Does OE puca have an Irish Origin?
I'll follow you; I'll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier;
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
Puck, Midsummer Night’s Dream, I.iii
The origins of the OE puca ‘goblin’ and its diminutive pucel are obscure and yet they have
received comparatively little attention. The word has not been of much interest to Germanic
linguists because there has been a suspicion that it may have a Celtic root, while it has
equally failed to hold the interest of Celtic linguists because they have believed it to have
Germanic origins. Yet the word is, potentially, of considerable interest. It appears in both
English and Irish and it is possible that the transmission—either from English to Irish, or
from Irish to English—may have taken place in the early middle ages. If this is the case, then
the word poses a range of questions about the nature of cultural and linguistic contact
between the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish or perhaps British populations. These questions are
particularly intriguing because puca is not simply a practical word. It is a word which might
be used in trade or in describing unfamiliar geographic or topographical features, but rather a
cultural word, a word which, potentially, carries with it cultural metadata; legends and
beliefs. Indeed, because neither Celtic nor Germanic languages have /p/ in the early period
but increasingly accommodate it because of its presence in Latin and the cultural importance
of that language to Christianity, it is possible that transmission took place after the
Christianisation of England. If this is the case, the transmission of a ‘pagan’ word would be
all the more illuminating. Yet, these connections cannot be understood without establishing
the nature, period, and direction of transmission. Despite Cooper’s 2005 study which
attempted a more in-depth linguistic investigation than had previously been attempted, a
secure etymology is yet to be established. The purpose of this paper, then, is to explore the
prospect that an interdisciplinary approach could advance the understanding of the word and,
in particular, that considering the linguistic evidence in the light of archaeological and
onomastic evidence might suggest new avenues of study.
There are three main theories concerning the origin of puca; that its origin is either Celtic,
Germanic, or Scandinavian. Skeat favours the first. In the Etymological English Dictionary,
he suggests the word is from the Irish púca. The most recent edition of the Oxford English
Dictionary, on the other hand, favours the last. It tentatively suggests ‘the wide distribution of
cognate forms in… Scandinavian languages and the range of meanings they show’ might
favour Old Norse púki. These include:
Old Icelandic púki mischievous demon, the Devil, Faroese púki, Norwegian
(originally and chiefly regional) puke devil, evil spirit, mischievous person, Old
Swedish puke devil, evil spirit, Swedish (now chiefly regional) puke evil spirit, devil,
goblin), Old Danish puge evil spirit (OED)
However, since the Scandinavian languages only begin to split from each other very late, this
is not conclusive, especially as the word is also present in a range of Celtic languages. In
addition to Irish púca, there is Cornish bucca and Welsh pwca. The last is preferred by Niles
who states ‘Shakespeare’s Puck gets his name from Old English pucel, ‘evil spirit’, a
borrowing from Welsh pwca’ (2013: 124). Since puca legends are not the focus of his piece,
Niles never explains his reasons for this conclusion, nor does he offer a source for it, though
the nineteenth century folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker apparently also thought transmission
was from the Welsh, though he did not think—as Niles appears to—that it occurred in the
early middle ages. Rather, he notes that Shakespeare seems to have taken his inspiration for
the character of Puck from the concentration of pwca1 legends in Brecknockshire in southern
Wales (Crocker 1828: 230). While van Gelderen also accepts a Celtic origin, she is not
prepared to speculate as to which Celtic language might be the best candidate (2014: 96).
