When people first discover Aston’s Eyot they tend to share three particular thoughts.
First, they are won over by the beauty and variety of the habitats and wildlife so close to the centre of Oxford.
Next, if they are local, they wonder how it has taken them so long to discover this tranquil and relaxing spot.
Finally they ask themselves – what is an eyot and how is it pronounced – ay-ot, ay-ut, i-ot or ait.
The definition of eyot is easily answered – a small island in the middle of a river – and the term is particularly associated with the Thames. According to the Chambers dictionary, eyot is an alternative spelling of the more ancient word ait. ‘Ait’ is derived from the Old English egat or igeoth, apparently connected with ieg – an island. A walk in Aston’s Eyot doesn’t feel like a visit to an island but you do have to cross a bridge to get there and the map confirms that it is completely surrounded by water – the Thames to the west, the Cherwell to the north and Shire Lake Ditch to the east and south.
Less clear cut is the correct pronunciation of eyot. Chambers dictionary dodges this question, stating unhelpfully ‘the phonology is obscure’. Many people feel that it should be pronounced in the same way as its ancient predecessor, ‘ait’, i.e. ‘eight’. Rowers tend to prefer ‘eight’, with Chiswick Eyot/Ait getting a mention every year during the Oxford Cambridge boat race.
Although the name first appears in the mid-1400s, the spelling has evolved through the centuries, ‘eyte’ in the 1400s, ‘eyght’, ‘ayte’ and ‘eight’ in the 1500s, ‘aight’, ‘ayght’ and ‘eight’ (again) in the 1600s, ‘eyott’ in the 1700s and finally ‘eyot’ from 1800 onwards ! Eight (no pun intended) spellings in all, and none of them the dictionary’s ‘ait’.
Perhaps the best compromise between history and the intuitive pronunciation of the modern ‘eyot’ spelling would be ‘ay-ut’. Other sources allow for ee-ot, ee-ut, i-ut or i-ot so really it’s up to you.
What’s your view?