I’ve already blogged twice about surnames – once on the history of surnames, the other on how posh your surname is. I have an equally-fervid love of the history of place names (toponymy), although it’s a little less interactive as, unlike the many curiously-named people I question, I am yet to find a place name sign that answers my questions …
I think I enjoy anything that gives an insight into how people used to live – and place names, like personal names, do just that. They tell us about the physical environment, including natural and manmade features, they tell us what people did on the land, about ownership and the roots of the people who lived there and sometimes even about the social organisation.
Here are just a few examples of some of the most common, or most interesting, parts of English place names.
Places named after people
Many towns or cities are named after an ancient local leader or warlord – and, in some cases, we only know the person existed as they’ve left a place name behind them, such as Pada, the original ‘owner’ of Paddington. The Welsh county of Gwynedd is also named after Cunedda, a 5th century leader.
The suffix –ingas was used in the Anglo-Saxon period to indicate something along the lines of ‘stronghold or settlement of the followers of X’ – so the first part of Paddington means ‘settlement of the followers of Pada’.
Barking and Reading are all well-known examples of the use of noun + ingas. Where I live, Wellingborough, is thought to be named after a man called Waendal, who is now celebrated each year by a walking festival!
(There is an interesting argument that suggests these –ingas names tended to come in pairs as rival factions wanted to mark out territory.)
The Old English for ‘home’ is hām (pronounced with a long a), and it’s thought this was used to mean ‘homestead’ or settlement in place names.
So Nottingham means the ‘homestead of the followers of Snot’. (The city has conveniently dropped that first ‘S’ … I wonder why!) Or Birmingham as ‘the homestead of the followers of Beorma’).
We do see some counties that famously ended with the suffix -sex – Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and the former county of Wessex. The –sex ending doesn’t imply anything rude, merely that Saxons had settled there after they invaded. So Essex is kingdom of the East Saxons (Ēastseaxe), Wessex the West, Sussex the South and Middlesex the Middle kingdom.
-TON or –TUN
You see -ton and -tun used both as a prefix (Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge) and a suffix, Brighton. Much like –ham, it’s thought to have meant homestead or settlement, and you may recognise the roots of the modern word ‘town’.
–WICH, -WICK, -WYCH AND -WYKE
When I was small, we had a book about the Green Witch of Greenwich, the Wool Witch of Woolwich, the Old Witch of Aldwych and so forth. Given that the ‘w’ is often silent, I often wonder how foreigners manage to travel anywhere in the UK as the pronunciation of our place names is so confusing!
There are a few possible definitions for –wich. Most commonly, it’s thought to have meant ‘settlement’, ‘abode’ or ‘dwelling place’ from the Old English wíc derived from the Latin vīcus. By the time of the Doomsday Book in 1986, wíc was also in use to mean ‘farm’, particularly ‘dairy farm’.
For places on the coast or rivers, particularly it’s also thought that -wic meant ‘bay’, derived from the Old Norse vík, and came to be used for busy sea or river ports like York (Jorvik), Ipswich, London (Lundenwic) and Southampton (Hamwic).
And in places like Droitwich , Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich, the –wich is thought to signify a place connected with salt – either a spring or a saltwork.
-BOROUGH, -BURY, -BROUGH AND –BURGH
This suffix, derived from the Old English burg, indicated that there was a fort in the location, or the settlement had some sort of fortification, such as walls. With Edinburgh, it’s easy to see the fortification (it still stands!) but with other locations, such as Aylesbury or again, where I live in Wellingborough, the fort has long been long. You can also see the same suffix appear in other European place names – Hamburg, Luxembourg or Strasbourg are three obvious examples.
The suffix –by is fascinating as it derives from Old Norse, rather than Old English – and its usage largely coincides with the areas that were settled by the Viking raiders, particularly in the North and the East of England. It meant ‘farmstead’, so we see place names like Whitby, Appleby or Grimsby. Here’s a chart above, showing the distribution of Old Norse (Viking) place names in the UK. You can see by the purple that the names co-incide with the parts of the country settled by the Vikings.
