The origin of the name Jersey

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This article by C Oberreiner was first published in the 1913 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Merovingian villas

It is generally accepted today that in the Merovingian era the villas, that is to say rural properties which moreover often belonged to a sole proprietor, took the name of the people who had the right to the property, and to indicate the possession the suffix acum was added. So the villa of the people Victoria were called Victoriacum, from which were derived the terms Vitrac, Vitrec, Vitré, Vitrey, Vitry.

Can it be concluded that the suffix of all the placenames ending with ac, ec, é, ey, y necessarily derived from acum, even when no mention is found of the form acum in documents? In other words, is the reciprocal of the hypothesis true?

It certainly would not take account of all the successive immigrations in Gaul to sustain absolutely the truth of this reciprocity.

The Ligurians and the Celts - likewise following different northern tribes more or less teutonic - could they not equally have given terms do designate localities, from which the suffixes ac, ec, é, ey, y could be derived, or even have created names of which the latter, instead of indicating the idea of possession, expressed another idea, and from which are derived ac, ec, é, ey, y? Who knows?

We should not be in too much of a hurry to generalise. It is not certain that all the ac, ec, é, ey, y date from the Merovingian era; there are undoubtedly those which are older than this period and some which are more recent.

Leaving to others the responsibility to examine the entirety of this question, we confine ourselves to study one of the numerous topographical terms in ey which particularly interests etymologists: Jersey.

What can be applied to Jersey?

Some people could try to suggest that one could not apply to an island such as Jersey what could be true of a villa, in other words a simple rural property. And to reinforce the objection they could add that in times past Jersey was more widespread, so that it is difficult for such a large domaine to be the property of a single people.

The -ey of Chausey comes precisely, according to certain etymologists, from the acum of ancient Scissiacum, Scissy! But Jersey! It is impossible. There is no point in further discussion.

All the same, it is not pointless. But while awaiting the discovery of some document in which Jersiacum figures in one way or another, one can assuredly limit the field of investigation to the hypothesis already put forward.

It is necessary to know if the term Jersey had preceded the term Caesarea or if it is a corruption of the latter. That's it.

According to several authors, Jersey was the Celtic name of our island. It is unfortunate that G Dupont, who accepted this opinion, believed that he had to leave in manuscript his work on his etymological research; it would doubtless have thrown some light on the question.

The partisans of the Celtic origin of the term Jersey are in effect far from being in agreement even on the etymology of its name. Some have it derived from Ger and from -ey, which signifies surrounded by water. Others derive it from the Breton Jers or Cers and ey, the island of Jers or Cers.

'Island', or 'on water'?

It is important to be precise about the value of the term ey. Is it neo-Celtic (Breton, Gallic, etc) or ancient Celtic. Does it always mean 'island', or sometimes only 'on water'? The work of the Celtic adherents has not so far completely resolved that question.

That the ancient Celtic ey is either, as Ubele believed, a Hebrew term signifying island, or Phoenician, seems insignificant at first sight. And yet the hypotheses of commercial relations followed between the Carthaginians and the Channel Islands should not be rejected straight off.

Be that as it may, the Romans could, as Ubele said, add their isina or island to old names, or adopt a for ey. The term ey is for us old Celtic, or at least pre-Roman.

Such is not the advice of the majority of the authors of treatises on Jersey. According to Falle, who relies on Camden, the name was born after the appeareance of the northern tribes in the south of Europe. The modern name of Jersey is equally, according to L'Abrégé Historique of G S Syvret, which follows on from the Chroniques just a corruption of Caesarea.

Because ey adds the author, had already signified 'island', in the languages of the northern people which spread throughout Europe, for more than a thousand years.

Island of Caesar?

And Le Rouge, John Stead and a number of others say that Jersey is the island of Caesar.

The conclusion which is suggested in this case is this: our island was called Jersey either by the Saxons around the 5th century, or later by Norman people.

Ahier accepted the Saxon occupation and supported the thesis of Augustin Thierry and Gregoire de Tours.

Robert Mudie, for whom the present names of the Channel Islands throws little light on their history, speaking of the gift made in 550 by Childebert to Sampson, Archbishop of Dol, adds that the latter was perhaps an Englishman expelled by the Saxon conquerors. Supposing that Augia was certainly Jersey, it is advisable not to forget that, for the supporters of the Celtic origin of the name Jersey, this term corresponds to Augey and signifies, like that of Gersey, 'living on water'.

But those who accept the Saxon occupation and those who give to the people from the north the honour of having given the island its present name, are not so much in agreement on the value of the term ey as the supporters of the Celtic origin of the name.

Anglo-Saxon ea certainly signifies water, reiver; ey could be the abbrevistion of eyland or igland, 'island'.

But ey could also come from Norwegian oe, or the Danish ö, island, was the author of Words and Places believed. And it is not known which Scandinavian tribe occupied Jersey first.

Rivers in France

It is important to mention the strong suggestions which Mr Nicolle, the devoted secretary of La Société Jersiaise wanted to reveal. Opposite Jersey, at Carteret, is the mouth of Ger or Gerfleur; opposite the island of Guernsey one finds the port of Légué, a name which seemingly shows through that of Le Guer, the river the mouth of which is situated near Lannion (Cotes du Nord).

Is it not worth researching if from various point of view, geological, historic and prehistoric, this does not have a capital significance?

If one accepts that in a more or less remote era Jersey was within a maritime river, one can infer that Jersey was the island in the Ger the Jer. Thus Rhinau is one of the nuremous islands in the Rhine.

If on the other hand one takes account of the cult the Gauls had dedicated to water, one can envisage the following hypothesis: Ger or Jer was once a river expressing the idea of running water (Ger, at Carteret) and a proper name designating an island (Jersey).

If one returns to the naturalist concept of primitive people, in the era when the forces of nature were deified, one can consider a river deity bearing the name Ger or Jer, to which our island was consecrated.

So the Rhine, the majestic Father Rhine of the poest, was a Celtic or pre-Celtic deity, as it appears in communications recently between different academies.

Taking account of all the possible analogies, it is not without interest to remark that in France two rivers have the name: La Gère (Charente Inferieure and Isere) and that the Gers, which gave its name to a department, is one of the principal rivers of the well-known delta. On the borders of Lake Lucerne is found the charming village of Gersau, whose name is reminiscent of the Guer.

If the Gerfleur or Ger of Manche is a river of which the bay - fleur derivers from scandinavian fjord 'baie - is particularly interesting, Jersey is an island whose name indicates an analogous origin.

The hypothesis suggested by Mr Nicolle merits being taken into consideration and studied closely by those interested in the origins of Jersey.

Thoughts for academics

Could these succinct ideas excite the academics interested in the origin of the term Jersey?

Rather eclectically we advocate a sufficiently conciliatory intermediate solution. The name Jersey, has it not in its veins at the same time Celtic, Saxon and Norman blood. The idea behind the name can be varied, more or less, but how fortunate to be able to explain by their proper roots a term which the Roman occupation had not succeeded in banning completely, so that the Saxons or later the Normans could reintroduce the Celtic or pre-Celtic name.

These reminiscences, these resurrections of the past are not as rare as one thinks.

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