Today, I ran across the word “stellenbosch” (ste-len-bosh). Of course, I’m a sucker for anything that sounds like Stella, my adorable 7-year-old grandgirl, so this word nearly jumped off the page at me:

“What happened?” Todd whispered to Ariel. “I thought Becca was going to lead the class.”

“I’m not sure,” Ariel said, “but I’m guessing that after she blew that lab last week, Muldrow stellenbosched her.”

Turns out, stellenbosch is a toponym, a word derived from the name of a place—think bohemian (after Bohemia), Chihuahua (after Chihuahua, Mexico), or ottoman (after the Ottoman Empire).


Herter Brothers Ottoman, High Museum of Art, by Wmpearl via Wikimedia Commons

At one time, a person’s surname was part of his identity … more than just a family name, it might tell where he lived, what he did for a livelihood, or even describe a physical or personality trait. Think Miss London or Mr. Fisherman or Miss Smiley.

Apparently, they didn’t know about toponyms in Scandinavia, where until fairly modern times (the late 1800s), surnames were almost always patronyms (your father’s first name plus a suffix meaning son or daughter) like Anderson (son of Anders) or Andersdotter (daughter of Anders). Papa Anders could have been an Anders Johnson or Anders Anderson, didn’t matter—the name that was passed on was always his first name. But the Scandinavians were more modern than you might think: When a woman married, she didn’t adopt her husband’s name, since she could never be called someone’s son. She instead kept her birth name.

But I digress. Back to our original toponym: stellenbosch. And what did it mean that Becca was stellenbosched?

Our word comes from Stellenbosch, South Africa, near Cape Town. During the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 (between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers of South Africa), Stellenbosch was a British military base.


1904 World’s Fair Boer War Pprogram, Frank Mills via Wikimedia Commons

Officers who hadn’t done well on the battlefield were often sent to Stellenbosch to do menial tasks, like looking after the war horses stabled there. The officers usually kept their rank, but the reassignment to Stellenbosch was considered a demotion, and the term came to mean reassigning someone to a position of minimal responsibility where they would do no harm.

Hmmmm, think I’ll stellenbosch my farmhand, Johnny Johnson, who pulled out all the baby lettuces when weeding … to that nice big patch of thistles at the top of the garden.

Leave a comment 10 Comments

  1. Wow, I never knew this place name was a “verb/adverb”. I visited Stellenbosch many years back, while it was still a rather rural area outside of Capetown. I had my first scones there served by a veddy “British” South African woman who ran a cafe. The English left over from colonial times are often more British than the British themselves, and living in a world from a bygone day.
    I was on my way to Kango Caves, the largest underground caves in the world and still mostly undiscovered.
    Thanks MaryJane for once again teaching us something new in the world of words.

    • MaryJane says:

      What haven’t you done? Where haven’t you been? It might be easier to keep track of you THAT way:) It seems like you’ve lived several lives already!

      • Well, I haven’t been to Australia and those countries nearby.But have travelled to all the continents, even almost antarctica ( well 800 miles away at Tiera Del Fuego) all except ” down under”. Yep, no need in my late life to wish I had to sowed my wild oats, have done that for sure ! Still have my ” bucket list” though.

  2. Oh and on the subject of Stella, I’m sure you are aware of the dearest children’s book ” Stella Luna” by Janell Cannon, about an orphaned fruit bat ( but with a happy ending). Surely one of the best children’s tales I have ever read on many levels. The illustrations are truly gorgeous. Oh and a side note, I once had a pet fruit bat !

    • MaryJane says:

      We have TWO copies of Stella Luna, one for here and one at Stella’s house. Adorable book.

      • I have 3 copies, one hardback, one softback and one to give away as a gift!
        My fruit bat by the way was named Ogilve ( sp?) and he was so cute, just nibbled on fruit I gave him and licked you back, they have virtually no teeth, they just lick . flying foxes is the perfect name for them.

  3. Karlyne says:

    Stellenbosch! I can’t wait to use it on the grandkidlets!

  4. Terry Steinmetz says:

    I love the meanings of names. My maiden name was Kerbyson (son of Kerby) & my married name is
    Steinmetz, which means, stone mason, of which my hubby’s great-grandfather was actually a stone mason who built brick/stone churches.

    • MaryJane says:

      How cool is that? Our neighbors who are the Iversons, Ken and Brenda Iverson, told us that when their ancestors checked in at Ellis Island, Iver’s son, not able to speak English yet, told them he was Iver’s son and they wrote down Iverson.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *