Earlier this month I ran a course at Guildford Institute on how to solve a cryptic crossword. One of the clues in the crossword we tackled was ‘Small argument facing head’s inflexibility (9)’. This is a fairly straightforward cryptic clue. The answer is STIFFNESS: inflexibility is the definition, the S is because of small, TIFF is argument and NESS is because of the word head in the clue. When I explained that last point, I was faced with a sea of blank faces – nobody knew that meaning of ness, i.e. head or headland (as in Beachy Head).
Outside of the crossword world ness on its own is not a very common word; it mostly appears in place names such as Dungeness (which means ‘headland near Denge Marsh’), Skegness (‘bearded promontory’ or ‘promontory of a man called Skeggi’, according to the OUP’s A Dictionary of British Place Names) and Bowness-on-Windermere (bull headland).
Ness dates back to the earliest days of English. The OED has several citations in Old English, including one from Beowulf. It is related to the modern German noun Nase, meaning 'nose'. Ness was spelled næs in Old English, and the OED points out the anomaly of the modern spelling being ness with an e, and not nass with an a, given that the modern words glass and grass were written glæs and græs in Old English. The Dictionary goes on to say that this unusual development of the word may be due to the unstressed position in place names, to regional variation, or to Scandinavian influence.
The ness of Loch Ness and Inverness do not come from the Old English næs. These places are named after the River Ness, and here ness is from a Celtic or pre-Celtic root meaning ‘moist’.