Why we say West HAM, and not West'um

This article was contributed to the Newham Recorder in July 2020. It argues that the pronunciation of West HAM (not West'um) reflects the continuing influence of an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word. 

Have you ever wondered we say West HAM and East HAM, but talk of Dagen'um not DagenHAM – and, of course, New'um? The answer goes back over a thousand years, to two similar words in the Old English language, "ham", meaning a farm or settlement, and the much less common "hamm", denoting riverside grazing land.

We can trace Dagenham back thirteen hundred years, to 692 AD, when it was "Deccanhaam", the farm of somebody called Daecca. Waltham Abbey was named not after a person but from its location. It has the same origin as North and South Weald, which refer to forest. Thus Newham's next-door neighbour, Waltham Forest, means "forest place forest"!

You might think it's odd that a word referring to something so basic as a farm should have died out as Old English evolved into our modern form of speech. In fact, its influence is still around. We use a diminutive version: just as a piglet is a small pig, so a hamlet is a small settlement. And "ham" itself turned into a word that means a lot to us all. Through a process called vowel shift, it's become "home". We share the basic term with the Germans, but with them the vowel moved in a different direction, making their word for home "heim". North of the Border, poet Robert Burns used the traditional Scots form "hame". Maybe that sounds quaint to us Sassenachs, but the Scots word is probably closest to the original.

Sometimes "ham" was used as the first syllable of a place-name, often protectively padded with the letter P: Hampstead was the farm place, Hampton the farm enclosure. More often, "ham" was the final syllable, which probably explains how it's become gulped down to a mere 'um sound. There is an interesting variant in place–names like Corringham, referring to "the people of Curra". Here "ham" must describe the settlement of the followers of some Saxon chieftain, not just a small farm. An intriguing example is Nottingham. In 922 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called it "Snotingaham" – the settlement of the followers of Snota. The letters –sn- are impossible to pronounce together in French, so the Normans dropped the S. Luckily, Snottingham became Nottingham.

East and West Ham weren't called after farms, but take their name from that similar but less common word, "hamm". The double-M suggests that it was more emphatically spoken. There are about a dozen other places called Ham across southern England, mostly small and low-lying, but all firmly pronounced. The best-known is Ham Common at Richmond-upon-Thames in south-west London. "Hamm" referred to grazing land, alongside the bend of a river. There's a similar word in Frisian, an ancient language of the Netherlands which resembles English. The bend of the Thames is still there. That specialised grazing land is now Silvertown and London City Airport. A recent housing development, Hamme Building at Royal Albert Wharf, happily revives the old name.

A document from the year 958 – over a thousand years ago – shows that Hamme was a single community. It had been split by the time of Domesday Book in 1086, but both parts shared the name, spelt "Hame". North of the pastureland there were woods – "frith" in Old English. They're recalled by Manor Park's Hamfrith Road. We first hear, in fake Latin, of "Westhamma" in 1186, and "Estham" in 1206. But even with those new names, local peasants knew they were talking about "hamm", describing grazing land, not the wobbly "ham" that referred to a farm and was swallowed at the end of a word. West Ham never degenerated into West'um.

Centuries later, we preserve that difference inherited from forgotten Old English speech – West HAM, East HAM. When the two were merged to form a London Borough in 1965, a neutral name was coined – New-HAM. But the half-mumbled "ham" was just too familiar, and so nowadays it's become New-'um!

Sources: P.H. Reaney,The Place -Names of Essex (Cambridge, 1935) and E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (4th ed., Oxford, 1960, first ed. 1936).