OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

How the Places Got Their Names.

Pages: <1> 2

The past history of these islands and the peoples who have conquered and settled it has to be pieced together from many different kinds of evidence. During the last twenty years or so we have come to realize that if only we could decipher the story of our place-names, and find just when and how they first came to be used, we might very well learn a good deal about the various peoples who have played their part in the making of Britain.

The dominant power in England and in the Lowlands of Scotland since the beginning of the sixth century has been the English race, and it is not surprising therefore to find that the vast majority of the place-names in those countries are of English origin. Some of the most ancient are those which suggest folk-settlements. The suffix ingas (later ing) was added in Old English to a man's name to denote that man and his family, followers, etc. So Reading means "settlement of Read (lit. red one) and his people." If they were grouped around a central ham or homestead, the place might be called "homestead of X.'s people." Thus Wokingham means "homestead of Wocc and his followers."

A prominent feature of the early homestead was its tun or hedge, which later was used of the farm itself and has given rise to the innumerable place-names in ton. This word for the first two or three centuries of its life (and to this day in some parts of England) had none of the urban associations of the word town, which ultimately comes from the same source. Other names for such enclosures were worth, worthy and wardine, found at the end of many place-names to this day. When our English forefathers came here much of the country, e.g. the Weald, was still uncleared forest land. Soon they began to make clearings, and wherever you find the suffixes ley and field to be specially common, you may suspect that you are on old forest land, for ley means a "clearing" and field is "open land," a very different thing from modern enclosed "field," as is well illustrated in the contrast of Field and Wood Plumpton in Lancashire. When they conquered or occupied some old earthwork made by earlier inhabitants, or built a stronghold of their own, they often called it a burh (dat. sg. byrig), "fortified place," whence many a name in bury and a few in burgh - e.g. Badbury Rings (British), Burgh Castle (Roman), Chirbury (English). Farms belonging to the various settlements were often called wic, whence our Wick, Butterwick, Berwick (bere = barley), Gat wick (goats), Oxwick, etc. Places with religious associations were often called stow, hence Godstow, Virginstow, Bridstow (St. Bride), the land being dedicated to the service of God or the particular saint in question. The site of some homestead was known as a hamstede, whence our numerous Hampsteads, Hempsteads. A common word for a town was port, a loan-word from Lat. porta, "gate," hence the numerous inland places whose names end in port, such as Newport.

Places in which these various elements were used as terminals were distinguished from one another in two ways. Either the name of the original founder or sometime owner was prefixed, or some descriptive element was added. Thus Alfriston is the particular tun belonging to one Aelfric, while Langton, Bratton, Heaton, are respectively the "long," "broad" and "high" enclosures.

The personal names are often linked to the second element, and especially to the ton suffix, by the connecting element ing, so that Goldington means "Golda's enclosure or farm." It is only very rarely that the persons to whom these places owe their names are anything more than mere names to us. Occasionally we have the luck to have some early historical record which tells us, for example, that Bamburgh, earlier Bebbanburh, was named after Queen Bebba, the wife of Ethelfrith, the seventh century king of Bernicia. In this case we also have the luck to know that this was the new English name which replaced the old Celtic name Dinguaroy. The descriptive elements tell us of various things: e.g. the crops grown there, e.g. Ryton, Ryley, Roydon (rye), Whaddon, Whiteacre (wheat); the trees, e.g. Acton, Aighton, Occold (oak), Buckhurst, Bockhampton (beech); the animals, e.g. Otterburn, Woolpit, Woolley (wolves); the soil, e.g. Clayton, Chiselhurst, Chesilborne (O.E. ceosol, "gravel"); the character of the ground, e.g. Rowton, Rowley, Rowner (rough), Weetwood, Wheatshaw (wet).

The commonest terminals, apart from those already mentioned, are hale (often disguised under a present-day hall), denoting a "nook or corner of land," ho, hoe, hoo, hough, "spur of land, hill," shaw, "copse", hurst, "wooded hill," over, "bank, hill," bergh, ber, burgh, "hill," law, low, "hill, barrow," ey, "island," slade, "low, flat valley," beside a number of others such as the terminals cliff, ford, which are sufficiently obvious.

When the English came to this country they were not one people, and traces of their divisions may be found to this day in the names of certain counties and districts, and in the distribution of certain types of place-name. Sussex, Middlesex and Essex were so named from the South, Middle and East Saxons in distinction from the West Saxons of Wessex (now archaic). Surrey and Kent represent earlier independent kingdoms. One of their divisions, viz. the people of the Hwicce, once found in Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, have left their name in the old forest of Wychwood in Oxfordshire, and in other names like Wicnnor (Staffs) and Wichenford (Worcs) situated in the Western Midlands.

Bolton (lit. building-enclosure) is found only in Northumbria and South Scotland, chart (i.e. rough land) only in south-eastern England, worthy only in Devon, Somerset and Hampshire, suggesting that these words are, respectively, distinctly Anglian, Jutish and Saxon. Difference of dialect, if not necessarily of race, may have caused O.E. hoh-tun, "farm on a hoh or spur of land," to take the form Hutton in the North and East Ridings, Hooton in the West Riding and in Cheshire, Hoton in Leicestershire, and Houghton in most other parts of England. Similarly, in various parts of England, Healey, Hanley, Henley, Highley, all go back to the same Old English original denoting "high clearing."

The English invaders when they came to this country found it occupied by Britons speaking a Celtic language and, in many districts, by Romanised Britons who may, in addition to their own native speech, have been using some form of popular spoken Latin, learned during the three and a half centuries of Roman occupation.