Marstrander, on the other hand, argues that English itself is the origin and that the puca
legends were brought to Ireland from England (1915: 127); an assertion accepted by
Breatnach (1993: 105). So Skeat, Niles, and van Geldern, all experts in Old English in
various ways, favour a Celtic origin, while Marstrander and Breatnach, both experts on Irish
culture, favour an English origin. In fact, in many ways, this last, an English origin, seems
like a very plausible theory, not least because the earliest attestations of the word are in
English. It appears as a gloss for larbula [= larvula from larva] (Napier 1900: 191; 23, 2)
dating from around the middle of the tenth century, as well as an element in place names
referred to in three charters (S108, S508, S553). Of course, since the earliest post-Classical
sources in Western Europe are almost all produced by churchmen, a group ideologically as
well as habitually disinclined to refer to goblins, it is not surprising that the word is attested
comparatively late in most languages: 1322 in Old Norse, 1773 in Welsh, and sometime in
1 Croker uses a slightly different spelling, common before the 19th century, ‘pwcca’. (Geiriadur Prifysgol
the 18th century in Cornish. Irish is the earliest of the Celtic languages; here the word must
have been in use by 1518 as it appears in a place name mentioned in a rental book of the Earl
of Kildare dating from that year.2 Finally, we have Cooper who concedes that it is not certain
if puca was ‘originally Germanic or Celtic’ (2005: 90) but suggests a connection with English
pug and its Germanic cognates, a connection which makes it ‘look more likely that
puck/pook is a Germanic word’ (2005: 92-3). The word, he concludes, ‘may have passed to
the Celts as an early loan, but in English it was more probably received as part of a common
Germanic heritage’ (2005: 92). However, despite his exhaustive work, he is not able to
establish a connection with any degree of certainty and so this suggestion has not been widely
accepted. The linguistic evidence—at least as it stands presently—is inconclusive and so it
has not been possible to establish a more secure etymology.
Evidence for the origin of puca
The linguistic evidence exhausted—at least for the moment—we must look elsewhere and the
most promising avenue seems to be onomastic. As Hough notes, toponymic evidence has
significant advantages over an analysis of the literary and documentary corpus, not least that
it may reflect the language of those sections of the population often excluded from these
sources—a particular problem in relation to a word like puca (2008: 43). In the case of puca,
it is especially illuminating since, as the OED notes, the word is ‘[f]requently attested in
place names, chiefly in southern England’.3 Only five of these toponyms can be dated
securely to the Anglo-Saxon period. Three of those identified are from charters: Pucanwylle
(S108; at Bexhill, Sussex), another Pucanwylle (S508; in Somerset), and Puclancyrce (S553
2 The earliest source is sometimes given as the 1522 reference in the Annals of Ulster. However, if púca is
indeed an element in the toponym (Cloghpook, written Cloyth-an-puka) referred to in the rental book, as it
appears to be and as Joyce suggests, then it does predate (1910: 190).
3 Hough argues that a few of these place names may in fact refer to deer (OE *pocca/*pohha), however, this is
not accepted and has been disputed by Semple (2013: 182) as well as Sykes & Carden (2011).
and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 946; now Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire), the
site of the assassination of King Edmund I. The final two are recorded in the Doomsday
Book, Pochelle (c.1080 in Cornwall) and Pocheella (c.1086 in Devon), both now called
Three things are immediately striking. First, four of the five are doublets. Leaving aside ‘the
problematic pucelancyrce’ which, in Hall’s splendid phrase, ‘resists identification as anything
other than 'little goblin's church'’ (2006: 78), two of the places translate as ‘puca’s well’ and
two as ‘puca(’s) hill’. In fact, Hough suggests that the second element in ‘Poughill’ may not
be ‘hill’ at all but rather ‘weilla’, which would mean that four of the five places were named
‘puca’s well’! (2001: 2). Secondly, all these place names are dithematic, with Pucan- or
Pucelan- as the first element and, in each case, the second element is English. Excepting the
two recorded in Doomsday where the apparent Normanisation has made it difficult to be sure
of their Anglo-Saxon form, all are genitive in accordance with typical Southern naming
practice (Hall 2006: 71) and all are declined correctly and in the same paradigm (weak
masculine). So all five placenames are declined uniformly and are consistent with the
declension displayed in the textual sources. This suggests that these were words in use in Old
English, not merely ancient place names which survived colonization. However, it does not
necessarily follow that they are of English origin. As Durkin notes, loanwords often ‘show
remodelling or suffixation of the borrowed word stem with a suffix that signals the word class
that the loanword belongs to in English’ (2014: 9) and in the case of puca, it is declined in the
paradigm most usually assigned to non-learned borrowings.4 Thirdly and finally, the OED’s
assertion that the places are ‘chiefly’ in southern England is something of an understatement.