I’ve always been interested in –holm, which is the Old Norse word for ‘island’ as there are islands in the Severn Estuary, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, visible from my home town of Cardiff. The majority of place names that use –holm are in Scotland, particularly in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. So how did it end up in use in South Wales, a long way from the areas the Vikings settled in Britain? The Vikings did raid along the coast lines of Wales and the West, and the evidence suggests that a Viking raiding party ended up taking refuge on these islands following a failed attack on a settlement in Somerset, hence the name.
Other Old Norse endings, indicative of Viking settlement are: -thorpe (farm), –thwaite (clearing), -ey (island) and –ford (fjord).
-CHESTER, -CASTER, CESTER
This suffix, one of the most common in English place names, derives from the Old English ceaster, which in turn comes from the Latin castra, or camp. It’s thought to have been used to indicate a place of Roman military settlement – although there is an argument that says the Anglo-Saxons then used it to just mean ‘settlement’, regardless of whether the Romans had ever been there or not! But the majority of usages of this suffix do appear in England where the Romans were well established, and not, by comparison, in Scotland, where they scarcely made it over the border.
We can see this suffix in places like Chester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Bicester, Manchester, Doncaster, Leicester and Worcester. The Celts also adopted this word – and you can see in place names like Cardiff (Fort on the River Taff) or Caerleon (Fort of the Legion).
I’ve included Regis not because it’s necessarily common, but because it’s another curio of language. Regis was used to indicate royal patronage. The monarch may have owned the lands, given a Royal Charter to the area (as happened to Lyme Regis in 1284) or have spent considerable time in the location, such as Bognor, which received a ‘Regis’ title as late as 1929 after George V spent months recuperating there.
You also see places called ‘King’s’ (as in King’s Lynn) or Royal (Royal Berkshire), both of which also indicate royal favour.
We see –SHIRE in our county names – Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and so forth. Its etymology is particularly interesting as it didn’t mean anything to do with geography; its original Old English form scír meant something along the lines of ‘official duty’ or ‘office’ (in the sense of a formal position). So an alderman, bishop or lord may have had a scír – and the word came to mean not just the duty itself, but the area and its people who were part of that duty. We can see this usage clearly in 1338:
The bisshop of Canterbire þerof payed was he, For him and alle his schire
We’ve then adopted the word as a suffix to mean an administrative area – and most of our English county names (and many Welsh) have had –shire attached to them at some point in their history, even if they don’t use it now (Devon and Rutland being two examples who have dropped the ‘shire’). The exceptions to the ‘shire’ suffix tend to be in the south-west (Cornwall), South-East (Kent, Sussex, Essex etc.) and the north (Northumberland, Cumbria).
Finally, in my title, I mentioned a few of my favourite English place names:
Wetwang, which the Oxford English Dictionary of Place Names suggested may have meant ‘field for the trial of a legal action’, from the Old Norse vætt-vangr.
Souldrop – no, not a place to commit suicide, but the same book suggests it means ‘outlying farmstead near a gully’ from the Old English sulh + throp.
Piddle – a source of much amusement, but probably just means a marsh or a fen.
And Ashby-de-la-Zouch is interesting as it contains three different languages in one title. The ‘ash’ bit is Old English, the –by an Old Norse ending, and the ‘de la Zouch’ derives from the name of the Norman family that once owned it!
- The modern myth of the Easter bunny | Adrian Bott (guardian.co.uk)
- The Viking Sagas: Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossley-Holland (bookmonkeyscribbles.wordpress.com)
- Prefixes and suffixes (englishbloggers.wordpress.com)
- Feasible Beginnings And Background And Story Of The Name Allan Lord (allanlord.wordpress.com)
- Wedlock (virtuallinguist.typepad.com)
- The Short and the Long of it (oup.com)
- Place Names (scottishmountains.wordpress.com)
- On the history of surnames (rumramruf.wordpress.com)