I grew up in Essex Center, Vermont, and, on my frequent travels through the state, cracked up at the highway sign announcing an exit to Middlesex. Being a etymology nerd, I thus had ample time to contemplate the two -sex towns in my state. Where did their names come from?
The most immediate antecedent to both Essex and Middlesex is England. Like so many New England names in the region, the towns of Vermont recapitulate place names of Old England. Essex is a county in southern Old England. Middlesex is another.
But what do such town names mean? Again the map of England holds a clue. Besides Essex and Middlesex, England also has areas by the names of Sussex [East and West]. Additionally, Wessex was historically a kingdom in southern England. Furthermore, while there is no contemporary place name of Wessex, Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex has had such an influence on the region that it may be used today to describe the region in the southwest of the country. In conclusion, Essex, Wessex, Middlesex, and Sussex all cluster in the same southern region of England.
At one point, I stared at all the -sexes I knew and realized that they followed a pattern. They each denote a relative direction. Obviously Middlesex is “the middle -sex.” Essex is “the east -sex.” Thus Wessex is “the west -sex” and Sussex “the south -sex.” The prefixes of the –sexes function as geographical markers.
Having solved a long-standing [at least in my own head] mystery about the sources of the -sexes, I then moved onto the next logical step: the meaning of -sex itself. The Oxford English Dictionary, quoted in the article on Wessex, says that -sex derives from the Old English Seaxe, meaning “Saxons.” The -sexes then point out the geographical distribution of various Saxon settlements: Essex for the Saxons to the east, Wessex for the Saxons to the west, Sussex for the Saxons to the south, Middlesex for the Saxons in the…uh…middle.
This information only led to a further question. Extant -sexes represent three cardinal directions [east, west, south] and one relative one [middle]. But what about the missing cardinal direction? Shouldn’t there be a “north –sex?” Presumably it would be called something like Nussex or Norsex, by extension from Sussex, but it doesn’t exist.
Though the absence of Nussex has pissed me off for years, I have finally figured out why it doesn’t exist. There is no Nussex because it is the default -sex. In other words, it was the Saxon settlement used as the original reference point for the names of the rest of the -sexes. In the same way that the state of Virginia has no geographical adjective, but the later and geographically relative state of West Virginia does, so the -sex used as the point of comparison for all others would remain uninflected. Only those –sexes developing chronologically after and in relation to the original -sex needed geographical adjectives after all.
There — now you know everything I know about the four -sexes.