4 There are too few Celtic borrowings into English in this period to generalise about what is ‘typical’; however,
except in cases where there is a particular reason for assigning a paradigm, languages tend to adopt the most
common paradigm for loanwords, see Durkin (2014: 124).
All five places are in the far south and plot a swathe from the southern border of Wales to
This last point is particularly significant. The geographical clumping of puca place names
undermines two of the theories outlined above concerning the origin of the word; both that
puca might be an English word and equally that it might be a Scandinavian one. This
evidence suggests an English origin for puca is unlikely since, if it were an English word, we
would expect to find it attested across the English-speaking parts of the island. It seems
unlikely that the word would be transmitted into the languages and folklore of Wales,
Cornwall, and Ireland but not more widely within English-speaking areas. Moreover, this
geographical spread suggests that a Scandinavian origin is equally unlikely. There are no
examples at all of puca place names in the area of the Danelaw during the time it was under
Scandinavian control which suggests that the word may not yet have entered Old Norse.
Certainly, there seems no other reason why it would be absent. It does not contravene
customary naming practices and, in fact, supernatural place names seem quite popular in the
Danelaw. In fact, the absence of puca place names here actually also strengthens the
argument that puca is unlikely to be an English word, since it is not uncommon to find
English names for supernatural creatures as an element in Danelaw place names. As Semple
has demonstrated, OE scucca, meaning ‘goblin’ or ‘devil’, is a common element in place
names in the area (2013: 183). If the Danes were happy to adopt scucca, why not puca? The
absence of puca place names, then, seems to suggest that the word, or perhaps the folkloric
material connected to it, is regional to a narrow band across southern England.
5 Mawer and Stenton, who include all puca place names (including those attested after the Conquest) interpret
the clumping as specific to Sussex, commenting that it is ‘goblin-haunted to an extent without parallel
elsewhere’ (1930: 562). However, since only one is found there in the Anglo-Saxon period this may be a later
This point is dramatized by the post-Conquest toponymic evidence which seems to suggest
that the use of the word puca spread out from the original area over time. For, if place names
attested after the Conquest are included, our corpus extends to: Puckmere (1283), Pokesden
(1439), Great Puckwell, Pokelande, and Powcrofte (all undated) in Berkshire; Pochelahole
(1401) and Poukemede (1300) in Devon; Pukkespytte (c. 1470) Poukwelle (1432),
Poukebridge (1470), and Poukputte (1435) in Oxfordshire; Poukeput (1350), Pokerle (1327),
Poukhill (1614), Puckeride (1570), Puckstie (1287), Pook Pit (undated), Poukerhale (1350),
Pokeleserse (1173), Poghgrove (c. 1375), and Pucehole (1200) in Sussex; Puckgrove (1638)
in Warickshire; Pokefeld, (c1190) in Cambridgeshire; Pukpole (1232) Pocklechurch (1570),
Poukeryche (1300), Puckshepene (1303), and Puckwell (undated) in Wiltshire; Pucherugge
(1294) in Hertfordshire; Pokshudde (1332) in Surrey; Pockleston 1240 in Worcestershire; and
Puckenhale (1310) in West Yorkshire (Semple 2013: 183). These places extend north and
east towards the Danelaw from the area covered by our original Anglo-Saxon period puca
toponymic corpus. Only two, Pokefield in Cambridgeshire and Puckenhale in West
Yorkshire, actually occur within the area once covered by the Danelaw and they are only
attested long after it had ceased to be under Scandinavian influence. Even into the early
modern period, puca folklore and its variations—notably the late medieval diminutive pixy—
seem to have remained concentrated in the south.6
If the word is neither English nor Scandinavian, then a Celtic origin seems likely. Indeed,
since four of the five Anglo-Saxon puca place names occur close to Celtic-speaking areas—
two are very near the Welsh border and two in Cornish territory—these languages would
seem strong candidates for the origin of the word. However, both Welsh pwcca and Cornish
bucca are almost certainly loanwords since, in the transition from Proto-Celtic to Old Welsh
6 While Midsummer Night’s Dream popularised the figure of Puck (puca), the OED notes that pixy is only used
in the south right up until the 20th century.
