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The Wider Significance of Place Names

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A Dictionary of British Place Names

The Wider Significance of Place Names

It will of course already be apparent that the interest of a place name does not stop at its etymological meaning and derivation: rather these provide the basic and essential starting point for the fuller appreciation of a place name's significance in its wider linguistic, historical, archaeological, or geographical context. Although the scope of the present book does not allow this fuller exploration and appraisal of individual names, a few other points will be touched upon here in addition to those already mentioned, and readers are recommended to follow up such aspects as may interest them in the various studies listed in the Select Bibliography.

Place names can tell us a great deal about tribal migrations, invasions and settlements. In England, older names of Celtic origin (supported by place names containing such elements as Old English walh ‘a Briton’) testify to direct communication between the Celtic Britons and the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon invaders, and indeed indicate the survival of a British population in some districts. The vast majority of English place names reflect the steady progress from east to west and the overwhelming success of the Anglo-Saxon invasions and settlements of the 5th century onwards, certain name-types being particularly associated with the early phases of immigration and colonization and others reflecting the gradual establishment of a new administrative and manorial system and the continued exploitation of the land for agriculture. Names of French origin, and those with manorial affixes consisting of Norman-French family names, are reminders of the Norman Conquest and its widespread political, social and linguistic consequences, including the imposition of the feudal system. In the north, north-west and east of England, as well as in other parts of the British Isles such as northern and western Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Scottish islands, and coastal districts of Ireland and Wales, the distribution and considerable numbers of Scandinavian place names suggest the extent and relative density of the Viking settlements in those areas. In addition the distribution of particular place name elements can often be significant: for instance the 300 or so names in north-east Scotland containing the word *pett ‘share of land’ (such as Pitlochry and Pitlurg) can be used to indicate the area settled by the Picts, and this clear linguistic evidence is strongly supported by archaeological finds.

A very small number of place names have pagan associations, some for instance providing evidence for the worship of the heathen deities Woden, Thunor and Tiw in early Anglo-Saxon England before the conversion of the English to Christianity in the 7th century. Names like Wednesfield, Thundersley and Tysoe are among the names referring to these gods, and Wye and Harrow contain words for a heathen temple. In Ireland place names like Armagh and Maynooth refer to pagan Irish deities, and Celtic river-names like Brent in England, Dee in England and Scotland, and Bann and Shannon in Ireland, all with meanings like ‘goddess, holy one’, suggest a cult of river worship in ancient times. On the other hand place names with Christian associations are extremely common in England as well as in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Many refer to churches and other holy places (such as Hawkchurch, Ormskirk, Kidderminster, Templeoran, Kilmarnock and Llandudno), some to crosses and holy springs (as in Crosby, Holywell, Ruthwell, Crosspatrick and Tobermory), and others to ownership by priests or other ecclesiastics (for example Monkton, Fryerning, Abbotsbury, Prestatyn and Kilnamanagh).

Many place names from all parts of the British Isles provide information of archaeological interest. Some places are named from their situation on Roman roads or on ancient routes and tracks. Others contain elements referring to earthworks and fortifications, ranging from Iron-Age hill forts and Roman camps to medieval strongholds and castles. Particularly common are names referring to ancient burial sites, burial mounds and tumuli.

Numerous place names illustrate the socal structures and legal customs of early times in the various countries and regions of the British Isles. All ranks of society are represented in place names, from kings and queens and others of noble birth to the humble peasant. Some names reflect the early divisions of the social hierarchy, others indicate various aspects of land tenure, others inform us about sites where important meetings and assemblies were held, others reveal details of ancient boundaries, lookout places, old land disputes, and even leisure activities like sport and hunting.

Many persons and families from many different periods of history and from many different linguistic and cultural backgrounds are in a sense commemorated in the place names of the British Isles. Some of these can of course be identified with particular men and women or families known from the historical record, but about the vast majority of them nothing more is known other than what the place names themselves tell us. Some may have been important overlords or chieftains, many must have been thegns or noblemen granted their estates by kings or bishops, others may have been farmers or relatively humble peasants. A small but significant minority of the people named are women. These are probably unlikely to have been secular leaders, but a few seem to have been religious persons or founders of churches and the rest were no doubt the widows or daughters of manorial lords who had been granted their estates in earlier times.

