The Ale House

This is the second part in The Ale House, a series on the names in Indo-European cultures past and present. You may read the first part here.



The Second Mystery of Roanoke


Perhaps no greater testament to the immortality of a name was given than by an erudite, middle-aged professor from Sussex in 1995. His name was, and is, Richard Coates. In the 2000s he arose to some prominence as the leader of several philological societies, the English Place-Names Society and the International Council of Onomastic Sciences. He won himself some of that "imperishable fame" by studying the etymology behind the names of landmarks. In particular, Coates' tireless effort and dogged pursuit of truth paid off big when he solved the mystery of Pimlico, London.

While the name Pimlico is found throughout the British Isles, its first attestation in documents refers to a borough in Westminster in southwestern London, written in 1626. But Pimlico always beffudled linguists. The structure of its sounds is awack; it's unanalyzable from a morpho-phonological perspective. Or to put it simply: pimlico shouldn't exist in the English language. And yet there it is. And furthermore, some well-read scholars found mentions of a "Ben Pimlico" in plays of Ben Johnson's - written in 1598. "...and hey for Ben Pimlico's nut browne" one line goes, referring to a nut brown ale sold by a mysterious Ben Pimlico. In other plays, men order "pimlicos" at bars to drink, and frequent Pimlico's bar to order the rare smoky delicacy, tobacco. For a hundred years, linguists were content to say that Pimlico the borrough, and pimlico the ale, earned its name from a famous local brewer. Only problem is that Pimlico isn't a name. In fact, there isn't a surname Pimlico in any record from any time in history. Coates was hooked.

Coates points to North America. He recognized that some of the earliest spellings of Pimlico were recorded as Pemlico, awfully close to an early North Carolinian river called Pamlico Sound. That name of that river is known: it is taken from the tribe of now-extinct Native Americans that lived there, the Pamticough. Coates is intrigued. An alternation of the /a/ in Pamlico to /e/ is easy to make, but Coates didn't stop there. As Coates' colleague at the University of Sussex, R. L. Trask, remarked years later, "The crucial part [was] to provide a pathway: to show how the name could reasonably have travelled from North Carolina to London, especially at a time when no permanent English-speaking settlement had yet been founded in North America (that first permanent settlement was Jamestown, in Virginia, not founded until 1607)."  But how would Coates demonstrate such a pathway?

Pamlico Sound is an important but forgotten place in American history. Its northernmost point is the island of Roanoke, the first English attempts at establishing colonies in America, first settled in 1585. While Roanoke is infamous due to the colonists disappearing, some settlers returned to England in 1586 on a boat of Sir Francis Drake's, four years before everyone tragically vanished. Two of those men who escaped death were named Bennet Chappell and Bennet Harrye. Coates established that pathway Trask demanded. Virginia colonists grew tobacco. So one of the two Bens, acquainted with the plant, returned to England with a wild streak and a taste for tobacco. He took on the name of a local tribe, and his ale-house became famous for its tobacco. So we see an unconventional answer to Watkins' central Indo-European question. A man journeys into new lands in search of glory. He returns bearing a new gift, tobacco, and wins for himself an immortality few else will have. The name outlived the man.

Coates hard word solved the mystery of Pimlico, London, but in doing so he also discovered that Pamticough was the first Native American word to return to the Old World. The fate of the Pamticough, however, is less understood. An intrepid adventurer named John Lawson found the Pamticough Native Americans again in 1707, recording roughly 25 words and their meaning. Lawson also remarks that the Pamticough were unusual among the local tribes in that their women, if a spate were unresolved with their husbands, would refuse food until the husband reconciled. Lawson died in 1708 and the Pamticough were never mentioned in writing again. Perhaps they were absorbed by larger Algonquin tribes. Lawson was the only literate man who knew them and he died very young. A name dies when the poet can no longer recall their song.