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date: 08 December 2023

London Place‐Names and their Meanings

A Dictionary of London Place-Names

London Place‐Names and their Meanings

London place‐names cannot fail to be intriguing. What London commuter or resident, or visitor to the London area, has not wondered at some time or another about names like Cockfosters, Shepherd's Bush or Chipping Barnet? How on earth did Piccadilly or Soho get their names? Why Crouch End, Mincing Lane, Pratt's Bottom, or Whipps Cross? What is the meaning of names like Cheam or Chiswick, Cricklewood, Sidcup, Wapping, or Neasden? Of course, we take them all very much for granted. However curious they may seem when we stop to think about them, they are just the old familiar labels for places we encounter every day on map or signpost or season ticket.

In fact all these names, very much part of our rich and fascinating cultural heritage, have etymologies and original meanings that are often not at all apparent from their modern forms. That is because most of our older place‐names are today what could be termed ‘linguistic fossils’. Although they had their origins as living units of speech, coined by our 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 hardly surprising when we consider the great age of many of the names and their composition from vocabulary that may have evolved differently from the equivalent words in the ordinary language, or that may now be completely extinct and obscure.

Of course some place‐names, even very old ones, have apparently changed very little through the many centuries of their existence, and indeed may still convey something of their original meaning if the words from which they are coined have survived in the ordinary language (even though the features to which they refer may have changed or be long disappeared). Thus names (date of first record in brackets) such as Barnes (1086), Blackfen (1240), Blackheath (1166), Catford (1240), Greenford (845), Knightsbridge (1050), Strand (1185), and Woodford (1062), are shown by their early spellings to be virtually self-explanatory, having undergone only minor changes in form and spelling over a very long period.

But even a casual glance at the alphabetical list of London place‐names will show that such instant etymologies are usually a delusion. The modern form of an older 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 transparent prove to have quite unexpected meanings in the light of the evidence of early records. We find, for instance, that neither Harefield nor Hare Street are named from hares, nor Cattlegate from cattle, nor Ratcliff from rats, nor The Hawk Wood from hawks; that Cannon Street has nothing to do with cannons (or even canons); that Snow Hill has no connection with snow nor Chalk Farm with chalk; and that Peckham Rye has nothing to do with the cereal crop! 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 contracted or fossilized form in place‐names but which are in some cases no longer found in modern English.

Old place‐names and street 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 all the relevant linguistic, historical, and geographical factors. These fundamental principles of place-name etymology are best illustrated by comparing pairs of apparently identical names that prove to have quite distinct origins. Thus, the Bromley near Beckenham and the Bromley in Tower Hamlets contain quite different Old English words, the first brōm ‘broom’ and the second bræmbel ‘bramble’. Tottenham and Tottenham Court Road have totally different etymologies, as do Seething Lane and Seething Wells and the two examples of Watling Street. The two City street names Addle Hill and Addle Street have little in common: the first is from Old English ætheling ‘prince’, the second from Old English adela ‘dirty place’! On the other hand, an examination of the earliest spellings for a name can reveal how it comes to exist in two different versions, as with Haringey and Hornsey, Rotherhithe and Redriff, and Wormwood and Wormholt.