and Old Cornish, ‘voiceless geminated stops became spirants’ (Schrijver 1995: 460). So,
neither Welsh pwcca nor Cornish bucca can be reflexes of a Proto-Celtic root. Significantly,
this sound shift did not occur in Old Irish. However, there is still the problem that ‘the
ancestor language of Celtic did not have a phoneme /p/’ (Schrijver 2013: 83), a factor which
suggests that the word would not have originated in any Celtic language. (In fact, of course,
the loss of initial /p/ in the first Germanic sound shift is also an objection to an English origin
for puca.) Welsh ‘remedied the situation by creating a new /p/ from Proto-Celtic *kʷ’
(Schrijver 2013: 83), which would suggest that if the word had a Welsh origin we should be
searching for an etymon with initial *kʷ and, so far as I know, no candidate has been
suggested. The situation of /p/ in Irish is more complex, as the convoluted attempts to
develop a way of representing /p/ in ogam alone is indicates. Irish, too, lacks /p/, though the
loss ‘may have been relatively late’ (Russell 2013: 11). Then, sometime in the sixth century,
Irish developed a ‘new native phoneme /p/’ (Schrijver 2013: 83). However, there is a small
but significant corpus of Old Irish words with initial /p/ for which no secure etymology can
be established. Schrijver argues that ‘there is evidence that a pre-Irish, probably non-Indo-
European language survived in Ireland into the early medieval period’ (2013: 83; 2000; 2005)
and further that the existence of initial /p/ words ‘implies that during the sixth century the
pre-Irish language of Ireland must have been in good enough shape to donate words into
Irish’ (Schrijver 2013: 83). This theory has been criticised by Issac who offers alternative
etymologies for these problematic words. His suggestion for one, pluc ‘large, round mass’, is
particularly significant. He suggests that pluc has a ‘classic onomatopoeic shape, and, as
such, does not, in fact, need any further etymology’ (Isaac 2003: 153) which implies that a
word might actually be coined with initial /p/, even in the early period. Crucially, both
theories allow for the possibility of initial /p/ words in Old Irish and therefore also allow for
the possibility that OE puca could have an Irish origin.
If Old Irish púca is indeed the source of OE puca, then it is typical in at least one respect; it is
masculine which would mean that the word has retained its grammatical gender in English, a
characteristic of Old English borrowing practices (Wełna 1980: 400; for discussion of the
cultural implications see Hall 2001). What is less characteristic is that it should have been
borrowed at all. English adopted very few words from Celtic language(s) and those it did
were primarily practical; place names and the names of geographical features. A word such
as puca which is purely cultural and which perhaps even implies the transmission of stories
and other folkloric material is more unusual—and more interesting.
The question then becomes, how was the word transmitted to English? Irish púca place
names are found across the island, excluding the area roughly covered by modern Ulster,7 so,
if transmission occurred it would be from the south of Ireland. This is intriguing since the
emphasis has always been on Irish-English connections between Iona and Lindisfarne, and
between Lindisfarne and Inishbofin, that is, northern, not southern connections between the
two islands. However, Ó Cróinín notes that the ‘migrations from the north-east of Ireland to
western Scotland were paralleled by similar movements from the south-east to Gwynedd and
Dyfed in Wales and to the Devon-Cornwall peninsula’ and that these communities were
established enough to have a line of kings by the 3rd century (1995: 18; see also Thomas
1973). He continues:
7 Interestingly, the puca never proved popular in Scottish folklore either.
These Irish settlers were the people known as Déisi… occupying territories
corresponding roughly to the present Co. Waterford and adjacent areas of Co.
Tipperary, whose ethnic affiliation was the was with the tribes known as Érainn. […]
It is significant that the various sub-divisions of the Érainn were scattered across
southern Ireland in counties Cork, Kerry, and Waterford in a band which exactly
matches the distribution of the Irish ogam stones (1995: 18).
