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Scope and Arrangement of the Dictionary

A Dictionary of British Place Names

Scope and Arrangement of the Dictionary

The main object of this dictionary is simple—to explain the most likely meanings and origins of some 17,000 British place names in a clear, concise, and easily accessible form, based on the evidence and information so far available. The names included have been selected because they appear in all or several of the popular touring atlases, containing maps on a scale of three or four miles to the inch, produced by the Ordnance Survey and by the motoring organizations and other publishers. Thus the names of all the better-known places in the British Isles have been included: the names of towns and cities, of a good number of villages and hamlets and city suburbs, together with the names of counties and districts (old and new) and of many rivers and coastal features.

The entries are strictly alphabetical, each name being referred to the county or unitary authority in which the place is located. Priority in the entries is given to what the individual name ‘means’. Thus wherever possible the suggested original meaning, that thought most likely as deduced from the evidence of early spellings and other information and from the fuller discussions of the name available in more detailed studies, is presented as a ‘translation’ into a modern English phrase of the old words or ‘elements’ that make up the name. The elements themselves are usually then cited in their original spelling and language, Celtic, Old English, Old Scandinavian, Gaelic, Welsh, or other as the case may be (a Glossary of some of the most common elements being provided at the end of the book).

Most names can be satisfactorily explained with respect to the elements from which they are derived, although the precise shades of meaning of the individual elements or of a particular compound may not always be easy to ascertain. For some names the evidence so far available is not decisive, and explanations may be somewhat provisional. A few remain doubtful or obscure or partly so. It is of course possible that earlier or better evidence may still come to light for some names, especially for places in those English counties like Durham, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Somerset, and Suffolk for which there is as yet no English Place Name Society survey, or for places in parts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales where detailed and systematic surveys have still to be completed.

Alternative explanations have often been given for names where two or more interpretations seem possible. For instance it is often difficult to say whether the qualifying element of a compound name is a personal name or a significant word, as in English names like Eversden, Hauxley, Hinxhill, Ranskill, and Yearsley. However for reasons of space some alternative explanations considered rather unlikely, problematical, or controversial have been omitted from the entries, in favour of those judged most plausible. Alternative interpretations of this kind are of course more fully rehearsed and discussed in the detailed surveys and monographs.

It should perhaps be pointed out that although the explanations suggested are considered to be the most likely, and are as accurate and reliable as possible within the limitations of scope and space imposed, final certainty in establishing the original meanings of many older place names is unlikely to be achieved because of the nature of the materials. Given the archaic character of many place names, and the fact that we can rarely know precisely when and by whom they were originally coined or came into use (as opposed to when they first appear in written records), there will always be an element of conjecture in their interpretation. However the study of place names is a continually developing and evolving field, as the last few decades have shown, and further revision and refinement of etymologies is bound to come out of current and future research.

Inevitably the rather concise explanations of meaning and origin attempted in this dictionary, although based on the latest research, have meant leaving aside other important considerations. It has not been possible to enter into the complexities of philological argument, or to explore questions as to the precise nature or location of a topographical or habitative feature, or to examine the identity and status of a person associated with a place and the precise significance of that association. Such matters as these, and many other considerations bearing on the significance of a place name in its historical, archaeological, and geographical context, are of course explored more fully in the various county surveys and studies of name-groups listed in the Select Bibliography, and they should be consulted by the interested reader wanting further information.

Although the scope of the present work does not allow for the presentation of a full range of early attested spellings such as would be required to provide visible support for the etymologies proposed in many cases, at least one early spelling (usually the earliest known) has been cited for most names, together with its date, to give some idea of the age of the name in question and of its original form. The sources of such spellings are not usually given, except where the source is of particular importance or interest, such as the Domesday Book of 1086 (abbreviated as ‘DB’). Where spellings from Domesday Book or other early sources are followed by ‘[sic]’—Latin for ‘thus’—this indicates that the spelling is cited exactly as it appears in that source even though it is apparently rather erratic or corrupt (the Norman scribes clearly had difficulty with the pronunciation and spelling of many British names!). In entries from the Celtic countries, since most Irish place names and many Scottish and Welsh place names have alternative Celtic and English or anglicized forms (not always corresponding in meaning), these have usually been noted. As before, readers needing further information about these alternative forms, or about the dates and sources of early spellings, or wishing to refer to fuller displays of spellings, should consult the detailed regional surveys and monographs (where these exist) listed in the Select Bibliography.

Elements and personal names cited with an asterisk are postulated or hypothetical forms, that is although there may be good evidence for their assumed existence in the early languages in question, they are either not recorded in independent use or are only found in use at a later date. To avoid unnecessary complication, the terminology for the provenance of elements and personal names has been somewhat generalized: for instance Old English (OE) stands for all dialects, Anglian, West Saxon, etc.; Old Scandinavian (OScand.) embraces Old Norse and Old Danish as well as forms more correctly labelled Anglo-Scandinavian; Old French (OFrench) includes Norman-French, Anglo-Norman, etc.; and the term Celtic is used for British, Primitive Welsh, and the other early related Brittonic languages. Similarly the term ‘personal name’ is used of personal names proper as well as of bynames formed in the early period.

In compound names, where both elements are from the same language the term or abbreviation for that language appears only once: e.g. OE sand + wīc for Sandwich. Where two elements are from different languages in a so-called hybrid name, each element is separately labelled, e.g. OE *wilig + OScand. toft for Willitoft. Cross references to other place names in the alphabetical list are given in small capitals. Place names and river-names no longer in current use are printed in italics (e.g. Ashwell under Ashwellthorpe, Ravenser under Spurn Head, and River Ann under Amport and Andover).

Elliptical place names of various kinds have been given the fuller meanings that seemed appropriate. Thus English names of the type Byfleet and Underbarrow, consisting of preposition + noun, literally ‘by stream’ and ‘under hill’, have been translated ‘(place) by the stream’, ‘(place) under the hill’ to bring out the implicit meaning. So-called folk-names (originally the names of family or tribal groups rather than of places) have been similarly treated, for example Barking has been rendered ‘(settlement of) the family or followers of a man called *Berica’.