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date: 29 February 2024

The Chronology and Languages of English Place Names

A Dictionary of British Place Names

The Chronology and Languages of English Place Names

Place names show an astonishing capacity for survival, as the dates alone of most of the earliest spellings testify, even though it should be remembered that every name will of course be older than its earliest occurrence in the records, often a good deal older. In general it might be claimed that most of the English names included in this book are about a thousand years old, and that a good many are older than that. The various strata of English place names reflect all the great historical migrations, conquests, and settlements of the past and the different languages spoken by successive waves of inhabitants.

Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these islands in Neolithic times, and it is assumed that they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the 4th century bc. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey.

During the last four centuries bc there took place the invasions and settlements of the Iron-Age Celts, peoples speaking various Celtic dialects which can be divided into two main groups, Goidelic or Gaelic (later differentiated into Irish, Scots, and Manx) and Brittonic or British (later differentiated into Welsh and Cornish). Celtic place names coined in British (really the language of the ancient Britons) were in use for several centuries and some have survived from the period when this Celtic language was spoken over the whole of what is now England as well as further west. These early place names of Celtic or British origin were borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons when they came to Britain from the 5th century ad onwards and are found all over England, only sporadically in the east but increasing in numbers further west towards Cornwall and Wales where they are of course still predominant. Celtic place names belong for the most part to several well-defined categories: names of tribes or territories like Devon and Leeds, names of important towns and cities like Carlisle, York, and Dover, names of hills and forests (now often transferred to places) like Crick, Mellor, Penge, and Lytchett, and most frequent of all, river-names like Avon, Exe, Frome, Peover, and Trent. There are also a good many hybrid names, consisting of a Celtic name to which an Old English element has been added, like Lichfield, Chatham, Bredon, and Manchester. Some places, important at a very early date, had Celtic names in Romano-British times which were later replaced, for instance Cambridge was Duroliponte, Canterbury was Durovernum, and Leicester was Ratae: for these, reference should be made to the fuller treatments of individual names in the county surveys or to the specialized study by Rivet and Smith (see Bibliography).

The Roman occupation of Britain during the first four centuries ad left little mark on place names, for it is clear that Latin was mainly the official written language of government and administration rather than the spoken language of the countryside. Thus Celtic names, though usually Latinized in written sources, continued to be used throughout this period and were not replaced. However a few early names like Catterick and Lincoln contain Latin elements, and others like Eccles and (probably) Caterham were coined from Celtic elements that were borrowed from Latin during this early period. The small part played by Latin in place name formation during the Romano-British period should be distinguished from the later influence of Latin on English place names during the medieval period. In the Middle Ages, Latin was again the language of the church and administration, and this Medieval Latin was widely used in affixes like Forum ‘market’, Magna ‘great’, and Regis ‘of the king’ to distinguish places with identical names, as well as occasionally in the formation of names like Bruera, Dacorum, and Pontefract.

The Anglo-Saxon conquest and settlement of Britain began in the 5th century ad, spreading from east to west and culminating in the occupation of the whole of what is now England (except for Cornwall and some areas along the Welsh border), as well as south-east Scotland, by the 9th century. These new settlers were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, Germanic tribes from Northern Europe whose language was Anglo-Saxon, now usually called Old English to emphasize its continuity with Middle and Modern English. It is in this language, Old English, that the great majority of the place names now in use in England were coined. This dominant stratum in English place names (apart from those of Cornwall) is a result of the political domination by the Anglo-Saxons of the Celtic-speaking Britons and the gradual imposition of the Old English language on them. Many Celtic names were borrowed by the incomers as already mentioned (important evidence for the survival of a British population and for continuity and contact between the two peoples), but thousands of new names were coined in Old English during the Anglo-Saxon period between the 5th and 11th centuries. Thus the majority of English towns and villages, and a good many hamlets and landscape features, have names of Old English origin that predate the Norman Conquest. These names vary in age, and it is not always easy to tell which names belong to the earlier phases of the settlement and which to the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, although detailed studies have shown that many of the names containing the elements hām, -ingas, -inga-, ēg, feld, ford, and dūn are among the earliest. It should in any case be remembered that all names are older than their earliest recorded spelling, so that names first mentioned in, for example, Domesday Book (1086) or even in a 12th-century source usually have their origins in this period.

