The Story So Far ...

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

English Place Names

I often drive through a town or village and wonder about its name. There are some strange ones out there - Chapel-en-le-Frith, Stoke Poges, Egremont, Kingston Bagpuize, Ashby de la Zouch... 



Also odd are the ones that aren't pronounced anything like they should be. Happisburgh in Norfolk, for example. Yep, that's right, it's pronounced Hazeburra. Oh I know, let's not even get started on the boroughs, and burghs, some of which are pronounced burra, and some bruff! (Although I shall return to them later and maybe clear up the confusion.)

With a lot of place-names, it's easy to break them down into their constituent parts and work out what they mean.

The OE (Old English) place names seem to be are straightforward. In an earlier blog post about Wulfric Spott I mentioned his mother, Wulfrun, who gave her name to Wolverhampton.

Her personal name forms the first part of the town name, and the rest consists of ham and ton:~

Ham = farm, settlement, homestead (ON Toft) but we'll see that this is not quite so straightforward...

Ton = enclosure

So it would seem that many place names contain elements of OE or ON (Old Norse) which are simply words to denote topographical or geographical features.

Wic (OE)/By (ON) = market

Thorpe - secondary settlement
Leigh/ley (OE) = woodland clearing- so my fictional village of Ashleigh in Alvar the Kingmaker is 'clearing in the ash forest'
Thwaite (ON) = clearing in Old Norse
Ing (OE) = people



As you can see, the above village name has the elements ing and ham. Great Massingham is in Norfolk. In Cumbria there are a lot of place names with ON origins : Kirkby Lonsdale, Kirkby Thore, Seathwaite.

So far, so straightforward. But all is not as it seems. In her Signposts to the Past, Margaret Gelling dispels a lot of the accepted thinking.

To go back to the element ham:~ Another OE word was hamm, which was not connected. Kingsholme near Gloucester does not mean king’s home, but Kyngeshamme, a water meadow on the royal estate.
“The uncompounded name Ham offers no problems, as it always derives from the topographical term hamm, which has been considered to mean ‘land in a river (bed), promontory, dry ground in a marsh, river-meadow. It may be used on its own, as in East and West Ham, or in a first element, as in some instances of Hampton, but it occurs most frequently as a final element. The habitative term hām, (village, estate) is not used as a simplex place-name and only occurs as a first element if the name derives form a compound appellative like hāmtūn, hāmstede.”

Another pair of similar words which cause trouble are būr (bower) and burh (fort) - and we need to distinguish beorg, from burh, and its dative byrig. Had they been differentiated in Middle English beorg would give berrow or barrow, and burh would mostly give borough while byrig would give bury. Archaeological evidence is needed in these cases to establish exactly how the place-names developed.

Burh can mean not only a hill fort but also a defended manor house as well as the later 'town'.

In the country as a whole, Bury is more common than Borough, Burgh or Brough. The OE final -h could develop into -f in pronunciation but not spelling, as in laugh and tough, and this led to burh becoming Burf as in Abdon Burf, and sometime Berth.

Later on there are instances of byrig meaning manor house:~ Bibury, from Beage, daughter of Leppa, and burh meaning monastery. In the case of Fladbury, this is probably derived from Flæde’s byrig, possibly a manor house built by a widow.
In the case of the element ing, it had always been assumed that newcomers took what land they chose, and that places such as Hastings (followers of Hæsta) and Reading (followers of Réad) were believed to mark those settlements. But Gelling says these were not 'primary settlement' place-names but actually came much later.

Ing sometimes has no filial relationship at all – Clavering in Essex comes about from the element ing being added to clœfre (clover) to give place where the clover grows. The same construction applies to Docking in Norfolk, from docce, the place where dock grows.


There has been a suggestion in recent times that some names came about because the Anglo-Saxons settlers mispronounced the Celtic names they discovered, much as the English in WWI pronounced Ypres as Wipers. Gelling is not convinced that the newcomers had such poor linguistic skills, and she points out that this was not the fate of all the Celtic place names.

Some tun names might have come about because of the Mercian administrators who might have been in the habit of describing places which had Celtic names as the ea-tun (river settlement) and that these names eventually stuck, but this is only a theory.

Where the Celtic, or Pre-Celtic names have been preserved, it is largely in the names of rivers. 

The use of the word walh to mean slave is probably a misconception, and it's more likely that it means ‘a Celt’; however, the reality is that most slaves would have been (descendants) of British who had that status under the Romans. 

The seventh-century king of the Magonsæte, who appears in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour was Merewalh, which has been translated as 'famous Welshman'. That being accepted, it seems unlikely that walh meant 'slave'. 

If the Angles and Saxons had problems with the place-names they encountered, the same was certainly true of the Norman invaders.

The initial sound Y was a problem for the Normans, so Yarrow became Jarrow, Yesmond became Jesmond. These are fairly easy to spot once armed with the knowledge that the letter was not in use in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet. So too the letter Z, which appears in names such as Belsize.

The initial sound in words such as thorn was unknown to the Normans, and they replaced it with T so that Tilsworth probably would have developed into Thilsworth had the conquest not happened.

Wic, the element identified as meaning market, was borrowed from Latin vicus. Before it was used as salt-working centre and ‘dairy farm’, it might have been used by the earliest English speaking people to refer to Romano-British settlements, or to Roman administrative units.

Gelling points out that more than 75% of the instances of places called wīchām were situated directly on or not more than a mile from a major Roman Road.

