One aspect of historical study involves words and
their meanings. As I am fascinated by words and their meanings let's
take a closer look at one name that has puzzled and annoyed me: that
of the Hwicce.
The apparent meaning of the word 'hwicce' in
Anglo-Saxon (AS) is locker, chest, or trunk.
However, it's very hard to see a group of aggressive
Saxons calling themselves that deliberately. It neither proclaims
them to be powerful (for example, Goth, ie. the gods, or allemanni,
'all men'), nor does it attempt to belittle them (for example, wiking
or viking, a waterborne thief who hides in inlets).
But there may be a solution to this oddity. What if
Hwicce is a degenerate form of Gewissae (AS: the certain, knowing or
The Gewissae were laeti who were embedded among
Britons, and who knows what liberties they and their neighbours took with
mispronouncing the name? It's easy enough for the 'G' of Gewissae to
shift into a 'K', and the Briton habit was to pronounce a 'K' as
'CH' (as in the Scots word, 'loch'), then the Saxons could soften it
more into an 'H'. And the 'SS' of Gewissae might well have been
spoken as an 'SH' by Britons, which the Saxons could alter into a
'CH'. And as we have no idea what dialect the Belgae spoke, all of
this could produce Hwicce by natural processes.
So where did 'Gewissae' come from in the first place?
An individual named Gewis is claimed as a descendant of Blaedaeg, son
of Woden, almost certainly an invented name. 'Gewisse(n)' is a plural form,
with the personal name being backwards formed from it by removing the plural.
The prefix is 'ge-'. This indicates more than one person is doing something
together, or it is something else acting which is not a single thing. Ge-
gradually degenerated over the centuries into 'y-' and 'i-' (for example
the Anglo-Saxon "Sumer is icumen in"), and then later into 'a-',
and is now entirely archaic and has been dropped. When you read the old
sentence "a-hunting we will go", the 'a-' on the front
indicates that at least two people, maybe more, will go hunting. Thanks to
the 'ge-' on the front of 'wisse' there is no way that it can be a
personal name. Instead, 'wis' and 'wit' mean 'to know'. It is still used in
Modern English as deliberately archaic slang, for instance when someone says
"to wit". It can also be seen in 'wise'.
The Gewissae were the 'Educated People', probably a
reference to the laeti being Roman citizens after the first
generation and receiving a level of Roman education. It seems that
these Saxons could have become the dominant force in the Thames
Valley Saxons, prior to conquest by the West Saxons. It's also
possible that they were the Saxon migrants into later Hwicce land,
moving to avoid West Saxon control, perhaps (see the relevant lists
for more information).
An intriguing alternative possibility is that their name
is a British pronunciation of 'guest' (AS: gaest, giest) which is 'gwestai'
in modern Welsh. The Britons might have taken the second
pronunciation of 'giest', added their habitual 'W' after the 'G' and
dropped the 'T'; and with an ending vowel added by the Saxons. This
would produce the name Gwiesa or Gwiese, just add the Latin plural
(nouns ending in -a, plural is -ae) and you have Gwissae. One must
always keep in mind that though the Britons spoke their Old Welsh,
they wrote in Latin.
As stated, it's easy enough for the 'G' of Gewissae to
shift into a 'K', then to a 'CH', and then to soften into an 'H'.
Similarly, the 'SS' of Gewissae could have become 'SH' and then 'CH'
with the Britons. This could produce Hwicce or something close to it.
Once it had mutated that far, the Saxons would have tried to justify
it or make it sensible again by using the nearest word which sounded
approximately the same, one which means 'chest' or 'trunk'.
In a culture with no written records at the time, there would have
been no references for going back to the original meaning.
When I look at a modern conjectural map of kingdoms
of Britons and Saxons during the Dark Ages, I am struck by the neat,
even tidy lines drawn between kingdoms. That there were many exact
boundaries I have no doubt. That there were many inexact borders
between kingdoms I am equally certain.
The River Dee, Deva to the Romans, or Afon Dyfrdwy to the Welsh, forms part of the
modern border between England and Wales, but in the sixth century it may have formed
another border, that between Powys to the west and Rheged to the east