Sunday, October 16, 2016


Bury Hill, Herefordshire, site of the Romano-British Settlement of Ariconium

The British place-name Ariconium has for long gone without a decent etymology.  As I had just written a piece on some of the legendary Arthur’s connections with Ariconium in Welsh tradition, I thought I would have a stab at it. 
The following treatment of the name is from Rivet and Smith’s THE PLACE-NAMES OF ROMAN BRITAIN:

“Antonine Itinerary, 4853 (Iter XIII) : ARICONIO.

DERIVATION : The name is formed from British *are- (*ari-) 'in front of ' and *conio-, of unknown meaning but perhaps the same as in Viroconium. Among names formed in this way (Holder I. 188) are possibly British Argistillum (and divine name Arnemetia), and abroad Armorici (Aremorici, the people 'in front of the sea'), Arelaunum silva, Areduno vico > Ardin (Deux-Sèvres, France); these do not help to guess a meaning for the present name, though Jackson observes that thc prefix is 'usually used in place-names of regions beside some feature such as a forest, a marsh, the sea, etc.' (Britannia, I (1970), 68).

IDENTIFICATION. The Roman settlement at Weston under Penyard, Herefordshire (SO 6423).

Note. The name has interesting survivals. In EPNS, XL, 192, its first part, with Anglo-Saxon -ingas attached, is recorded as Ircingafeld in the ASC (918) and Arcenfelde in DB, modern Archenfield, a deanery of the diocese of Hereford. There is also Ergyn(g), the Welsh name for a district in Herefordshire. Possibly the first element survives in a different form in the name Yartleton; the Roman site is some three miles to the north-west of this place.”

The meaning of this supposed *conio- element has eluded all attempts by Celtic linguists.  The only respectable offered suggestion is mentioned by Professor Leonard Curchin in

“…the element *conio- also appears in British GNs (Ariconium, Viroconium), perhaps from IE *konio-
“common” (Greek  koi-nos).  Conimbriga could therefore mean “hill-fort of the common people”. 

However, when speaking of Viroconium Rivet and Smith point towards another possible solution for Ariconium:

“It could be, however, that despite the attractive analogues above, we have in Viroconium a personal name plus suffix. Names such as Viriatus, Virius, Virinius are frequent in Spain (ELH I. 367), and Viricius, Vendus are widely recorded (Holder III. 379). In Britain Verica, ruler of the Atrebates, is named on coins as Verica and Ver but also as Vir, Viri (Mack Nos. 109-1316). In CIL v. 4594 (Brescia, Italy) there appears Virico. It is easy to analyse these names as Viric- (of unknown meaning; hardly *uiro- 'man') with various suffixes. The place-name Viroconium might therefore more properly be Viriconium, to be analysed in British terms as *Uirico- with suffixes *-on-io- as in CANONIUM, etc.; a meaning ' town of *Uirico-' is likely, and is one of the possibilities admitted by Jackson in his study of the name in Britannia, I (1970), 81. The name preumably applied originally to the hill-fort on the Wrekin, and was transferred to the Roman fortress and the town which grew from it.”

What I found myself wondering is whether Ariconium could be explained in the same way.  I wrote to Gaulish and Celtic language expert Professor Joseph Eske and asked him if he knew of any Gaulish names which resembled Ir. Airech in formation.  His response was simply this:

“OIr. airech continues proto-Celtic *fari-ko-.  It is found in Gaulish in the personal name Aricos, fem. Arica.  Ario- is a derivative of *fari- with –o- added.  It is found in names such as Ariobindus and Comarius.”

Prof. Curchin added this:

“Pokorny's dictionary, useful in its day, predates the widespread acceptance of laryngeal theory. His PIE root *ario- would nowadays be written *h2eryo- where h2 represents an a-colouring laryngeal. From this comes the Gaulish root *ario- which D.E. Evans (Gaulish Personal Names, p. 54) translates "nobleman". This is found in several Celtic and Celto-Germanic names: Ariomanus (inscriptions from Pannonia and Noricum), Ariobindus (inscriptions from Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum), Ariovistus (chief of the Suebi named by Caesar), Ariogaisus (chief of the Quadi named by Dio Cassius). Note that the "Gaulish" language was spoken not only in Gaul (France/Belgium) but also in Central and Eastern Europe. In the 3rd c. BC the Gauls overran Greece and Asia Minor.

In Irish and Celtiberian, *h2eryo- takes the form *airo- as shown by the Irish cognates cited by Pokorny and by "deo Aironi" in an inscription from central Spain.”

It seemed to me that if we allowed for a British cognate to that Gaulish Aricos, and Irish airech, we could have an Arico(s) + suffixes like *-on-io-.  This would be the ‘Place of Arico(s).’ or ‘Noble Place.’

To this idea, Eske replied: “Sure, Daniel, this is a possibility.”  Curchin said that “Gaulish *ario- ‘nobleman’ could have an adjectival form *ari-iko, making possible a hypothetical toponym *arik-on-io "noble place.”

Dr. Simon Rodway thought this might work:

"Yes, I suppose that would work. I was reconstructing airech as *fari-āko- (to use Eska’s notation), because that works for Irish, and because –āko- is so productive in Insular Celtic, but in the light of Gaulish Aricos etc., then fine."

As there is no other good etymology for this place-name, I will put forward this proposal.

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