This band also matches the distribution of puca place names on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the Déisi is that they left ‘their mark on Welsh
place names’ (Ó Cróinín 1995: 18) and perhaps the puca place names are example of this. In
this scenario, the presence of the word puca would pre-date Anglo-Saxon settlement and may
have been borrowed from the Irish into Welsh from there into Old English. In many ways,
this would fit rather neatly. The Déisi were apparently not Christianised and so it would not
be surprising if their places names attest a supernatural figure which later Irish Christian
writers were hesitant to acknowledge. It would also explain the very narrow geographical
spread. If, as Cooper suggests, puca was received into English ‘as part of a common
Germanic heritage’ (2005: 92), then we would expect to find it throughout English-speaking
areas. However, if the word was adopted through cultural contact, then it would only be
present in the local English of the contact areas.
However, it is also possible that transmission was later. The distribution of puca place names
also maps over the most accessible travel routes between southern Ireland and England, and
extends east along roughly the routes taken by those travelling on to the continent (Yorke
2010: 166). This would also account for the narrow geographical spread for exactly the same
reason; Irish-English cultural contact within a limited area. Moreover, Yorke has
demonstrated that these cultural links continue after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. She suggests
that it is ‘possible that the area around Malmesbury may not have come permanently under
Saxon control until after the middle of the seventh century’ and that archaeological finds
suggest ‘a British workshop in the vicinity still active at this date’ (2010: 167). This co-
existence may even have extended into ecclesiastical networks:
Aldhelm’s apparent approval of Maíldub presumably suggests that the latter held the
same position as the Anglo-Saxons about the correct way to calculate Easter, and this
is what one would expect if Maíldub had come from southern Ireland after c. 631, for
at around that date the churches of the south had agreed at a synod to accept the
calendar and rules of calculation established by Victorius of Aquitaine (Yorke 2010:
Certainly, Aldhelm had connections with several Irish scholars and his letters indicate the
number of Irish students at the school at Canterbury. While it is unlikely churchmen would
coin or foster place names which refer to supernatural creatures, these connections would
account for the appearance of the word in glosses.
Whenever and however transmission occurred, is seems odd that an Old English word
borrowed from Irish before the 950s at the very latest should not be attested in Irish until
1518. Of course the lateness of the Irish attestation may be due to the reluctance of scribes to
copy material relating to supernatural figures. The Irish colophon in the Book of Leinster, for
example, exhorts those who come after to preserve the text without alteration, while the Latin
colophon makes it clear why such encouragement is necessary. This author of the later
colophon is anxious to stress,
Sed ego qui scripsi hanc historiam aut uerius fabulam quibusdam fidem in hac historia
aut fabula non accommodo. Quaedam enim ibi sunt praestrigia demonum, quaedam
autem figmenta poetica, quaedam similia uero, quaedam non, quaedam ad
But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various
incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic
figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the
delectation of foolish men (O’Rahilly, ed. & trans. 1967: 136).
Yet, whatever the reservations of those involved in its transmission, the Táin Bó Cuailnge is
full of ‘bánánaig ⁊ boccánaig ⁊ geniti glinni ⁊ demna aeóir’ (TBC I, 64, line 2083), ‘the pale
creatures and he-goat creatures and female creatures of the valley and [the] demons of the air’
(Borsje 2005: 174)8 and other supernatural creatures—and so are many other early Irish texts.
As Ó Cróinín notes ‘some writers could still be found, in the eighth century, reciting
Christian incantations side-by-side with others of starkly non-Christian sentiment’ (1995: 33).
He cites the instructive example of Aéd mac Diarmata meic Muiredaich who was wished
‘‘every good of gods or ungods’ (cach maith do dé nó anddae)’ (1995: 33). So why, in among
all these references to creatures, demons, and ungods, is there no mention of the Púca?