Often  tūn (ton) developed where an estate was once part of a larger demesne. An estate given to a thegn named Wulfgar came over time to be called Aughton (Aeffe’s estate, Aeffe being Wulfgar’s widow. Likewise an estate granted to Sibba becomes Sibton. Some ton names are more general, Preston (priests), Charlton, (ceorla-ton, enclosure of the the ceorls).

Grim is a nickname for Woden, but not all Grims- are of this origin. Grimr was a common ON personal name. So we cannot assume that all Grims are the devil.

And speaking of personal names, they aren’t all. Whitchurch could be Hwīta’s church, but it could also simply be the white church. 

Another key place in my new novel is Oswestry, universally believed to have developed from Oswald's tree, the site of his killing. But Warburton developed from Wærburg’s farm or estate, where the religious house was dedicated to St Werburgh, probably because the name suggested it, and the same logic should, according to Gelling, be applied to Oswestry, where the dedication of St Oswald probably arose from a place name which did not originally refer to the saint.

Sometimes the ON and OE elements are hard to differentiate.
Brunum or Brunnum in ON corresponds to burna (OE), which gives us the modern burn. Similarly, Lythe could be from ON lith, (slope) or from OE hlith, with the same meaning.

Beck - ON

But there are some words which have no English cognate. Going back to Cumbria we find Wasdale and Watendlath, containing vatn (lake,) Fossdale containing fors (waterfall,) and thveit, (thwaite -clearing.)

Many Scandinavian settlement names of eastern England can be divided into three main categories -by, -thorp, and those combined with English tun combined with a Norse personal name.

PH Sawyer argued that Norse place-names did not denote the settlements of a victorious army, but more likely inferior land. Older villages were probably already on the best sites.
Alford, for example, is much larger than the surrounding places with -by and -thorpe names.

Kirby/Kirkby generally denotes a church village, and is usually borne by places with desirable locations and it is likely that it replaces an older English, or perhaps Celtic name. It might have simply been that kirkby was an appellative applied to any village with a noteworthy church.


Mitchelgate (gate=ON gata - road) in Kirkby Lonsdale

Moving into the the post-Conquest era brings us the wonderful place-names such as Ashby de la Zouch and Egremont. But many of the French names were just stereo-typical descriptions, giving us beautiful seat, beautiful place, beautiful hill. (Belvoir, Beaulieu, Beauvale, Beaumont)

So, next time you drive past a place-name sign, don't assume the obvious; there may be more to the story of the name than meets the eye... 


11 comments:

  1. I live by Ashby de la Zouch (that's where I do my Tesco shop) but my favourite place name is Barton in the Beans!

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    1. I've never heard of Barton in the Beans! I love it!

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  2. Fascinating! I suppose place names developed rather like surnames (although that should be the other way around!) in that a short description was the best way to identify a place. Funny you should mention Tilsworth: assuming it is the same one, it is the next village from where my ancestors originated in Stanbridge (Stanbrigge = Stoner Bridge) in Bedfordshire. some good names in that are, too - Houghton Regis, Leighton Buzzard, Edelsborough, Hocliffe. This last was once Hocgancliffe and Athelstan, son of Ethelraed II, bequeathed a manor there to Sigeferth, thegn of Mercia. Sadly long gone....

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    1. Ah, Leighton Buzzard...I meant to look that one up and forgot. There's such a wealth of material here, I could've made the post three times as long. Houghton Regis presumably has the same kind of heritage as other places with 'regis', and those like Lynn, which went from being Bishop's Lynn to King's Lynn after it got its royal charter?

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    2. Presumably, yes.....According to the great God Wiki, Leighton comes from Leah-tun (farm in a clearing) and Buzzard was added by the Dean of Lincoln after his clerk, de Busar, because he had another estate called Leighton and wanted to distinguish them. Poor soul. I am always tickled by a signpost that actually appears on local Kentish Roads - Ham on one arm and Sandwich on the other. Of course, Sandwich was named well before the Earl's famous 'beef between two slices'. As it was once by the seaside, presumably the name alludes to the port that was once there?

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    3. Probably something -wic, as in Hamwic, the old name for Southampton.

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    4. We have a Hammerwich just outside Lichfield!

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  3. Thank you for this. I love investigating place names. Th village where I grew up in the Cotswold - Upper Slaughter and where I live now, Solihull both mean muddy place and muddy hill in OE. My father asked me to discover the meaning of one of my uncle's fields called Madcombe. It turned out it was just the obvious description of that particular field - sloping meadow leading down to a brook!. My unlce has another field called Wychcraft which, thanks to you, I presume had something to do with either a market or may just have been a place to store grain as it was known as wheatcroft in Victorian times (it's a strange square field with only one hedge and no walls).

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    1. Thanks for getting in touch Sarah, and how lovely that you grew up in Upper Slaughter - I know the name because the protagonist in my second novel, Earl Aelfhere, had a house there! Wychcraft demonstrates exactly how these old names can be misinterpreted - one would immediately presume that it had something to do with witches, which seems to be very wide of the mark :-)

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  4. I've been fascinated by place names for decades, so I loved this fascinating post. I grew up in Sussex and later moved to East Anglia encountering Happisburgh in Norfolk - and others. The pronunciation of place names definitely changed with the 'geography' and the settlers. Learning how to say Wymondham was another challenge.......

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    1. Thanks Roland - glad you enjoyed the post. I know Norfolk very well, having lived there as a teenager. Yes, 'Windham' is certainly an interesting one!! Ingoldisthorpe is another...

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