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date: 17 January 2017

Place Names and their Meanings

A Dictionary of British Place Names

Place Names and their Meanings

Place names, those familiar but curious labels for places that feature in all their splendid variety on map and signpost, fulfil such an essential function in our daily lives that we take them very much for granted. Yet the place names of the British Isles are as much part of our cultural heritage as the various languages, historical events and landscapes from which they spring, and almost every place name has an older original meaning behind its modern form.

Indeed the place names of the countries and regions that make up the British Isles present us with the most astonishing linguistic richness and diversity. The picture is a complicated one. Names of English (Old English) origin predominate in much of England, but there are significant numbers of Scandinavian (Old Danish and Old Norse) names in the north-west, north, and east of the country, names of Cornish origin in Cornwall, and an overall sprinkling of Norman-French, Latin (rare), and ancient Celtic (Brittonic) names add spice to the mixture. In Ireland, (much of) Scotland, and in Wales, names of Celtic (respectively Irish and Scots Gaelic and Welsh) origin predominate, but again there are significant contributions from English, Scandinavian and Norman-French.

It is probably the case that most people will have wondered at some time or other about the original meaning of a place name—the name of their home town or of the other familiar places encountered en route to work by road or rail, the names of stations and destinations and those seen on roadsigns and signposts, and the more unusual names discovered on trips into the countryside or on holiday. Why Eccles, Stoke Poges, Great Snoring, or Leighton Buzzard? What is the meaning of names like Bangor, Banff, Bootle, or Ballynabrackey? How on earth did Croydon, Cricieth, and Crewe get their names, not to mention Billericay, Tipperary, and Drumnadrochit?

In fact all these names, like the vast majority of the names included in this dictionary, have original meanings that are not always apparent from their modern forms. That is because most place names today are what could be termed ‘linguistic fossils’. Although they originated as living units of speech, coined by our distant ancestors as descriptions of places in terms of their topography, appearance, situation, use, ownership, or other association, most have become, in the course of time, mere labels, no longer possessing a clear linguistic meaning. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that most place names are a thousand years old or more, and are expressed in vocabulary that may have evolved differently from the equivalent words in the ordinary language, or that may now be completely extinct or obscure.

Of course some place names, even very old ones, have apparently changed very little through the many centuries of their existence, and may still convey something of their original meaning when the words from which they are composed have survived in the ordinary language (even though the features to which they refer may have changed or disappeared). Thus English names such as Claybrooke, Horseheath, Marshwood, Nettlebed, Oxford, Saltmarshe, Sandford, and Woodbridge are shown by their early spellings to be virtually self-explanatory, having undergone little or no change in form or spelling over a very long period.

But even a casual glance at the alphabetical list of place names will show that such instant etymologies are usually a delusion. The modern form of a name can never be assumed to convey its original meaning without early spellings to confirm it, and indeed many names that look equally obvious and easy to interpret prove to have quite unexpected meanings in the light of the evidence of early records. Thus in England the name Easter is ‘the sheep-fold’, Slaughter ‘the muddy place’, Swine ‘the creek or channel’, and Wool ‘the spring or springs’—the inevitable association of such names with well-known words in the ordinary vocabulary is understandable but quite misleading, for they all derive from old words which survive in fossilized form in place names but which are no longer found in the language.

Names then can never be taken at their face value, but can only be correctly interpreted after the careful scrutiny of the earliest attested spellings in the light of the dialectal development of the sounds of the appropriate language, after wide comparisons have been made with similar or identical names, and after other linguistic, historical, and geographical factors have been taken into account. These fundamental principles of place name etymology are most clearly illustrated by the names which now have identical forms but which prove to have quite distinct origins: for example, the English name Broughton (found also in Wales) occurs several times but has no less than three different origins (‘brook farmstead’, ‘hill farmstead’, and ‘fortified farmstead’), the various places called Hinton fall into two distinct groups (‘high farmstead’ or ‘farmstead belonging to a religious community’), and even a place name like Ashford can be deceptive and means something other than ‘ash-tree ford’ in two instances. On the other hand, English names now with different spellings can turn out to have identical origins: thus Aldermaston and Alderminster are both ‘nobleman's farmstead’, Chiswick and Keswick are both ‘cheese farm’, Hatfield and Heathfield are both ‘heathy open land’, and Naunton, Newington, Newnton, Newton, and Niton are all ‘new farmstead’. Even place names from quite different linguistic backgrounds can turn out to have identical meanings. Like Blackpool in Lancashire, the name Dublin means ‘the black pool’ (referring no doubt to the dark waters of the River Liffey), and the Cornish name Penzance means ‘holy headland’ just like Holyhead in Wales. It goes without saying that guesswork on the basis of a modern form is of little use, and that each name must be the subject of individual scrutiny. For the same reason it should be remembered that the interpretation offered for a particular name in the list may not apply to another name with identical modern spelling occurring elsewhere, which might well have a quite different origin and meaning on the evidence of its early spellings and of other information.

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