These peoples had had their own methods of naming the various natural features of the countryside and also its inhabited settlements. One of the most interesting questions in the history of our place-names is the extent to which these earlier names were adopted by the English invaders. Here the truth is that, except in the case of those districts which were conquered quite late, especially in Cornwall and Cumberland, the number of Celtic place-names is very small in proportion to the number as a whole. This statement needs, however, to be qualified by the general remark that all over England there was a tendency to keep the old names for natural features such as rivers and hills, e.g. Severn, Exe, Axe, Ouse, Wrekin, Cheviot. The rivers traversed large areas and could hardly be re-named by any small group of settlers at a particular spot, the hills and mountains were often remote and inaccessible, unattractive to settlers, and the newcomers were content to take their names over from their predecessors. Indeed, it should be noted that some of these names may in similar fashion have been taken over by the Celts from yet earlier inhabitants of these islands.

Some of the names, such as Chiltern, cannot be explained even on a Celtic basis. When the Celtic names for inhabited places survived to any considerable extent we find that they tend to do so in hilly districts, or in those which were once marshy or thickly wooded. Thus we find the group Alt, Chadder, Glodwick and Werneth in the hilly districts to the east and north-east of Manchester, and the group Culcheth, Haydock, Brynn, Ince, Wigan in an old forest area.

The other chief survival of Celtic place-names is to be found in the towns and cities which were of importance in the days of the Roman occupation.

Carlisle, Dover, Catterick, London are good examples of this type. Many of these places were fortified by the Romans, and when the English took them into their possession they often recorded that fact by suffixing to them the element ceaster, which later appears as Chester, caster, cester, and the like. This element was a loan-word from the Latin castra, "fortified place," with which they may well have been already familiar in their continental homes. In this way the Romano-Celtic Glevum, Corinium, Mancunium, I sea became in course of time Gloucester, Cirencester, Manchester, Exeter. Many of these unfamiliar names underwent strange transformations on the lips of the alien invaders. By a process of what is called "folk-etymology" they changed them into something which yielded some sort of sense, however nonsensical it might sometimes be, in their own language. Just as our soldiers in the Great War changed Ypres into Wipers, so our forefathers turned the Celtic Eburac into the would-be English Eofor-wic, "boar-dwelling," the old name for York, and Sorbiodunum, the old name for Salisbury, into Searo-burh, "trickery-fort." Many names which to us now look good English, might well, if only we have the luck to have their earliest forms, really prove to be ancient British names.

Similar in character to the use of the Latin castra in its anglicised form ceaster is the adoption by the English, again probably in their continental homes, where they were already in contact with Roman civilization, of the Latin (via) strata, "paved way," in the form street, which was applied by them to the great Roman roads which they found in this country, and in course of time to all roads which had been "made up" in something of the Roman fashion, hence Watling Street, Ermine Street and the numerous places with an initial Stret, Strat, Sireat, Street, which lie on the course of old Roman roads. Significantly enough, the one great road which had never been more than a British trackway was always in early times called the Icknield Way and not Icknield Street. The Foss Way is from Latin fossa, "ditch," from the defensive ditch on one or both sides of it, and its corresponding English name "ditch" still survives in Ditchford (Worcs), Ditcheat (Som.), both on the line of the Foss.

Of actual survival of Roman or Latin names there is hardly a trace. In the vast majority of cases the Romans had taken over the Celtic names and used them, so that the number of places with definite Latin names was very small indeed. Speen in Berkshire represents the Roman station named Spinae, and this may be the common Latin word meaning "thorns." The final element in Lincoln may be the Latin colonia, Lega Ceaster, the Old English name for Chester, may represent the Latin Urbs Legionis, but round even these names there is an atmosphere of uncertainty.

To the incoming English the Britons were all wealas, i.e. foreigners, a term which from social circumstances came to mean "slaves," or "serfs." From this word comes Wales and the second element in Cornwall, and it undoubtedly lies behind a good many of the Waltons, Walworths and Walcotts found in various parts of England. These were places where a goodly number of British slaves, during that period, were to be found.

The position of the Celtic population in England and in the Lowlands of Scotland was in striking contrast to that in Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Highlands of Scotland, where the political domination of the English belongs to a much later date and the old nomenclature, whether British, Manx or Gaelic, remained largely unchanged.

From the end of the eighth century onwards the coasts of these islands were raided by Vikings from Scandinavia, and from the middle of the ninth century they made settlements in England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Western Islands of Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetlands and in the north of Scotland. These Vikings came chiefly from Denmark and Norway, and, roughly speaking, it was the Danes who settled in eastern and north-eastern England, the Norsemen who went to Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Western Islands, and from there came and settled in Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, chiefly the west and north-west. The proper Old English word for a Norseman was Northman, and that is the word which forms the first element in the fairly numerous Normantons and Normanbys found in Yorkshire and the Eastern Midlands. Such tons and bys were distinguished amid the surrounding Danish population as being settlements of the Norsemen.

In the North Riding we have a few Danbys, i.e. villages of the Danes, but they are found in districts in which we know on other grounds that Norse settlers were fairly common, and settlements of Norsemen and Danes needed distinguishing. In the West Riding and in Derbyshire we have a few Denbys and one Denaby, also signifying "villages of the Danes," but here the Viking settlements were not nearly so thick as elsewhere, and these villages were probably so named in distinction from their Anglian or English neighbours. In parts of the North Riding of Yorkshire the Scandinavian occupation was so thorough that where an English community survived the place was known as the "village of the English," and hence we have a certain number of places throughout England called Ingleby.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for How the Places Got Their Names.

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About