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I am an American, so to me the title "Watership Down" sounds like it is about a boat that is underwater, either a submarine or a sunken surface ship. I now understand that a down is a term for a hill in England (where the book is set), and 'down' makes sense as you read the book.

But why "Watership"? Does this have a non-nautical meaning that I am not aware of?

Why wasn't a more lapine (rabbit) down or at least a less nautical word chosen for the name of the book?

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As Aurorar0001 says, Watership Down it is a real place name in Hampshire, England. The following comments are meant to shed some light on the origin of this place name.

The second part, Down, is a noun and here has a meaning similar to 'hill'. To quote the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a down is "an undulating usually treeless upland with sparse soil — usually used in plural: sheep grazing on the grassy downs" (link; "down, noun (2)").

The first part, Watership, derives from Old English wæterscipe, a neuter noun with the meaning 'a body of water, a piece of water, water' (Bosworth Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, link). Another source gives the meaning of the Old English word as 'conduit, water-channel' (Gover et al. 1970, p. 346).

The word part -ship here has nothing to do with a boat, but is a derivational suffix like in friendship, hardship, township etc.

Names similar to Watership occur also in Warwickshire, and if you were to look for them, you would likely find them in other areas of England as well. For Warwickshire, you find Watershut Meadow and (in a historical spelling) Watershippe feilde (Gover et al. 1970, p. 346).

The name Watership Down therefore had an original meaning 'uplands in the watery area', 'uplands by the water-channel' or something along these lines.

Reference:

J. E. B. Gover, A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, in collaboration with F. T. S. Houghton, The Place-Names of Warwickshire, English Place-Name Society 13 (1970 reprint).

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Watership Down is a real place in Hampshire that just happens to sound as if there is some connection to water.

Watership Down

(image by Loganberry of Wikipedia; public domain)

It's not a fictitious name invented for the book; it's an area near where Richard Adams lived as a child:

The title refers to the rabbits' destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. The story began as tales that Richard Adams told his young daughters Juliet and Rosamond during long car journeys. As he explained in 2007, he "began telling the story of the rabbits ... improvised off the top of my head, as we were driving along." The daughters insisted he write it down—"they were very, very persistent". After some delay he began writing in the evenings and completed it 18 months later. The book is dedicated to the two girls.

As you suggest, Downland is a primarily English term for hills, derived from the Celtic. Therefore, the name does make quite a lot of sense - after all, rabbits do love hills!

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