This Side of the Pond – Dec. 6

By Sarah Pridgeon

I’m sure there are many nice things I could say about a blanket made from banana bark but, as I have no intention of investing in one, I shall be forced to remain ignorant of its merits. The same will no doubt soon be said of a village down the road from my home town.
Let’s set the scene for this tale, which I am confident will soon attract your empathy. Imagine the most English village it would be possible to build, replete with thatched cottages, duck ponds, a humpbacked stone bridge that has stood for hundreds of years, winding paths, a gentle river through the middle and churches that have welcomed worshippers since medieval times.
The tiny town you are thinking of is called Wool, and is exactly as quaint as you now think it is. I spent time there as a teenager because a good friend happened to live in the neighborhood, and even then I was charmed by its refusal to accept that the fifteenth century has come to an end.
It’s a strange name for a village, I know, but that’s because it’s very, very old – Anglo Saxon, in fact. The village appears in writs from the year 1002 and shows up again in the Domesday Book later in the same century. Keep this in mind, please – it’s going to be important later.
The population is recorded today at somewhere around 5000, but only because the census includes the nearby Bovington army camp. The actual number of families in the village is probably closer to, oh, I don’t know, five or six, maybe ten at a push.
The Wool Parish Council received a letter last week from an international organization we’re all familiar with: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It came straight from the desk of a lady called Elisa Allen, director of the British branch.
“I am writing on behalf of PETA with a suggestion that would put Wool in the spotlight and promote kindness to sheep,” she began. So far, so good, I suppose. Everyone likes to compliment a ewe when they get the chance.
Even the first sentence came as a surprise to council members who were unaware that rams are in need of cuddles, but Ms. Allen did not stop there. Her suggestion was for the council to rename the village entirely.
It’s astonishing enough that PETA would want to change a name that has been in place for a thousand years for a cause as specific as sheep kindness, but I think they may have put the kibosh on their own scheme when Ms. Allen revealed her thoughts on this possible new title.
PETA would like to change the name of the village to – and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this – Vegan Wool. It’s been pointed out to me that it sounds quite nice if you run the words together; almost Norse, as though there are still some Vikings enjoying a beer in the local pub.
But there are not, and one could not, and so what we would end up with is a name that would be problematic for a brand new subdivision, let alone a dwelling with history that might well stretch back to the time of the Romans, for all we can tell.
To add insult to injury, Ms. Allen promised a reward for Wool if they acquiesced: PETA would hand out a “cosy, cruelty-free” vegan blanket to every household. These, Allen says, are made from such things as hemp and coconut fibers treated with enzymes extracted from oyster mushrooms, which sounds lovely.
Considering that I am telling you all about this incident some 5000 miles from where it happened and that the national press in Britain is having a heyday, it’s hard to argue with the letter as a publicity stunt. Though the parish council will be obliged to discuss it as it was a request in written form, I think it’s safe to say the answer will be no and, meanwhile, the rest of us are more aware today that PETA believes there is cruelty going on in the British wool industry (for the record, I feel quite strongly about the need to stamp out cruelty, though this would not be how I went about it).
But here’s my annoyance that the letter was sent in the first place. Remember that I said that the village appeared in some of the oldest documents we still have access to? Well, back in those Anglo Saxon writs, the settlement wasn’t called Wool; it was written as Wyllon.
In the Domesday Book? You’ll find it described as either Wille or Welle, while the Book of Fees of 1212 lists it as Welles.
The funny thing about British names is that they often evolved over time along with the language itself. We didn’t have much in the way of a standard dictionary until quite recently, which is how Shakespeare got away with making things up, so nobody really noticed when a few letters got transposed.
But while those four versions seem quite different, they all have the same thing in common: the meaning. In old English, they mean “spring”, and eventually became the word “well”.
What you may have realized at this point is that the name of this village has absolutely nothing to do with sheep. At a stretch, we could probably guess that a lamb or two has taken a drink from the river, but that’s about it.
That’s right, ladies and gentleman. PETA has labeled a poor, unassuming village in the middle of nowhere as a haven for lamb torturers, without so much a cursory glance at its history. I’m told a similar thing happened in Spearfish not long ago, when it was suggested we start referring to fish as “sea kittens” so we’ll all be nicer to them.
What’s next, I wonder. Will we be asked to rename Buffalo to “Cuddly Thing With Hump”? Add “Carottes” to the end of Belle Fourche so it means “Beautiful Fork for Carrots”? The possibilities seem endless, though not particularly enticing.