The Scandinavian invasions and settlements took place during the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries and resulted in many place names of Scandinavian origin in the north, north-west and east of England (as well of course as in many other parts of the British Isles). The Vikings came to Britain from two Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Norway, the Danes settling principally in East Anglia, the East Midlands, and a large part of Yorkshire, whilst the Norwegians were mainly concentrated in the north-west, especially Lancashire and Cumbria (as well as in areas outside England, particularly northern and western Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Scottish islands, and coastal districts of Ireland and Wales). The Germanic languages spoken by these Vikings, Old Danish and Old Norse (in this book referred to jointly as Old Scandinavian), were similar in many ways to Old English, but there were also striking differences in sound system and vocabulary which reveal themselves in the early spellings of many place names from the areas mentioned. Although names of Scandinavian origin are rare to the south of Watling Street (because that formed the boundary of the Danelaw, which was the area subject to Danish law, established in the late 9th century), the distribution of Scandinavian names in the north and east varies greatly, parts of Norfolk, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire being among the areas with the thickest concentration. To explain such large numbers of Scandinavian place names in these areas, recent scholarship has suggested that in addition to settlements made by Viking warriors and their descendants there was probably a large-scale migration and colonization from the Scandinavian homelands in the wake of the invasion. Many hundreds of names in the areas mentioned are completely of Scandinavian origin (Kirkby, Lowestoft, Scunthorpe, Braithwaite), others are hybrids, a mixture of Scandinavian and English (Grimston, Durham, Welby), and some (on account of the similarity of some Old English and Old Scandinavian words) could be from either language (Crook, Kettleburgh, Lytham, Snape). In addition many place names of Old English origin were modified by Scandinavian speech in these areas, for example by the substitution of sk and k sounds for sh and ch in names like Skidbrooke, Skipton, Keswick, and Kippax.

The number of English place names of French origin is relatively small, in spite of the far-reaching effects of the Norman Conquest on English social and political life and on the English language in general. It is clear that by 1066, most settlements and landscape features already had established names, but the new French-speaking aristocracy and ecclesiastical hierarchy often gave distinctively French names to their castles, estates, and monasteries (Battle, Belvoir, Grosmont, Montacute, Richmond), some of them transferred directly from France, and there are a few names of French origin referring to landscape and other features (Devizes, Malpas). However the French influence on English place names is perhaps most evident in the way the names of the great French-speaking feudal families were affixed to the names of the manors they possessed. These manorial additions result in a great many hybrid ‘double-barrelled’ names which contribute considerable variety and richness to the map of England. Most of them serve to distinguish one manor from another with an identical name, and of course the surnames of the more powerful land-owning families occur in a good many different place names (Kingston Lacy, Stanton Lacy, Sutton Courtenay, Hirst Courtney, Drayton Bassett, Wootton Bassett, and so on). Some place names of this type are not easily recognizable from their modern spellings, since the manorial affixes are now compounded with the original elements (Herstmonceux, Owermoigne, Stogursey). A further important aspect of the French influence on English place names is the way it affected their spelling and pronunciation. Norman scribes had difficulty with some English sounds, often substituting their own (as seen for instance in the spellings of Domesday Book and other early medieval sources). Some of these Norman spellings have had a permanent effect on the names in question and have remained in use, disguising the original forms (Cambridge, Cannock, Diss, Durham, Nottingham, Salop, Trafford).

Of course not all of the names on the modern map, even names of sizeable settlements or well-known features, are as old as most of those so far mentioned. Other names besides the French names already noted originated in the Middle English period, that is between the 12th and 15th centuries inclusive. These include settlement names incorporating post-Conquest personal names and surnames like Bassenthwaite, Forston, and Vauxhall, names containing old elements but not on early record like Bournemouth and Paddock Wood, and various other names such as Broadstairs, Forest Row, Poplar, and Sacriston.

Finally there are some place names, perhaps surprisingly few, which originate in the post-medieval period or even in quite recent times. Many of course are names of new industrial towns or of suburban developments, others are names of coastal resorts or ports or of new administrative districts. Most of these ‘modern’ names seem rather artificial creations compared with the earlier place names that began life as actual descriptions of habitations or natural features. Some are in fact simply straight transfers of older names without any change of form (like the London borough-name Waltham Forest, or the ‘revived’ district names Bassetlaw and Dacorum), some are based on rather fanciful identifications of ancient names made by early antiquarians (like Adur and Morecambe), and others are new adaptations of existing old names with some sort of addition (like Devonport, Thamesmead, and New Brighton). Of the newly formed modern names, some are straightforwardly descriptive of a local feature whether natural (Highcliffe) or man-made (Ironbridge), others are named from a building around which the settlement developed (the pub in Nelson and Queensbury, the chapel in St Helens and Chapel St Leonards), some are named from fields (Hassocks and Whyteleafe), others refer to local products (Coalville, Port Sunlight), commemorate a famous historical event (Peacehaven, Vigo, Waterloo) or even a famous novel (Westward Ho!). In addition a good number of the names coined in more recent times commemorate entrepreneurs or other notable individuals, some consisting simply of their names (Fleetwood, Peterlee, Telford), others incorporating these into a sort of spurious form that looks older than it is (Carterton, Maryport, Stewartby), others referring to landowners (Camden Town) or local families (Burgess Hill, Gerrards Cross).