The answer may lie in the distinct cultural identity of the Déisi. In discussing the dialects of
early Ireland, Charles-Edwards notes:
8 I have used Borsje’s translation over that offered by O’Rahilly because it is more literal.
Both because of the longer period since the language was introduced into Ireland, and
because political morcellation was more advanced, one would expect Irish to have
more dialect than English. Yet apart from one or two uncertain items, it has none…
Indeed, given the multiplicity of small kingdoms in Ireland and the barriers against
travel—for the aés trebtha, but not for the aés dána—it is safe to assume that there
were dialects; the problem is simply why these differences do not surface in the
standard form of the language, which, because it alone was written, is the only form
we have (1995: 728).
Old Irish is consequently ‘notoriously free of dialect’, so much so, that even ‘ordinary, non-
rhetorical Old Irish is unlikely to represent the normal spoken language of the people’
(Charles-Edwards 1995: 727). In other words, we would not expect to find the word púca
recorded in Old Irish. Since púca place names are found only in areas associated with the
Déisi, it is likely to be a dialect word and so might be excluded from written texts, even if it
were common in some parts of the island.
Most interesting and significant of all, however, it is not only the word puca which was
transmitted to English. The ideas and associations seem to have survived too, a fact revealed
both by the meanings of puca place names and by the kinds of topographic features which
attract puca names. Patrick Weston Joyce, one of the early scholars of Irish toponymy
comments that in Ireland the Pooka9 is often associated with human dwellings or buildings as
well as with ‘wild lonely dells, caves, chasms in rocks on the seashore, or pools in deep
glens’ (1910: 188). Semple lists a similar set of associations for the English Puca: ‘farms,
9 ‘Pooka’ is the standard modern Hiberno-English form of the word.
hills, ridges, narrow valleys, woods, nooks, and cattle sheds, and frequently connected with
water (wells, bridges streams, springs, and pools) and with pits or holes’ (2013: 182). In
particular it is common for a púca element to be found in Irish hydronyms, especially in the
names of rivers, fords, and—as in the earliest attested Irish púca place name—a moat.
Interestingly, too, the Anglo-Saxon place name ‘Pucanwylle’, ‘Pooka’s well’, has a direct
equivalent in a common Irish place name, ‘Pollaphuca’.10 As noted above, ‘Pochelle’ and
‘Pocheella’ may also mean ‘Pooka’s well’. However, the more usual reading of them as
‘Pooka Hill’ also has Irish equivalents such as ‘Knockaphuca’ and ‘Carrigaphooca’, both in
Cork. In this respect, English puca toponyms are unusual. While many English toponyms
retain Celtic elements, generally they survive as names only; the meaning is been lost. The
fact that the puca toponyms are descriptive suggests that it is the idea, and not only the name,
which has been transmitted. Toponymic evidence, as I note above, may reflect language use
and ideas amongst groups of lower social status which is, typically, where folklore flourishes.
However, in the case of puca, the associated folklore apparently made its way into learned
circles as well. This is suggested by the fact that the glossators also seem to be aware of it, at
least to some extent. The equivalence they draw with ‘uagantes demonas’ (Germ. 388, 37),
aligns well with the notion of the Pooka/Puca/Puck as a wandering spirit which is suggested
by its presence in the names of what Joyce terms ‘wild, lonely’ places. Equally, ‘larbula’
(Napier 1900: 191; 23, 2), Aldhelm’s own coining from ‘larva’ (Hall 2007: 304), ‘a
household spirit’, reflects the conception implied by the association, particularly in Ireland,
between the púca and buildings. These two glosses, then, imply a significant level of cultural
interaction. Significant and, it would seem, persistent. Ironically, given Shakespeare’s
description in Midsummer Night’s Dream of Puck as a sprite who changes shape, the early
10 Joyce lists this as the name of three places, though some have been lost in translation in the move to
anglicise names. It is now most commonly associated with a modern reservoir in Wicklow and spelt
‘Pollaphuca’. The name is borrowed from a waterfall which was destroyed in its construction (1910: 188).
modern understanding of Puck, lurking in bogs and briers, is recognisable both in the Anglo-
Saxon conception of the Puca and in the conception of the Pooka a thousand years later in
Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.
Department of English
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