English place-names

Why study the name of places? First of all, place-names are a part of the English lexis, although they seem to be regarded as a matter of fact and are used without much thought. But if one becomes engaged in the study of place-names and digs deeper into their origins, one can learn a good deal about English history.


Following the development of particular place-names can take you deep into fascinating and long-lasting processes, for names of settlements usually testify "to changes in the population of the British Isles, and place-names often supplement the meagre data of recorded history. They give hints as to the districts where a British population preserved its language for a comparatively long time." 1 But place-names can tell us something of the religious beliefs of the inhabitants, too, indicating as to whether Christians or Heathens lived there.

The Celts

The geographical distribution of place-names shows that more place-names of Celtic origin have survived in the west of England while the East has lost or greatly changed most Celtic place-names. This is of course due to the fact that the Celts were driven westwards by both Romans and Anglo-Saxons, thus settling particularly in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The very first place-names of undoubtedly Celtic (or British) origin are recorded by classical authors such as Caesar, Tacitus, Pliny and Ptolemy in pre-Anglo-Saxon times.

The names mentioned by classical authors appear to be originally Celtic, like York which was cited by Agricola in 79 AD. He mentions the settlement in its latinised form of Eburacum or Eboracum that later developed into the form we know today via Anglo-Saxon and Danish modification. Other examples are London which is the latinised form Londinium stemming probably from a Celtic tribe-name, and Kent which is the Celtic Kantion meaning "border country".

In addition to the few surviving Celtic place-names, most river-names, some hill- and forest-names are of Celtic origin. Since the Celts left no written remnants, their place-names survived only when borrowed by another language, modified with affixes and then fixed in writing. One example of this way of forming place-names out of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements is provided by the town called Lichfield. The name consists of a Celtic and an Old English element. Lich is the Celtic letocetum or leto caito meaning "grey wood". Then the Old English element feld (= "open country") was added.

Some names however suggest that the Celtic element has been borrowed by Anglo-Saxons who were completely ignorant of Celtic. The name Penhill provides a good example for a tautological compound of a Celtic element with an Anglo-Saxon noun: the item Pen- is of Celtic origin and means "hill". In Anglo-Saxon times, the suffix -hill was added to the Celtic element only because the meaning of the Celtic element was unknown. Thus Penhill denotes a hilly place by saying it twice over.

The Key to English Place-Names.. An up-to-date guide to the interpretation of the names of England's cities, towns and villages.

York: Origin of the name. Wikipedia.

Roman place-names

The Roman occupation of Britain lasted for 400 years. Despite this fact, Roman rule had surprisingly little impact on the naming of places. In many cases, the Romans adopted earlier Celtic place-names which were then latinised. The latinised forms always included the Celtic name: the Celtic dwelling of Lindon, for example, simply became Lindum colonia when a Roman colony was established there. It developed into Lincoln via various stages: Lindocolina [c730 AD], Lindcylene [942] and Lincolnia [1086], thus being "a Celtic-Latin hybrid borrowed from British speakers." 2

The most common Latin elements to be found in place-names date from Anglo-Saxon times, when they were borrowed into their language: strata ("paved road") can be found in Stratford, portus ("port") is in Portland, while castra ("fort", "camp") is part of the names of many English places founded by the Romans (e.g. Lancaster). But not all the Latin names survived. The Roman town of Aquae Sulis was renamed Bath with both names denoting the place where the only hot springs in England can be found.

Anglo-Saxon place-names

The Anglo-Saxon influence on the naming of places is of much greater importance than the one of their predecessors. For the first time in the history of Britain, large and powerful kingdoms covering almost the whole of England with the exceptions of Wales and Scotland emerged in the course of ca. 400 years.

Wherever the Anglo-Saxons settled on former Roman forts or camps, they borrowed the Latin ending -castra. Used as a suffix, it developed into -chester, -cester and -caster. Being compounded with other Anglo-Saxon nouns and used as a prefix, it contributed to places like Chesterfield or Chesterford.

Newly founded settlements had their names usually derived from the tribe, the family or the offspring of a family that founded the settlement or inhabited the area. The most obvious examples for this type of place-names are provided by the present-day districts of Wessex, Essex and Sussex. These areas came to be called by the name of the tribe or people living there: Essex derives from "East Saxons", Wessex means "West Saxons" etc. The Old English suffix -ingas meaning "descendants or dependants of a certain man" is the most common Anglo-Saxon element. This is due to the fact that "the strongest social bonds [amongst the tribes] were the claims of kinship and the claims of lordship." 3

The places were sometimes named after prominent natural features, but more often they bore the names of their inhabitants, thus signifying some sort of dependancy and hierarchy. Hastings comes from the Old English Haestingas, which simply means that "the people of Haestas" have established a settlement there. Common suffixes are also -ham or -tun. They both have the similar meaning of village, homestead or town.

