Last time in our mini series we talked about the fact that place names can sometimes mean exactly what they look like; Nettlebed was the example I gave you I think. Sadly, sometimes, they don’t; unsurprisingly they change over time, get squished, misunderstood, and so to be really sure you have to go back in time to discover the origins of the word. Generally speaking, then, the structure of place-names sits in about three categories. Compound names, simplex names, double barrelled names.
The most common of these is a compound made of two parts., two components. The first component qualifies the second. To illustrate what that means, let us take one of the most common Old English place-name elements, ‘tun’, which means enclosure, farmstead, village, manor, estate something like that, or ‘ham’ which means something very similar, and is believed to possibly be used a little earlier historically speaking – so words with ham in them tend to predate those with tun in them Fab fact in a blizzard of fab facts.
Words like tun and ham which denote some kind of place normally come second; and are then qualified or described by the first element. The first element is a component usually drawn from an adjective – it might be a colour, or size – or its position or its ownership or something like that.
So, Glatton, glat-tun means pleasant farmstead; -glat, pleasant qualifying the second element -tun, farmstead. or Kingston, the king’s farm; or Horham, which means a muddy farmstead. The principle’s a bit the same as when we talked about street – there are loads of streets, so you need to add something to differentiate each one. There are loads of farms so you need to differentiate them.
There are some examples where the thing gets reversed; sometimes this is just a quirk of fate; the town of Tonbridge for example, where tun comes first rather than the more normal second place, is thought still to mean bridge village. But normally the reversal happens where the origin of the place-name is Celtic, because of the way the original language works; so Old English says red house, Celtic says House Red. So for example, Asptaria means Patrick’s Ash tree – the tree forms the first component because it’s an Old English place-name; Compare that with or Tremaine, which is a Celtic place-name in Cornwall I think, it means Stone farm with -tre being the Celtic root for farm, and sitting at the front of the compound word.
Sometimes there are more than two elements in the compound, sometimes there’s three; so Claverton means burdock ford farmstead, that is the farmstead by the ford which has burdock growing by it. I can see it in my mind’s eye as I speak, I wonder if they made a freshingly gross drink from the Burdock.
Although compound words are by far the most common, the second general group of place-names is what they call simplex place-names, which are as you’d expect made of just one element. A few examples; Hale comes from an old English word denoting a nook in the corner of a river; Lea from the word for a clearing, Thorpe from the Scandinavian word for outlying village. And then the last form is the double barrelled formation, and this is when we come to the Normans, or indeed other latter nobles arriving to take over some land. So, after they’d arrived and giving the poor old AS’s a beating, they went into a countryside that was pretty much named up. There was no genocide going on, it’s just that the vast majority of the land had been handed out to new French ownership. So they arrived at a place and decided it would be far better with their mark added to it. For example, Theobald de Busar arrived at a place called Leighton. You might think that with the component leigh, which normally means clearing, this might mean something odd like clearing farm, but in this case Leigh seems to come from the word for leek, so we have leek farm. Anyway, no doubt Theobald was happy with his new possession, but just to make sure everyone knew he’d arrived the place became known henceforth as the Leighton de Busar, or Leighton Buzzard, as it is known today. The same place happened at a place called Shepton, or Sheep farm, where the Malets turned up from Normandy and called it Shepton Malet. You can actually track Some of these names back to the area of Normandy where the family originated form; so Marston Maisey derives from a place called Misey in Normandy. But sometimes, as always, there’s a curve ball or a googly depending on whether you are a baseball or a cricket fan; Charlton Mackrell, for example; there’s no point looking for a place called Makarel in Normandy; the word here is a nickname, meaning something like courtesan.
