Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

What is in a Name?

River Thames at Dorchester
River Thames at Dorchester

The Thames above and around Oxford is often locally referred to as the “Isis”. The origin of this name is shrouded in mystery. It does not appear to have carried this name in the days of the Romans or Saxons. In fact the name does not appear to have been used at all until the 14th century when it was referred to as “Isa”.

There is some conjecture that the Roman name for the river, Tamesis was derived from joining “Isis” to “Thame”, in recognition of the joining of the two rivers at Dorchester. A neat idea, seemingly with plenty of logic, apart from the all important minor detail that nobody called it the Isis until thirteen hundred years later!

The original naming of the river as the Isis has been attributed to students at the University. It is thought that they named it as a reference to Isis, the perfect mother of the ancient Egyptians, relating this to the river being the perfect mother of their University.

There is a further hypothesis that the name “Thames” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Tamasa” meaning dark water. This theory conveniently ignores the question of what the pre-historic locals would have called it before an early immigrant from the east came along to persuade them to name their waterway in a foreign tongue.

The most logical history of the name is, as these things often are, the most boring. The Britons are believed to call it Tems, which was latinised by the Romans to Tamesis by their scribes and recorders. The Anglo-Saxons, who made changes to everything Roman that they could, put their own spin-doctors to work and came up with the spelling of Tamyse. This seemed to suit everyone until sometime around 1600, when those who spend their administrative lives working out ways to change everything that people were previously quite happy with, came to the decision that the name would benefit from an added “H” and that the “Y” was a superfluous luxury that we could henceforth do without.

We may expect the Ordnance Survey to come to our assistance in this matter but it is not to be. Firmly sitting on the fence the custodians of all thing cartographic put “River Thames or Isis” on their maps to continue the mystery. In practice I have seldom heard anybody use the name Isis outside of Oxford.

All that said, I arrive at the footbridge at the confluence of the Thames (or Isis) and the River Thame and look down upon its waters.

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