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Rotten Row

By Anatoly Liberman


Some time ago, a colleague asked me what materials I have on the place name Rotten Row; she was going to write an article on this subject.  But her plans changed, and the article did not appear.  My folders contain a sizable batch of letters to Notes and Queries and essays from other popular sources dealing with Rotten Row.  I am not a specialist in onomastics, and, if I am not mistaken, the question about the etymology of Rotten Row has never been answered to everybody’s satisfaction.  Still a survey, however incomplete, may be of some interest to our readers, and perhaps somebody has new ideas on the derivation of this place name and will share them with us.

In a way, the etymological chase being offered below looks like an exercise in futility, for Rotten Row perhaps means what it says, that is, “rotten row,” but there is no certainty; besides, most etymological investigations look like rivers that fail to reach the sea.  As noted, I am mainly indebted for my information to Notes and Queries, this “unique meeting place of British ignorance and scholarship,” as John A. Walz, a Harvard professor of German, called it in 1913, Chambers’s Magazine, and dictionaries.  The main difficulty in a search for the origin of Rotten Row is that streets bearing this name are numerous in the north of England and in Scotland.  Rotten Row in Hyde Park goes back to the end of the eighteenth century, while the place name, distinct from the street name, occurs as early as 1561, and the variants of Rotten Row in Glasgow were known a hundred years earlier; thus, the fashionable bridle path in the capital could not be the model other towns emulated.  The borrowing went in the opposite direction.

Here are some of the derivations of Rotten Row I happened to come across. 1. From Latin Ratumena Porta, allegedly called this in memory of some Ratumena, a charioteer who died at that gate in Ancient Rome.  The accident was sad, but, as far as we are concerned, can be dismissed without much regret.  2. From Latin rota “wheel” (compare Engl. rotate) and “chariot.”  This guess has no advantage over the previous one.  Latin place names are numerous in Britain, but they are old, while no record of Rotten Row has been traced to the Anglo-Saxon times.  In Medieval Latin, rota also meant “road,” but why should an undistinguished road have been given a bookish foreign name?  3. From the woolen stuff called rateen.  The etymon of the English word is French, and in English rateen turned up too late to be of use in the present context, but a Rateenrow seems to have been mentioned in 1437 in Bury St. Edmund’s, which was the great cloth mart of the northeastern parts of the kingdom.  4. From the Old Germanic word rot “a file of soldiers” (compare German Rotte; many meanings, including “pack; herd,” otherwise, a common military term).  Although Engl. rat “a file of soldiers” occurred regularly in the seventeenth century, it hardly has anything to do with Rotten Row.  A similar derivation connects Rotten Row with the verb rottaran “to muster.”  I am not sure in which language this verb has been attested, but the famous William Camden, the author of this etymology, could not have invented it.

5. A folk etymological “corruption” of French Route du Rois “King’s Way” (an explanation one can read in numerous editions of Baedeker’s guide to London); a similar Irish Gaelic etymon, with the transliteration Rathad’n Righ, has also been proposed.  The streets called Rotten Row were, most certainly, not meant for royalty, while London’s Rotten Row is relatively recent (see above).  6. From Rother Row, rother being an old word for “cattle”; Shakespeare still used it.  No historical evidence shows that cows and oxen were driven along any Rotten Row.  Rother Street in Stratford-upon-Avon must be familiar to many, and there is a family name Rother (the meaning is no longer understood, which is a blessing in disguise: compare the family name Heifer).  One can see that Rother Street has not become Rotten Street. 7. From Old Icelandic ruddr, the past participle of a verb meaning “make a clearing” (its English cognate is rid in get rid of).  Allegedly, ruddr vegr meant “a smoothed, paved way.”  The chance of any Rotten Row having once been a paved way, an analogue of the Anglo-Saxon via strata, is as small as the chance of medieval “neat” running along it.  8. From the name of someone who had a business in that area; the name was said to contain a German cognate of Engl. red.  This eponymous ancestor of Rotten Row, supposedly a purveyor of red herrings (!), is no more probable than the Roman charioteer.  9. From Old Engl. rot (with a long vowel) “glad; bright; noble.”  Was Rotten Row named for its splendor?  10. From Engl. rattin “undressed timber.”  This is a ghost word (it never existed).  11. From Routine Row, on account of the processions of the church passing in that direction.  As Longfellow said in his anthologized lyric: “I shot an arrow into the air./ It fell to earth, I knew not where.”

A knowledgeable author summarized the case in 1867 so: “[these derivations] are all destitute of any substruction of historical evidence, and are all purely speculative or fanciful” (I wish I had his vocabulary).  Before I mention the only hypotheses that, in my opinion, deserve consideration, the following may perhaps be stated with some confidence.  The Middle English name seems to have originated in the north.  Alliteration and a shocking, “in-your-face” meaning contributed to its popularity.  The vogue for Rotten Row makes it unnecessary to reconstruct the circumstances that led to the naming of each street called this.  Rotten Row does not owe its origin to a local personal name or a local event.  Two etymologies sound more or less realistic.  Streets were often infested with rats.  In Scots and northern English dialects, rattan and rottan mean “rat.” Rotten Row emerges as Rat Row.  Conversely, many streets, regardless of the presence of rats, were indeed rotten, with decayed houses on both sides (for instance, a place called Rotten Spot, near Sheffield,  probably had some “rotten” structures in it), though the epithet rotten may at one time have referred to the surface good for the hooves.  If that putative meaning had any currency in eighteenth-century London, Rotten Row in Hyde Park was a playful adoption of the widespread name, with reference to the quality of the road.  Route du Rois would not have degenerated into Rotten Row so quickly under the influence of folk etymology.

It would be a good thing to discover the first Rotten Row.  We can imagine etymologists’ delight if that street turned out to be lined with dilapidated houses on both sides and serving as a habitat of rapacious rats. A historical linguist would feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin or Dick Whittington, but carrying an etymological dictionary instead of a pipe or a cat.

Modern Rother Street. China.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. Marc Leavitt

    Professor Lieberman:
    I think your tentative conclusion makes sense. In 1691, a Dutch explorer touched on modern-day Rottsnest Island, 11 kilometres off Fremantle in Western Australia. He named it Rattenest Island because of a diminutive marsupial indigenous to the island, which to him appeared to be a rat. Ratte, of course is rat in Dutch.

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