You can’t ask a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing in English names, but it’s always nice to have some kind of bellwether. Otherwise, you may make assumptions just on principle, such as that something that looks or sounds like something else must be related to it, or that something that looks like it’s said some way must not be said that way because, well, English.
Let me tell you about a matter of principal involving cartoons, insects, towns, juvenile institutions, gravy, getting bent, and sheep farms. It starts with Archie.
More exactly, it starts with the principal in the Archie comics, Mr. Weatherbee. When I was a kid I used to read those comic books, and at first – really for quite some time – I assumed the name of the portly fellow with the pince-nez and micro-toupée was pronounced “wee-ther-bee” because (a) “wee” rhymes with “bee,” (b) it couldn’t be weather because when you see a word in someone’s name it’s not the same word as in real life, and (c) some other words that looked similar (weaker, weaver, breather) had the “ee” (/i/) sound. (Never mind wearer and heather.)
Eventually I realized that name words and non-name words are sometimes the same words, and no, it’s really weather plus bee. Which was a silly-looking name to my eyes. Some kind of insect in a storm? I assumed it was a made-up name from the mind of some… cartoonist. Until I discovered that there are real people walking the earth with that last name.
And I also discovered that there are other spellings of it, notably Weatherby and Wetherby.
Which, whether by learning or by association, I realized must be a toponym. You see, –by in a name comes from an old Scandinavian word meaning ‘settlement’ or ‘farm’ (in modern Swedish and Norwegian, by – the y is said like German ü – means ‘village’ or ‘town’). And indeed it is a toponym: Wetherby is an old Yorkshire town, about halfway between London and Edinburgh on the Old Great North Road.
So some paternal ancestor of pretty much anyone named Wetherby and – thanks to alteration by resemblance and reconstrual – Weatherby and Weatherbee would have come from Wetherby. And what is in Wetherby now?
Along with about 20,000 people, some reasonably charming old English towniness, apparently, plus some unreasonably uncharming newer English things. Among the latter is HM Prison Wetherby, which started as what in England is called a Borstal and has now become a male juvenile prison. One is tempted to wonder whether any relative of Principal Weatherbee (or of Archie Andrews) has anything to do with it.
I’d think Mr. Weatherbee would rather pay a visit to a different institution in Wetherby, a very modern white factory with bent steel structural tubing and a name that sounds like Mr. Weatherbee’s favourite James Bond movie: Goldenfry. Goldenfry started as a fish and chip shop and then, by a turn of fortune, started making gravy and was quite successful. Now nearly all of the own-brand gravy sold by British supermarkets is made by Goldenfry. That’s riding the gravy train!
And while we’re talking about turns and bends, there’s the matter of the meaning of Wetherby. It has nothing to do with the weather, as you may have guessed. We know already that the by means ‘farm’ or ‘settlement’. There are two possible sources for this wether.
One possible is a word that survives in widdershins, also seen as withershins. You may know that that means ‘counterclockwise’ (if you’re British, you may know that it means ‘anticlockwise’). This wither has a sense of ‘against’ (as seen in the modern German wider, not to be confused with wieder) and ‘opposite’ and ‘returning’; it doesn’t mean it’s the town of turning away or turning back, it just means that it’s on a river bend.
Or it could be the modern English word wether, as seen in bellwether. You do know what a bellwether is, right? We use it now to mean ‘leading indicator’ (such as a stock that people look to to see what other stocks are likely to do soon), but originally it means the ram that leads a flock of sheep. It’s wearing a bell, and it’s a wether, because wether is another word for ‘ram’ (male sheep). So Wetherby could be Ram-farm or Sheep-farm or Ram-town.
And Mister Weatherbee, far from being some little stinger in a storm, is the leader of a pack of young sheep – perhaps ones that need turning back to the right path, at least in his mind. And if they can be made into chips off the old block, they’ll be in gravy – on the other hand, if they can’t, they may well end up in gravy too.