Odds and ends inspired by Lauren Collins’s piece “Sark Spring: A feudal feud in the Channel Islands” in the New Yorker for 10/29 & 11/5 (pp. 50-61): the demonym for people from Sark; the metrics of Channel Island names; the etymology of Sark; the fury of the Northmen; Scottish sark ‘shirt’; and the whisky Cutty Sark.

Background on Sark. Sark is a small island in the English Channel, one of the British Channel Islands (there are also French Channel Islands). From Wikipedia:

Sark (French: Sercq; Sercquiais [a local variety of Norman French]: Sèr or Cerq) is a small island in the Channel Islands in southwestern English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. It is a royal fief, geographically located in the Channel Islands in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, with its own set of laws based on Norman law and its own parliament. It has a population of about 600. Sark’s economy depends primarily on tourism.

A map of Sark, showing Big Sark and Little Sark, connected by a narrow (and perilous) isthmus, and also Brecqhou, an even smaller island off Big Sark:

And a map of the Channel Islands, showing Sark’s place:

The demonym. Someone from Sark turns out to be called a Sarkee; the word occurs a number of times in the New Yorker article. The plural is Sarkees, a homonym of Sarkese, a fact that suggests that the singular Sarkee originated as a backformation (compare the non-standard Chinee ‘someone from China, a Chinese (person)’).

The metrics of Channel Island names. Long ago — back in high school, I think — I learned that the Channel Islands were, in descending order of size:

Jérsey, Guérnsey, Álderney, and Sárk

This makes an excellent chant, suitable for fist-pumping public displays (not that I think Channel Islanders would be given to such a thing), or just for a line of trochaic tetrameter that might be worked into some larger form, say a rhyming quatrain (a 4 x 4). Suggestions welcome.

The metrical beauty of the list is somewhat ruined by the inclusion of the fifth-largest island, Herm (see map), in more recent lists. (Even these lists exclude the still-smaller but inhabited islands Jethou, Brecqhou, and Lihou, and of course the various uninhabited islands.)

The etymology of Sark. This is something of a puzzle. Adrian Room’s Placenames of the World (not an entirely dependable source) treats the etymology as uncertain, but considers the possibility that the name goes back to a Roman name for the island, Caesarea (p. 322).

On the other hand, the name could originally have been Norse, since Norse raiders began appearing in the region in the 9th century and a number of Island placenames are clearly of Norse origin. Indeed, as Wikipedia tells us:

Norsemen is used to refer to the group of people as a whole who spoke what is now called the Old Norse language belonging to the North Germanic branch of Indo-European languages, especially Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Swedish and Danish in their earlier forms.

Norse and Norsemen are applied to the Scandinavian population of the period from the late 8th century to the 11th century. The Old Frankish Nortmann “Northman” was Latinized as Normanni, famously in the prayer A furore normannorum libera nos domine (“From the fury of the Northmen release us, O Lord!”), attributed to monks of the English monasteries plundered by Viking raids in the 8th and 9th centuries, and entered Old French as Normands, whence the name of the Normans and of Normandy, which was settled by Norsemen in the 10th century.

Whether Sark is Norman French or earlier Germanic Norman, there is the question of what it meant, and that’s still unclear.

The fury of the Northmen. I recall this prayer as being in an edition of the (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer that I used at some point in my earlier life (though I remember it as warning of the fury of the Norsemen) and being enchanted by the idea of praying to ward off Viking invaders. It’s no longer in the BCP I have.

Scottish sark ‘shirt’. From OED2 for the noun sark, which it gets from Old English sęrc = Old Norse serk-r (Viking invaders again!):

Sc. and north. (and occas. arch.).
A garment worn next the skin; a shirt or chemise; occas. a nightshirt; also transf. a surplice.
In Scottish still the ordinary word for ‘shirt’.
[attested from Beowulf on]

If this noun is in any way related to the placename Sark, there’s a lot of historical detail to be unearthed.

Cutty Sark. I’ll start with the Scotch whisky and work backwards. From two Wikipedia articles (here and here): one step back takes us to the clipper ship Cutty Sark (pictured on the whisky bottle); another step brings us to a fictional character (Nannie Dee, a witch in Robert Burns’s poem “Tam o’ Shanter”) whose nickname “Cutty-sark” provided the ship’s name and whose image served as the figurehead for it; and the third and last step (from OED2) is the derivation of the nickname “Cutty-sark” — an Adj + N composite whose head N is, yes, that Scots-and-northern-English ‘shirt’ word and whose modifying Adj is also Scots-and-northern:

Cut short, curtailed, so abnormally short as to appear to have been cut, esp. in certain connections, as cutty knife, cutty pipe (humorously cutty gun), cutty spoon, cutty sark, etc. … Sc. and north. dial. [cites from 18th century on]

So a cutty sark would have been the 18th-century analogue of the modern scrimmage t-shirt or cropped scrimmage shirt (for guys) or half t-shirt or midriff t-shirt (for girls) (see here).

The semantic development was then from the (semantically transparent) name of a type of clothing to the nickname of a fictional character to the proper name of a ship to the name of a brand of whisky. Sometimes an actual history outstrips any ingenious story you might concoct.


4 Responses to “Sark”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    But the name “Herm” leads to so many good name-origin stories. The easy one is that they couldn’t decide whether it was a boy-island or a girl-island, so it must be a herm(aphoriditic) island. But I think that someone pointed to it and asked a local its name, to which s/he replied, “Hmmmmm…”, and the rest is history.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    My favorite sark is Janet’s in Robert Burns’s Merry Muses of Caledonia. (The ellipsis is in the original edition.) See

    I learned to sing the tune from a medical school classmate (now a psychiatrist).

    coft: bought (see German kauften). But what’s a bleerie?

    Duncan Macleerie and Janet his wife,
    They gaed to Kilmarnock to buy a new knife,
    But instead of a knife they coft but a bleerie,
    We’re very well saired, Janet, quoth Duncan Macleerie.

    Duncan Macleerie has got a new fiddle,
    It’s a’ strung wi’ hair, and a hole in the middle,
    And aye when he plays on’t his wife looks sae cheerie,
    Weel done, my Duncan, quoth Janet Macleerie.

    Duncan he played till his bow it grew greasy,
    Janet grew fretfu’ and unco uneasy,
    Hoots! quoth she, Duncan, ye’re unco soon weary,
    Play us a pibroch, quoth Janet Macleerie.

    Duncan Macleerie he played on the harp,
    Janet Macleerie she danced in her sark,
    Her sark it was short, her c—t it was hairy,
    Very weel danced, Janet, quoth Duncan Macleerie.

  3. Robert Says:

    To “Sarkee” and “Chinee” add “Portagee”; there’s a section of Gloucester, MA, known (at least informally) as Portagee Hill.

    The whiskey named after a ship, etc., reminds me of Cambridge, MA’s Alewife, a subway station named after a road named after a brook named after a fish named after a landlady.

    And while I’m not about to write a whole poem, I’ll give you a second line:

    Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark:
    The Channel Islands make their mark.

  4. Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) Says:

    An interesting tidbit about Cutty Sark whisky: the brand was invented in 1923 by a British liquor company, Berry Brothers, to be smuggled into the US market — which of course at the time was in the middle of the failed experiment known as Prohibition. Until then, according to Daniel Okrent in “Last Call,” “calling for liquor by brand name was almost unheard of; in the speakeasy era, it became a habit.”

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