Double barrelled names are the main way in which the French impacted English place-names; they rarely created the place-name entirely, because the countryside was full by the time of the Norman takeover, disaster, catastrophe, outrage, whatever you want to call it. They do have some more other impacts, but it tends to be in either struggling with pronunciation of the new place they’ve arrived at, or imposing a new name on an existing place already named. The most common of these was pretty. Ooh they said, as they rounded a corner to their new domains, crushing dying Anglo Saxon peasants under their mailed boots as they walked, that’s a pretty hill and so the place is renamed Beaumont
There are other reasons for double barrelled names though, for more functional reasons. Position is the main example; so East Grinstead for example, as opposed to west Grinstead. Or size – so High Barnet, to distinguishing it from other less important Barnets, or Market Harborough, the Harborough that has a market – you get the idea.
Whether Compound, Simplex or double barrelled, there are some broad reasons themes for how the name is acquired, and again they can be divided broadly into three, the rule of 3 where ever that comes from;
- Firstly there are folk names, that is names associated with people or tribes
- Secondly. Habitative names, that is to say names which describe the kind of place it is like a farm or a fortress; and this is the largest of the types
- And then thirdly there’s the topographical names – marsh, tree, hills all that sort of things, names from the landscape. So, folk names, Habitative names, topographical names.
Folk place-names are usually recognisable by the -ing element – as in Reading, place belonging to Raeda; or Hastings, place belonging to Haesta. In these examples they very often indicate a very local level of ownership, by an individual at some point in time. But there are also sometimes hints of larger regional tribal names too. Some of the county names famously reflect this, Norfolk and Suffolk, the North and South people; Middlesex and Essex, the middle and East Saxons, Surrey, the Saxons of the southern district. These are all examples of ones that have survived through to Shire and county names. Almost all of the other shires are named after their county town – Yorkshire, Leicestershire. The exception is Berkshire, which is derived from the Celtic name for a hilly place rather than from a tribe of Berks, attractive though that prospect would be. Ah you might say where is the town called Hamp then, you know, of Hampshire? Ha! You lean back, smugly. Well there are a few which are cunningly and thoughtfully disguised. The city of Southampton was once Hamptun. Shropshire has no town called Shrop, because the old English name was in fact Scirop, and the shire sciropscir, hence the old name Salop.
Not every county is a shire of course. Cumberland and Northumberland were too peripheral and ownership too disputed in AS and early Norman days to be integrated into the shire system in the same way. A couple of counties retained their old kingdom names – such as Kent, and Cornwall.
Habitative names and Topographical names are where the fun really kicks in, since this is where you begin to visualise the landscape all those centuries ago; I mean I’m not dissing the folk based names, but I’m struggling to identify with Haesta or Raeda honestly. But now we are looking for words which describe what type of farm, or village or fortress, used to be there; or what features of the countryside. So Bakewell for example Beadecca’s spring conjures up an image; or Sherbourne, meaning bright river.
For these, there is really nothing for it up to learn the elements and what they mean; I’ve put a link on the interweb where you can find them – wikipedia’s is as good as any. I’ll mention a few, though, and at the end of the episode we’ll go through 4 or 5 themes that connect then. Just to slip across the border into Wales, the ever present -Llan means Church, and the following element is often that of a saint.
- There are many variants of fortified place, given our violent past – borough, burgh, bury
- We have many valleys in our green and pleasant lands, and therefore many suffixes for types of valley – dale is Norse, den, combe
- Stead is general word for a site, but often has a religious connection, as does stow, which also has the connotation of an assembly place
- And then -wich or -wick, a place connected in some way with trade
As I say, we’ll do a few more at the end.
The earliest topograghical names seem to be the Rivers, and there’s a justice in that somehow, as a fundamental, unchanging element in the landscape. Some river names are so ancient that they go back to before even the Celtic language arrived. An example is the River Severn, a name that can be traced back to Sabrina in the 2nd Century but no further, and has yet to be interpreted. It may be that it simply means river, for that is what many of the other river names mean – very often in Celtic. So, the Avon for example is from the celtic word for river. It’s not surprising really; as a local you don’t really have to attach a differentiating name to something as big as a river, its just the river, that great big wet thing. So a very large number of our rivers are names after river or water – Esk, Axe, Avon, Thames, Tamarand so on. Another theme though of river names are associated with the Celtic word for oak, derwen – so the river Derwent for example, river with oaks on its banks.