Other common suffixes are -saetan or -saete which means "dwellers or inhabitants". These suffixes survived in the place-names of Dorset stemming from Old English Dorsaeton or Dornsaete which stands for "the city of settlers at Dorn". Offshoots of larger settlements often bear the suffix -ingaham, denoting "specific places where a community, closely associated with the village whose name they bore, had established their home." 4 Ellingham on the Avon provides a good example for these kinds of "daughter-settlements": the name stems from the Old English Adelingeham (recorded in 1086) which stands for "the village of the people of Aethel" and was probably an offshoot of the near-by Eling. Fortified places were often called -burh. This suffix survived in the forms of -borough, -burgh and -bury plus the resulting compounds.

Viking settlements

It is generally agreed that the Vikings (Danes and Norwegians), together with the Anglo-Saxons, had the biggest influence on English place-names. The Viking influence was particularly strong in the mid- and northeast area of England called the Danelaw which included Northumbria, Danish Mercia and East Anglia. For a period of more than 200 years, Old Norse remained the dominant language in these regions and the new-found settlements were, of course, named in the Viking's mother tongue. There is a wide variety of place-names of purely Scandinavian origin: Bilsthorpe (= "Bild's settlement"), Grimsby ("Grim"s village") or Beckermonds ("meeting of the streams") etc.

Besides these place-names consisting only of Scandinavian elements, there are numerous so-called hybrid names. They ususally consist of an Old Norse personal name plus an Old English second element. This kind of composition can be found in place-names like Grimston, Thurgarton, Coppingford and Thurstonfield with the first element stemming from Old Norse.

Besides this this type of hybrid name consisting of a Scandinavian personal name with an Old English suffix, there are many other important Scandinavian elements. The most important ones are: -by, -toft and -thorp.

The suffix -by is probably the most common Scandinavian element in English place-names. It denotes a "farmstead or village" while the element -toft marks the site of a house or homestead and is especially common in minor names. The element -thorp denotes a secondary settlement or outlying farm, similar to the Anglo-Saxon element -ingaham. It is ususally compounded with Scandinavian personal names and English nouns. Settlements like Northorpe, Southorpe, Kingthorpe and Newthorpe are evidently self-explanatory, while the personal names compound like Osgathorpe or Ullathorpe demand a certain knowledge of Scandinavian personal names.

Although it seems that Old English had more in common with Old Norse than with Norman French, there had been some changes in spelling in order to conform to Scandinavian habits of speech: the Old English settlements Scelftun and Sciptun [ʃ] have Old Norse equivalents in Skelton and Skipton [sk]. The palato-alveolar [ʃ]-sound was replaced by a Scandinavian velar [sk]-sound in pronunciation, and this affected the spelling, too.

On the other hand, wherever similar features appeared in Old English and old Norse, Scandinavians replaced the Old English words like ac ("oak"), brad ("broad"), cyning ("king") or stan ("stone) with the Old Norse equivalents: eik, breiðr, konungr and steinn.

Norman place-names

There are very few originally French place-names, most of them names of monasteries and castles. Some examples are Blanchland ("white glade"), Grosmont ("big hill") and Beaumont ("beautiful hill").

A much bigger influence of Norman-French on English place-names stems from the fact that most of the French clerks could neither speak nor write English properly. Since Norman-French differed widely from English and Old Norse, English place-names offered greater difficulties to a French speaker than they did to a Scandinavian. Consequently, to be able to pronounce and write the place-names, Normans had to introduce any more changes in spelling and pronunciation than the Scandinavians. This was done through a process similar to the Scandinavian adoption of English place-names, often resulting in graphological changes in order to conform to certain habits of speech.

There are two major forms of transformation. One is the replacement of consonants and the other is their loss before certain consonants. The Old English -r- was replaced by -l- in Bulphan (OE Burgefen) due to Frnch influence. The -n- was substituted by -r- in Durham (Old English Dunholm) and -y- was replaced by -j- in Jarrow (Old English Yarrow). The -s- was lost before -t- as in Trafford (Old English Stretford) and before -n- in Nottingham (Old English Snotingaham).


  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, ed. by Eilert Ekwall, Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, (3)1951, p.XXVII. ↩︎

  2. P.H. Reaney, The Origin of English Place-Names. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, (4)1964, p.204. ↩︎

  3. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, ed. by Kenneth O. Morgan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p.55. ↩︎

  4. P.H. Reaney, The Origin of English Place-Names, a.a.O. p.112. ↩︎