British place names provide abundant evidence for early personal names of all kinds, some of them well known from the surviving historical records, others rare and more hypothetical. In those regions and countries where the various Celtic languages continued to flourish—Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—the personal names, like the place names in which they appear, are overwhelmingly Celtic in form and origin. In England, many of the Old English personal names for both men and women fell into disuse after 1066, being largely replaced by Christian names introduced by the Normans. Because of these drastic changes in name-giving fashions, our knowledge of the personal nomenclature of the Old English period is incomplete, for it is quite clear that only a proportion of the numerous names in use during the six centuries after the Anglo-Saxon settlement have survived in the ordinary written records. Here place names provide good evidence for the existence of many personal names of both men and women that are otherwise unrecorded. Such personal names, inferred from comparative evidence and postulated to occur with varying degrees of certainty in particular place names, are customarily asterisked (like the *Dæcca in Dagenham or the *Berica in Barking) to indicate that they are not found in independent use.

The way place names from all parts of the British Isles reflect the face of the landscape, utilizing a rich and diverse vocabulary to describe every undulation and type of terrain, has already been touched upon. The natural history of this varying landscape is also abundantly represented, as is clear from the many different species of trees and plants, wild animals and birds, fish and even insects, that are evidenced among the elements found in names. Moreover, place names reflect every aspect of human activity in the different regions over a long period, from the utilization and development of the land by our forefathers for agricultural purposes, to their exploitation of the environment for communications, trade, and industry.

The numerous British place names containing woodland terms provide good evidence for the distribution, use and management of woods, copses and groves in early times. Those containing words for types of woodland clearing indicate areas of former forest and the particular purposes for which clearings were used. Names derived from elements denoting various kinds of field, pasture, meadow, arable and enclosure suggest different aspects of land-use in the subsistence agriculture of our ancestors, in which arable land had to be broken in to produce crops, meadow-land provided hay, and pastureland and enclosures were needed for animals. Place names give information too about the kind or quality of the soil, the crops grown and harvested, the domestic creatures reared, the practice of transhumance, and the goods produced.

The importance of river valleys for early settlement, providing fertile soils, ease of access and a good water supply, is reflected in the number of places named from the rivers or streams on which they are situated. Many other place names refer to the roads or routes on which they stand, also essential for communications and trade. The large group of names containing elements meaning ‘ford’ or ‘bridge’ show the vital part played by river crossings, whilst those derived from words for ‘landing-place’ or ‘harbour’ suggest the early importance of trade and transport by water. Many elements indicate the local industries and occupations of particular places and regions, as for example milling, fishing, salt-making, charcoal-burning, coal-mining, pot-making, iron-working, quarrying, timber production, bee-keeping, and many others.

The study of place names has made important contributions to our knowledge of the original vocabulary of Old English as well as that of the early Celtic and Scandinavian languages. Dozens of words once used in living speech may never have found their way into literary or historical writings before they went out of use, but such words often occur in place names formed in the early period. It will be apparent from the alphabetical list of names that this archaic vocabulary (customarily asterisked to show that it is only evidenced in place names and not otherwise recorded) is well represented among the entries. Moreover many words recorded in independent use are evidenced much earlier in place names than in the ordinary languages, and these too are by convention asterisked. Many other old words, once part of the living languages but now lost from the general vocabulary, survive in fossilized form in place names. A good selection of these old words, those most frequently found in the place names of the British Isles, are listed for convenience in the Glossary of Some Common Elements at the end of the book.

It is of course the case that the current local pronunciation of place names, especially in the Celtic language areas of the British Isles but also quite often in England, differs from what the modern spelling might lead us to expect (English examples might include Beaulieu, Bicester, Chiswick, Cholmondeley, Stiffkey and Towcester). Although such matters are outside the scope of this book, the historical and linguistic reasons for these characteristics and disparities are often of some interest and are dealt with in the detailed regional or county surveys, whilst the current pronunciations of many names can be found in the specialized pronouncing dictionaries. Indeed further information of any kind about any of the names included in this dictionary, as well as information about names not included for reasons of space, should be sought in the regional surveys or other monographs and studies dealing with particular name-types and groups of names, a selection of which is listed in the Bibliography.