There are a couple of fun things about rivers though. First of these is back formation. So we’ve established that most river names are very old, so when antiquarians like a chap called William Camden started gathering names in the 16th century, they might leap to the wrong conclusion. Let us take for example the fine town of Cambridge. That looks like something of a gimme name wise – that’s going to be bridge over the river Cam, presumably? Well that’s what people assumed, and so it became so; but in fact the River used to be the river Granta and the town Grantaceastir, roman camp by the river Granta. The Normans couldn’t cope with all the g’yness of the name, they didn’t have that guttural G in French. So they got rid of the G’s and it ended up being called Cantebige, and eventually Cambridge. Then the antiquarian’s came along with their false assumptions. So they assumed the name of the River must have been the River Cam, it caughjt on, everyone started calling it the River Cam. The point is that it’s back formation – actually while we think the town takes its name from the river, in fact the river takes it’s name from the town.
The other fun thing is the duplication. So your invading Angle arrives and he sees a hill. It’s called Bree by the local, British inhabitants, so they now say OK, that’s Bree Hill – or, in Old English, Breedon. In fact, Bree is the Celtic word for hill, and so we have hill hill. In fact as I think I have told you all before in the History of England, there’s a place in Nottinghamshire called Breedon on the Hill. Hill hill on the hill. Smooth. English place names are full of these tautologies.
Relatively few Celtish place-names like Bree survive as it happens, then, and where they do they are often those most fundamental of topographical words. After the Celts of course came the Romans; the Romans left very few place-names but as I think every English school child knows, you look for the element of -cester which gets attached to many Roman towns, and who’s pronunciation was designed to confuse tourists and visitors, since of course the -cester bit is almost always pronounced -ster. The word comes from Castrum, Latin for a camp, and it was the Anglo Saxons who arrived and saw these magnificent buildings and walls and thought, golly. So let us take the town L_E_I_C_E_S_T_E_R. Now quite clearly this should be pronounced LEI-CESTER, but for those not familiar with the home of Gary Lineker and Walkers Crisps its pronounced Leicester, which is an outrage. I cannot drive past TOWCESTER, without revelling in its pronunciation as Toaster. It’s childish, obviously, but there we are. Anyway, back to Leicester, The Romans called it Ratae Coritani, fortifications of the Coritani tribe – none of that original Roman name survives as is typical for Roman Names. But it’s identified as an old Roman settlement by the -cester suffix. Actually, the Anglo Saxons wrote the name as Ligera Ceaster, which probably meant Roman Camp on the River Ligera. That’s a bit confusing, for as practically no school children know except those of us who have pulled countless gudgeon from it, Leicester is on the River Soar, so what’;s this Ligera thing all about; the name therefore appears to come from a tributary of the Soar. There are 50 plus cester names and they are the most obvious sign of previous Roman Settlement. Needless to say, you can’t count on identifying all Roman Settlements by the cester suffix. Famously, Bath contains the nothing of the original Roman name Aqua Calidae, or later Aqua Sulis, Sulis being derived from a pagan god. Although an alternative AS name was Akemanchester, so once it did do the -cester thing.
There are other indicators of Roman presence though nowhere near as famous as the cester thing; one of these is the element ‘Eccles’, as in Eccles, Eccles by sea, Ecclesfield and so on. This is derived from the Latin for church, which was probably brought into the language by the Celts using the word and it surviving into Anglo Saxon times, so you can visualise an early church settlement, swept away by the invading pagans until one day the Christianity came again to the town, and people remembered the old church.
