academics see the proliferation of rural-sounding names such as Oakdene or Fernlea attached to terrace houses in urban streets as pretentious, and names based on wordplay like Herznmine, or Dunroamin attached to a house bought for retirement, as vulgar. In this book, sponsored by the British Academy, she aims to illustrate what can be done when the topic is taken seriously. She argues that while individual house names are endlessly diverse, they fall into a quite small range of general categories:

(1) transferred place-names (the largest category), e.g. Grasmere
(2) nostalgically rural, e.g. Oakdene
(3) commemorative, e.g. Inkerman Lodge (the battle of Inkerman was a British victory in the Crimean War)
(4) “upwardly mobile”, e.g. Grosvenor Villa (Grosvenor is the family name of the Dukes of Westminster)
(5) popular culture, e.g. Elsinore

The categories overlap. Grasmere is a place-name, but it is the name of a lake and adjacent village in the outstandingly beautiful area of rural England called the Lake District, hence the name belongs equally under (2).

In Chapter 1, the author analyses the several hundred London house names recorded from before 1400; one notable development happened about 1320, when the rising social class of merchants took to naming their houses (which were also their workplaces) after heraldic devices – a symptom of social aspiration, since merchants would not previously have been entitled to coats of arms. Chapter 2 leaps forward to the Victorian period, when the advent of railways enabled people who worked in the centre of large cities to live in outer suburbs, whose desirably semi-rural status could be expressed with house names like Rosemont or Oak Lodge.

Then, the remaining four chapters all relate to one particular, frequent house name which attracted the author’s curiosity: the name of the book title, Sunnyside. Before reading this book, if I had been asked what kind of houses I associated with this name, I would have said semis or bungalows built for lower middle class buyers in the 1930s, a period when society was newly enthusiastic about sunlight and the open-air life. Laura Wright had similar associations with the name, but her interest was piqued when she encountered a Sunnyside that conflicted with this profile in several respects. The bulk of her book aims to show that, while many present-day Sunnysides may indeed fit the profile, the name has a far longer and more specialized history.

Chapter 3 surveys early cases of Sunnyside within London. The earliest case found dates from 1860, and by 1870 there were 23 London Sunnysides. Far from being lower middle class houses, these were “large detached houses with room to house numerous children and servants”. They were owned by wealthy businessmen, who tended to be actively involved in the life of Nonconformist churches; many of them had Scottish connexions. Chapter 4 looks further at the link with religion. It turns out that, before the 1860s, many Nonconformist chapels in England were themselves named Sunnyside, the earliest found being a Quaker meeting house in Rossendale, Lancs., which bore the name by 1716. In the USA and other recently-settled English-speaking countries, this is still a frequent name for churches of equivalent denominations. As a house name, Sunnyside came to public attention in the USA when the writer Washington Irving adopted it for his own house, described in 1859 as “next to Mount Vernon, the best known and most cherished of all the dwellings in America”.

Chapter 5 shows that Sunnyside is a common name for farms in certain parts of Scotland and northern England. Standard dictionaries claim that this usage refers to the sunny side of a hill, that is the side which faces broadly south rather than north; but although that is an obvious guess, the author argues that it cannot be right. For one thing, the limited areas where Sunnysides occur are notably flat rather than hilly. By studying the frequent use of “sunny side” and Scots equivalents in legal documents such as property deeds, Laura Wright shows that the term was routinely used in contexts where more recently the reference would be to compass directions such as south or east. Under the open-field system which preceded agricultural enclosure, the land of a manor was not divided up by hedges or fences. It was split into numerous strips or “selions”, scattered sets of which were allocated annually to families in a fashion that gave everyone a fair share of good and poor land to work. (Typical selion dimensions were 220 by 22 yards, an acre in all.) Before compasses were available, selions had to be defined by reference to some other way of fixing directions, and Laura Wright tells us that in Scotland this was done in terms of the position of the sun at a standard time of day and of year, e.g. sunrise at the summer solstice; people would walk clockwise round a stretch of land at this time to “vesy” or survey it by reference to the direction of shadows. She relates this to a Scandinavian land-division sytem called ‘solskifte’, “sun-shift”.

Finally, Chapter 6 is a brief summary in timeline form of the evolving use of “sunnyside” from a North British legal concept to do with land tenure into a name bestowed on suburban and urban houses all over Britain.

Much of the book comprises data rather than exposition, for instance one 53-page appendix lists every case the author has found of a Sunnyside in northern Britain pre-dating the period when it came into general use as a house name, with National Grid references and extracts from maps showing the name. (She also includes a number of Scottish places called “Green”, “Greens”, or “Greens of X”, where “Green” may represent not the English colour term but Gaelic ‘grian’, “sun, sunlight”.) The body of the book, excluding appendices and other data-lists, is well under 150 pages long.


Laura Wright certainly establishes that house names are a valid topic for sociolinguistics. She demonstrates considerable detective skill in locating early Sunnysides and discovering what kind of people first lived in them. (We are given mini-biographies, averaging a third of a page, for the householders at all but five of the 23 London Sunnysides listed in the 1870 Post Office Directory; three of the missing five were women, who are commonly elusive in old records.) I wonder how many other ordinary-sounding house names would prove to hide such long and unexpected histories, but it is natural and right that someone aiming to demonstrate the possibilities of a novel research area through detailed attention to one example will pick the best example she can find.

