On The Butts, Baggins, and Butterflies

Recently this blog had an article which found one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s First World War camps, at “The Butts” near Newcastle-under-Lyme. The name “The Butts” is interesting. It has long been the traditional English name for an outdoor shooting-range. But where does it come from?

My first thought on the meaning was that butt probably firstly relates to a root of -but — meaning ‘swollen’, ’rounded’, and thus is related to some Old English words for bulging things: baelg (bulge); beorg (a round tumulus), belg (a bag). Thus it would likely fit in a category of words referring to the shape of the bulging mounds and ridges, formed in the earth in order to stop stray bullets and make a safe shooting range. Presumably related words here would be butte, a word apparently of unknown origin, being a ‘natural steep-sided knoll’ isolated in the landscape, and the equally debatable Old English buttuc which was perhaps an agricultural term meaning very short mounded ridges found at the sides of fields.

But the name The Butts was used long before bullets, as it was in use long ago for a field with archery targets. Archers would appear to have no need of mounded earth banks for safety, to stop stray bullets. Yet it seems they did have large mounds on their target ranges, presumably to provide a backstop which would stop mis-shot arrows from overshooting and thus being lost. The book Fieldwork in medieval archaeology (1974) explains…

“The two oval mounds respected by the adjacent ridge and furrow [old ploughing furrows] at Wold Newton in the East Riding of Yorkshire would be quite impossible to interpret by either fieldwork or indeed excavation without knowing that they are called ‘The Butts’ and are recorded in 1299 as archery butts.”

Thus names for turfed ‘backstop’ mounds of earth cannot be ruled out as sources for the name “The Butts”.

I read that in the Northern European languages there were several ancient forms with a ‘lump’ meaning: “ON butr, NNo butt, Sw but, LG butt, all meaning ‘lump’ or ‘trunk'” of wood (Lund Studies in English, 1965). Here we appear to feel our way back to some original Northern meaning that must feed into “The Butts”. All these forms have the meaning of a fat and cut-off lump of wood, possibly the left-over ‘fag end’ that as unwanted. A tubular cigarette butt still has a similar meaning today. In Shakespeare’s time there were similar military terms to do with wood, such as the butt-end (the rough and dirty blunt end) of a soldier’s pike. And the word butt-shaft, for the blunt fat-ended practice arrows which archaeologists say were sometimes used in butt shooting by inexperienced archers. These military words presumably later gave rise to the butt being the name for the lower part of the wooden stock in an early-modern musket, which had a happy similarity (when in use against an enemy) to the violent butt action of a ram’s horns. Thus the name also became congruent with the meaning to butt, as in ‘to strike sharply with the head or horns’, and of course arrows and bullets fired into practice-targets have much the same striking action.

However, in the context of written evidence for early medieval archery ranges, butts appears to have been the name of the targets themselves rather than the arrows. Presumably then, the rows of archery targets were originally made of butts — meaning rough ‘thick wooden stumps’, rather than the flimsier type of targets we use today. I would suggest that these otherwise-useless lumps of wood were later replaced, due to the advent of lighter forms of archery, by old wooden ‘butts’ — these being fat empty barrels. This ‘barrel’ meaning of butt comes from the Old English ”bytt” (meaning firstly a bag made of skin, then a stiff ‘leather wine bottle’, later a ‘large wooden wine barrel’), all of which are containers of a kind. We still talk of a garden water butt barrel today. Such barrel butts, raised on a crux and placed end-on toward the archer, would have a target painted on their large round base-board, and the hollowness of the barrel would presumably make a most satisfying sound when struck by an arrow. There would thus be no need to go to the trouble of making targets by hauling in heavy lumps and tree-stumps, because the old worn-out barrels could be easily rolled in and they made a perfect ready-made substitute for the older form of targets.