The vast majority of our place-names though are then Old English as the Anglo Saxons invaded. And then following them, Old Norse. As you know of course, the eastern and northern parts of England are heavily influenced by the language, the area we have all talked about together called Danelaw. Throughout England you get doubles again then – place-name elements which mean the same thing, but rendered by different people, just like the ‘Bre’ and ‘Don’ we spoke of earlier. The most famous and most common are farmstead, farm’; so we spoke earlier of the Old English -tun and -ham, for village and outlying farmstead, respectively, they have the equivalent of -by or -thorpe in the old Danelaw. Two mildly interestingly fact-letts for you; -tun is far and away the most common place-name element; and most -thorpe places – Thorpe meaning small, outlying, secondary settlement – are indeed still small places. Except that city of dreams, the golden city, sister of Rome, noble Scunthorpe.
Since we have seamlessly sequed into a discussion of place-names by period, as we have discussed, the Normans made few new names, just butchered and dominated a few of the existing ones; and after the Norman age changes to place-names are rarer, for the same reason that England is now well established there is little need for expansion, and new place names. But they do happen. Fleetwood was a 19th century new town named after an MP for example. There’s a town called Twenty, a product of the railways, about which I should tell you. There they were building a new railway through the emptiness of fenland, reclaimed land from the sea of course and therefore relatively empty except for vegetables. Despite the lack of a local town, they thought a railway stop for livestock was a good idea for the farmers, but – what to call it? For some reason, they hit on Twenty, maybe because it was 20 miles to the town of Colesworth, though that’s a reasonably rubbish reason for naming a place. Anyway, duly a town grew up around the railway stop as happens, called Twenty after the stop. Then at some point in the future as the railways contracted again, the railway and its stop were removed – leaving just the town, Twenty. And most recently of course, there have been a few new towns. Some of those just expanded small old villages like Harlow. Others were entirely new – like Welwyn Garden City. The concept Garden City was an import from the US as it happens, and the first of the overspill cities to take the growing population of London in the 1920s that had decided they wanted to flee London.
We might connect place-names by time of settlement, as we have just done, but another way of connecting them is by theme, common reasons for naming places that reflect the society of the time. Right at the top of the list are saints and churches; that might be Eccles as we have discussed, or more obvious things like Christchurch. Or it might be the name of the saint concerned. In 495 down in Cornwall a bunch of fishermen were visited by St Michael – and so St Michael’s Mount was born. Sat Albans was named after the very first Christian martyr in England, beheaded on a hill outside the roman town of Verulamium, until the Christians returned and it became a place of pilgrimage. There are three St Ives in England – two of them named after actual saints, St Ivbo and St Ya. The other one, in Dorset, was called Ives, meaning place overgrown with Ivy – but that seemed somehow a bit ordinary, so they added the Saint bit.
If religion was central to peoples’ lives, farming was no less so, and so many place names are variations on a farming theme, whether that’s farm or farmstead, or the animals involved. There are a plethora of elements in both English and Norse that seem to mean the same thing, a farm or estate – but actually probably have subtle differences. Stoke or stock for example was attached to outlying farms; worth or worthy to an enclosure. Part of the naming then related to the animals kept there. We’ve talked about the Shiptons and skiptons derived from sheep; Cattle survive in places like Oxenholm, Kilburn in London. Pigs are also common from the -swyn component in Swindon, hill of pigs, or Swinefleet, or indeed Swyncombe, Valley of the Pigs and creator of podcasts. Wild animals are remembered too; wild boar in Everton, deer in Hartland. Badgers Mount is exactly as it says, hill of Badgers, though it has to be said there’s no apostrophe, so mount could be a verb rather than a noun which would be unfortunate. And then famously of course there’s the Isle of Dogs – almost certainly stray feral dogs rather than the more comfortable idea of a royal hunting kennel.
Which brings me I guess to the dead donkey bit, the wonder of wandering around England and coming across the most unlikely names. But of course for all of them there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Farleigh Wallop, actually has nothing to do with someone called Farleigh being walloped; Farleigh means clearing with ferns, and the Wallop family came to own the manor. Great Snoring and Little Snoring have nothing to do with nocturnal breathing problems, just the more and less important places that belonged once to a man called Snear. Even Fryup in Yorkshire has nothing to do with lard whatsoever, but probably means the valley devoted to the Norse goddess Frigga.