A week of new words - 2. ager


The Ouse has a bore
Locals know as the Ager.
York's own tidal wave.

I teach evening classes on geology at the University of York, and they're a lot of fun.  I have to put a fair bit of work into preparing them, but I always learn new things in doing so.  I also learn new things from the people in my classes.

This week, teaching a geological history of Britain, I was discussing the Jurassic, and showed a picture of some tidal sedimentary rocks from the Yorkshire coast:

Middle Jurassic sandstones with tidal mud bundles, Yons Nab, Cayton Bay, North Yorkshire.

This led to a discussion of how far up-river a tidal influence could be noticed, and we talked a little about the Severn bore, and the influence of the Humber on the River Ouse.  I mentioned that, in 1905, a beluga had been spotted in the river at Naburn, a few miles south of York.

One of the ladies then said, "I think the Ouse has a name for its tidal wave."

I confessed I didn't know, but was interested to find out.

"It's something like the 'Ager', I think," she said.

This was a word I'd never heard of, but then one of the other class members said, yes, he'd heard it too.  So I looked into it after the class, and they were absolutely correct:

Eagre, a tidal bore (first recorded from the Humber in 1592, as the 'Agar')

A transcript of the Rivers of the East Riding, from Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892) provides a bit more detail:

When the tide begins to flow in the [Humber] estuary the waters of the Ouse rise with startling suddenness, and occasionally with considerable violence. This peculiar rising or water-rush is locally known as the "Ager," a name of doubtful origin, but supposed by many writers to have been derived from Oegir, the terrible water-god of our Teutonic ancestors.

Ægir and Rán, not drowning but waving.

Perhaps inevitably, the OED disagrees with those 'many writers', stating that it can't derive from a Norse god because the inflection is wrong.  So where does the ager/agar/eagre come from?  (The sea, obviously.)

I don't know, but whilst on the subject of etymology, I decided to try and find out what the Japanese would call a true tidal wave like the ager.  Tsunami has properly entered our vocabulary as a replacement for the non-tidal, sudden displacement, ocean wave, so I'm sure we'd be able to deal with another.

This is not a tidal wave.

Sadly, my Japanese is non-existent, so although I knew that 'nami' meant wave, and discovered that 'shio' or 'chou' meant tide, I didn't know if this allowed me to presume that shionami or chounami were acceptable combinations.

Ocean Dictionary came to my aid, suggesting that 'shionami' actually means a tidal race, that 'chourou' is the word for tidal wave, and that a tidal bore is a 'shiotsunami'.

That solves that then.  No need to worry about using the dialectal Ager any more: we can call it the Ouse shiotsunami.  I'm sure the people of Yorkshire will have no problem with that.