Tom Shippey has suggested in Tolkien and the Study of His Sources (p.11) that the root of the end-part of the word hobbit may be in the Old English botl (‘a dwelling’, later bottles and in northern English butters). As we have seen above, the words related to this term all imply that the dwelling would have a tubular bottle or barrel shape to it. Such implications may have evoked in Tolkien’s mind the idea that his newly invented hobbit lived not in humdrum houses, but rather in short barrel-like ‘holes’ with blunt backstops at their far end. This would be congruent with the idea that, in the very early periods, people tended to live where possible in ‘rock houses’ that were carved back into soft sandstone outcrops or similar back-stops in the landscape. Such places could be made very comfortable.

Shippey further notes that Tolkien’s “Bag End” (the name of Bilbo’s home) can be shown to be similar in meaning to the modern made-up confabulation of cul-de-sac, meaning a short dead-end. I would add that Bilbo’s hole was at the end of “Bagshot Row”, a name which seems on the surface to imply the shooting of arrows. It would thus be interesting to know if Tolkien saw a historical connection between the Old English bytt (wine bag) and butt (a shooting target). The name of “Bagshot” seems to imply that he might have. The use of an inflated head-sized goat-skin wine-bag as a target would certainly give instant feedback if it was hit by an arrow from a great distance, by popping and deflating.

However, we know that Tolkien took the Bag End name from a real place. His aunt’s farm in the village of Dormston, Worcestershire, which was purchased 1922… “at the end of an untidy lane that led nowhere else” (Tolkien). But the name appears to have been something of a family joke, only somewhat justified by an old map and probably understood as an animal name by his aunt. The gloomy-sounding Dormston Manor Farm thus gained a more cheery and amusing name, much in the same way as she renamed her other farm as Phoenix Farm. The assumption at that time was that Bag = badger, and many would still like to give this nice furry badger meaning to English placenames such as Bagshot. But it appears it is a relatively modern neo-romantism, elevated into a ‘fact’ from an incredibly tentative academic speculation (made due to no evidence), and which now gets idly parroted from book to book. The placename authority Ekwall suggests that the obscure Old English personal name word bacga is actually the source, for which there is no trace whatsoever of it being used to mean a badger. Ekwall states that ‘shot’ was from sceat (a ‘stretch of untilled land, scrubland’). But the other great authority, Skeat, suggests that the placename Bagshot was simply from the Old English basc (‘the back’), and that shot is from sceat (‘a scrubby corner or field-nook, or angle’) — implying inconveniently-shaped. We thus seem to be back with the meaning of ‘the back-end’, which is very congruent with the meaning of butt as a ‘cut-off chunk’ of wood, an unwanted or left-over ‘fag end’ bit.

Probably Tolkien saw a link between bacga and the Old Norse personal name Baggi (‘sack, bag’), hence the name Baggins. But had he looked up “Tree” in his Gothic grammar he would have found that in Gothic this was bagyms, and that “the Germanic cognates vary in their final syllable” — Old Swedish having Bagyn. The Gothic bagyms was probably related to Old English beam (of wood). He would have been alerted to a curious cluster formed around a wooden beam / the bag / the goat — because in old Swedish bagge meant ‘ram’, as in the animal. Which is of course related to the word butt and battering (meaning, ‘many butts‘), which is what a ram does with its horns.

Of course, at one time most people would make bags from goat-skins. But I wonder if the practice of ‘bagging’ an aggressively butting ram also has something to do with this curious link between bags and rams? Aggressive rams can be very dangerous, liable to attack not only other unfamiliar rams but also to knock over horses and oxen and even people by violently butting them. These valuable but awkward creatures are thus ‘bagged’, with a bag secured over their head, and are placed away on their own in a back-end bit of scrubland where no-one will bother them. Such aggressive male goats might have been especially liable to become the ‘scape-goat, both in terms of their escaping and in terms of their being chosen to be a ritual sacrifice that it was believed would remove the problems of a community.

Bilbo is similarly seen in Hobbiton as a bit of an awkward type, something of a scapegoat for local grumbling, and best left on his own at the back-of-beyond on a no-through road where no-one ventures.

Such back-end bit of scrubland would also be ideal places to establish “The Butts”, were an archery training range to be required in the district. But a clearer and older connection between goats and bags arises from an apparently unrelated investigation. Specifically a connection between butt as the possible origin of the otherwise mysterious meaning of the word butterfly. The Old English for moth was niht-buttorfleóge [“niht-buttorfleóge. an; f. An insect that flies at night” (Bosworth-Toller)] and we then have to assume that buttorfleóge was also used for the daytime form (though there appears to be no evidence of this). Consider now the meaning of butt as ‘to strike sharply, to ram into’, as in the actions of a billy-goat. Used in the phrase battering ram, this refers to multiple butts from the ram. Butterflies will similarly “butt” multiple times into people as if they have no perception the person is there or may be a danger to them, and similarly moths will continually “butt” into lights and lamps as they spin around them at dusk. Note that, like rams, butterflies could also he understood to possess horns in the form of their antennae. Their tongues also curl up in a shape very like the horn of a ram. Tolkien evokes this blundering of large flying insects in his very early children’s poem “Goblin Feet” (1915):

The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things.

This understanding of butterfly can then also inform the origin of the word butter. Given the evidence presented above, the name butter must come from the method of its making: this being multiple butts, sharp strikes made in the creamed milk with a blunt wooden paddle (a butt off-cut of wood?), which after an hour or so produces the butter. In prehistory the butter would have been made and then stored in a goat-skin bag or bytt, rather than the later wooden ‘dash churn’ (a tall barrel-like churn design which dates back several thousands years and, despite being rather inefficient, cut butter-making time in half and produced more butter at one go than the goat-skin bags could). Here again we see the association of goats and butting, and in Saxon times the milk that most people used was probably from goats. Possibly an ancient people saw some symbolic connection in the process: a hard male principle (butting, a male action) applied to the soft feminine principle of the creamy milk (from female animals), producing new hybrid hard-soft substances such as butter and life-sustaining cheese. In a northern climate, easily storable cheese was especially important as a food in the hard winters.

Thus we can see how the ancient prehistoric name for the butter-making bag was later used for wine-bags, and when barrels appeared the same name was used for wooden wine butts (Shakespeare, The Tempest: “a butt of sack” meaning ‘a barrel of wine’). It is commonly assumed that the name of the Buttery (a cellar for food storage) takes its name from its late medieval use for wine barrels. But in its earlier form ‘the Buttery’ was that part of the underground food cellars in a monastery which doled out free food and ale to passing visitors at its exterior serving-hatch. Quite possibly the food doled out here by the Butterer — the cellar’s workman — would be ‘the butts’, as in the ‘leftover or hard bits’.

This meaning again suggests that the root meaning of butt evokes an original broad idea of: ‘the bit containing the end of some work’. The butter-making process is the ‘hard and difficult bit’ at the end of a long agricultural process, and is thus similar to the Northern wooden meaning of butt as being a ‘lump’ off-cut of wood, implying the irregular end bit left over at the end of the work. The Old English botl as a word for a dwelling has a more comfortable meaning, but might then mean ‘the place to spend the left-over bit of the day, the home at the end of the day’s work’, which would fit with the idea of the butt as the irregular ‘end bit’ of some work. A botl as a place where one would un-button, take off one’s boots, and enjoy hot buttered butties, a nice bit of meat and a butt of wine.

But where is the butting billy-goat in this? Perhaps the idea of the ram-butt arises here from the similarity with the final sharp striking action, made at the end of the wood-cutting process, which creates the irregular and unwanted end lump called the butt. Getting a sharp butt from a billy-goat is similar unwanted, and makes the goat into an unwanted and difficult problem. It also produces a swelling lump, most likely on the buttocks of the person who has been butted. He becomes the butt of other people’s laughter. A most unwanted outcome.

2 comments on “On The Butts, Baggins, and Butterflies

  1. […] site of Tolkien’s camp is thus “The Butts” [meaning of the name] about two miles south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme. The site had come to be a musketry camp when, […]

  2. […] Green-teeth”, “‘Lady Wells’ in the High Peak”, “Mothlach”, and “On The Butts, Baggins, and Butterflies”). The same issue also has the review of Shapeshifters: A […]

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