With respect to some parts of her analysis I feel Laura Wright falls short of making her case. She shows that early Sunnyside houses tended to belong to chapel- rather than churchgoers, and that this may relate to the fact that Nonconformist chapels were sometimes called Sunnyside; but it is not clear why that should be. If the first London Sunnysiders tended to be both wealthy businessmen and Nonconformists, that might be because Nonconformist religion was particularly strong in northern Britain, where the name Sunnyside originated, and it was successful businessmen who had a reason to migrate from the north to London; but did the first of them bring the name Sunnyside with him because it had pleasant associations in his homeland, and others copy it because they belonged to the same social circles in London, or was Sunnyside somehow a natural name for Nonconformist chapels? I am not sure what Laura Wright is saying here.

And when it comes to “sunny side” as a land-tenure concept, together with Nordic ‘solskifte’, I am lost: I have read this part of Laura Wright’s exposition several times, but I do not understand it. It is obvious enough that if you have no compass, another way to fix a cardinal direction precisely would be by the position of the sun at a specified time and date, but what has that to do with walking round a landholding clockwise (or in any direction)? Adjacent selions were necessarily parallel, but maps I have seen of open-field divisions suggest that a manor would contain separate groups of selions, with those of different groups laid out in very different orientations. (In the author’s defence, nothing I have found about ‘solskifte’ online has made the system any clearer to me.)

The author allows herself to take many detours which evidently fascinate her but which could be thought self-indulgent. For instance, four pages in Chapter 1 together with the six pages of Appendix 3 deal with stagecoach names, which are certainly an interesting topic in their own right but seem wholly unrelated to house names. Or again, she spends three pages of Chapter 4 discussing whether the Oxford English Dictionary is correct to describe the word “bartizan”, for a kind of turret, as an invention of Sir Walter Scott based on an etymological misunderstanding. She succeeds in establishing that the word was used before Scott and has a respectable etymology, but this has no apparent relevance to the topic of house names.

For that matter, it is not clear how Scott comes into the Sunnyside story at all. Laura Wright says that “The impact of Sir Walter Scott’s novels on house-naming practices … cannot be overstated”, which may well be true, but there is no suggestion that the novels contain a Sunnyside – Scott’s own splendid house was (and is) named Abbotsford. The link drawn by Laura Wright is that Washington Irving was a house guest at Abbotsford in August 1816 and went on rambles with Scott, and a mile away there is a farm which has been named Sunnyside at least since 1590 – we are shown a photograph. When Sunnysides are as numerous in that part of Scotland as Laura Wright shows them to be, it is a fairly safe bet that there would be one within rambling distance of Scott’s home, but it seems a large assumption that walking past this farm was what prompted Irving to choose the name for his own house, or that the popularity of Scott’s novels had anything to do with the widespread adoption of the name in England.

And at one point I questioned Laura Wright’s factual accuracy. On p. 135 she asserts “A statute of 1290 known as ‘Quia Emptores’ ended the open field system in England”. That is not what Quia Emptores did. It was about simplifying the feudal pyramid of overlord/vassal relationships: if B held land from overlord A, Quia Emptores forbade him to grant it or part of it to a sub-vassal C, making A C’s liege at two removes. This says nothing about how the land of a manor was divided between the tenants. Enclosure only began to any extent in the sixteenth century, and the bulk of the Inclosure Acts came in during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Laura Wright is repeatedly careless about spellings, surprising in a scholar of onomastics. Okehampton in Devon is not spelled “Oakhampton”, and Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence is Osborne, not “Osbourne”. The word “axe” is spelled with an E, except by Americans. On the first page, “No Bother” is surely a poor translation for the name of Frederick the Great’s palace of Sans Souci, a more obvious rendering being “Carefree”. (“No bother” is normally a phrase used in order to deflect someone’s apology for putting the speaker to trouble.) I wondered whether a reference on p. 41 to a “Stocks Market” should have read Stock Market (but here I do not know the facts). And the author’s quotations of Old English seem to confuse the letters thorn and wynn.

That last problem may be more the publisher’s than the author’s responsibility. And this applies too to the many quotations from mediaeval Latin documents, which are full of abbreviation signs, e.g ‘aliquã’ for ‘aliquam’. I am no expert in this area, but it looks to me as though O.U.P. has fudged up approximations to the various abbreviation symbols actually used as best it can in a font which does not provide for them. It would have been very much clearer to spell the Latin words out in full.

Nevertheless, this is an informative and enjoyable book. Any linguist who lives in a Sunnyside (there is at least one) will undoubtedly be keen to read it, and so will many others.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent some years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent linguistics book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (Equinox, 2017); in 2020 he published ''Voices from Early China'' (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), a translation of an anthology of Chinese poems dating from about 1000–600 B.C.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780197266557
Pages: 250
Prices: U.S. $ 70.00