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1. Rotten Row

By Anatoly Liberman


Some time ago, a colleague asked me what materials I have on the place name Rotten Row; she was going to write an article on this subject.  But her plans changed, and the article did not appear.  My folders contain a sizable batch of letters to Notes and Queries and essays from other popular sources dealing with Rotten Row.  I am not a specialist in onomastics, and, if I am not mistaken, the question about the etymology of Rotten Row has never been answered to everybody’s satisfaction.  Still a survey, however incomplete, may be of some interest to our readers, and perhaps somebody has new ideas on the derivation of this place name and will share them with us.

In a way, the etymological chase being offered below looks like an exercise in futility, for Rotten Row perhaps means what it says, that is, “rotten row,” but there is no certainty; besides, most etymological investigations look like rivers that fail to reach the sea.  As noted, I am mainly indebted for my information to Notes and Queries, this “unique meeting place of British ignorance and scholarship,” as John A. Walz, a Harvard professor of German, called it in 1913, Chambers’s Magazine, and dictionaries.  The main difficulty in a search for the origin of Rotten Row is that streets bearing this name are numerous in the north of England and in Scotland.  Rotten Row in Hyde Park goes back to the end of the eighteenth century, while the place name, distinct from the street name, occurs as early as 1561, and the variants of Rotten Row in Glasgow were known a hundred years earlier; thus, the fashionable bridle path in the capital could not be the model other towns emulated.  The borrowing went in the opposite direction.

Here are some of the derivations of Rotten Row I happened to come across. 1. From Latin Ratumena Porta, allegedly called this in memory of some Ratumena, a charioteer who died at that gate in Ancient Rome.  The accident was sad, but, as far as we are concerned, can be dismissed without much regret.  2. From Latin rota “wheel” (compare Engl. rotate) and “chariot.”  This guess has no advantage over the previous one.  Latin place names are numerous in Britain, but they are old, while no record of Rotten Row has been traced to the Anglo-Saxon times.  In Medieval Latin, rota also meant “road,” but why should an undistinguished road have been given a bookish foreign name?  3. From the woolen stuff called rateen.  The etymon of the English word is French, and in English rateen turned up too late to be of use in the present context, but a Rateenrow seems to have been mentioned in 1437 in Bury St. Edmund’s, which was the great cloth mart of the northeastern parts of the kingdom.  4. From the Old Germanic word rot “a file of soldiers” (compare German Rotte; many meanings, including “pack; herd,” otherwise, a common military term).  Although Engl. rat “a file of soldiers” occurred regularly in the seventeenth century, it hardly has anything to do with Rotten Row.  A similar derivation connects Rotten Row with the verb rottaran “to muster.”  I am not sure in which language this verb has been attested, but the famous William Camden, the author of this etymology, could not have invented it.

5. A folk etymological “corruption” of French Route du Rois “King’s Way” (an explanation one can read in numerous editions of Baedeker’s guide to London); a similar Irish Gaelic etymon, with the transliteration Rathad’n Righ, has also been proposed.  The streets called Rotten Row were, most certainly, not meant for royalty, while London’s Rotten Row is relatively recent (see above).  6. From Rother Row, rother being an old word for “cattle

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