The Origins of English Place Names

Updated on January 26, 2018

The Origins of English Place Names.

Many English place names can be peculiar and perplexing, even to those who live there. For every sensible sounding location such as a Southampton or Northampton, there is a Wetwang or a Caistor that can be located on the same map.

Over two millennium of immigration from continental Europe has seen a marked impact on the geography of the English countryside, signposts point to the mix-mash of different settlers from afar. Before the arrival of invaders and settlers across the sea, the Ancient Britons had already named many of the original settlements but they would give way to more modern sounding cities and towns.

England has been linguistically shaped by the Norman Conquest, Viking settlement, Anglo-Saxon invasion and Roman occupation. Many of the native British place names have been lost to us but the foreign tongue of the recent occupier often allude to the nature of the environment. With every successive immigration, we find a different way to describe the land.

Roman occupation of England left a lasting reminder that can still be seen in place names.
Roman occupation of England left a lasting reminder that can still be seen in place names. | Source

Roman Influence

The Roman settlements in England still exist, yet they have grown considerably since the fall of Rome and the Roman towns have morphed into cities with global recognition. Often the Roman name for their settlements had become absorbed and adapted by successive invaders.

The capital city of England rests upon the foundations of the Roman town of Londinium. In the two thousand years since the Romans founded it, London has survived and thrived. Many experts believe that Londinium is a Romanized name and its name has its true origins in the language of the Ancient Britons.

Other English places with Roman origins in their name include...

Lindum Colonia - Lincoln.

Leodis- Leeds.

Portus Felix- Filey.

Oxonium - Oxford.

Cantabrigia- Cambridge.

Over the passage of time, these settlements have become anglicized but the route of the name is very clear.

Any place which has caistor or chester in their name usually denotes a settlement with a direct link to the Roman Military encampments.

Colchester is a prime example. Other examples include Manchester and Cirencester.

Manchester, future home of the Northern Powerhouse.
Manchester, future home of the Northern Powerhouse. | Source
The capital city. Modern London has changed drastically since the time of Roman Londinium.
The capital city. Modern London has changed drastically since the time of Roman Londinium. | Source

Influence of Germanic Tribes

The fall of the Roman Empire in the British Isles allowed the Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes to take over huge swathes of the southern half of the British Isles. Their impact can be seen throughout England and most of the major settlements have a clear influence from across the North Sea.

The use of (-ham) in a place name is a clear piece of evidence to suggest Anglo-Saxon involvement in its evolution. When you find (-ham) in a place name, it tells us that the settlement was once a village.

A good example of this is England's second city- Birmingham. Oakham and Hexham are further examples.

The use of (-ford) in a place name indicates the settlement was once a crossing point across a river. The historic market town of Stamford (Stone-crossing) is a surviving Anglo-Saxon settlement. Other cities and towns with a similar heritage are Bradford, Thetford and Sleaford.

The use of (-ley) in a place name indicates that the settlement originates from a forest clearing. Beverley in East Yorkshire was named due to the Beavers that once resided along the banks of the river.

The use of (-ton) in a place name harks back to a time on enclosed settlements. Places such as Luton, Bolton, Accrington, Malton and Stilton are towns that grew under the Anglo-Saxons.

Finally, we come to the use of (-ing). This indicates "people" in a place name. Here are a few settlements with its translation.

Reading - The Place of Red's people.

Kettering - The Place of Ketter's people.

Invasion from the Germanic Tribes has made a lasting impression on the landscape of England.
Invasion from the Germanic Tribes has made a lasting impression on the landscape of England. | Source

The Influence of Vikings and the Danelaw

The Vikings were responsible for originating the names of many English towns and villages. The area that incorporates Yorkshire, East Anglia, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire show heavy Viking settlement in their place names, this is due to the existence of the Danelaw between the ninth and eleventh century.

The Danelaw was the area of England that the Danish Vikings claimed by warfare from the Anglo-Saxons who had previously settled the area. It was a colony of the Danish leaders and it kept the Anglo-Saxon leaders on edge for many generations. In this time period, the Anglo Saxon inhabitants were joined by Scandinavian settlers and they lived under the rule of their Norse neighbours. Life would have continued without too much drastic change, but new words would enter the embryonic English language and they would appear in the names of new settlements.

Place names ending in -by , such as Selby, Grimsby, Derby or Whitby are places that the Vikings first settled. These (-by) endings, effectively meant it was a village or settlement. For example, Derby can be broken down to this basic explanation.

"Der" means deer, so Derby is a settlement with or near many herds of Deer.

In Yorkshire alone there are over 200 (-by) place names, this was due to the large Yorkshire coastline acting as a gateway to fresh settlement from Scandinavia. . The (-by) has since passed into common usage in the English language and can be seen in 'by-law' which means the local law of the town or village.

The Norse settlers also added other place names to the landscape. Place names ending in -thorpe, such as in Scunthorpe; are dotted across the English countryside. These place names usually refer to where farms once existed, but they can also refer to where a secondary settlement once stood. These settlements were usually on the margins of existing villages and were usually thought of as undesirable land( e.g Flood plains).

Scunthorpe translates as either Scun's farm or Scun's land.

There are place names that advertise a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Viking words for example Caws-ton (Kalf's town) or Grimton (Grim's town).

There are several arguments connected with these place names. Some historians have argued that the Viking invasions involved very large numbers of people because there are so many Viking place names. Other experts have argued that once the Viking language became the main language of the region, place names would naturally be named using Viking words. Another factor is that few large Viking settlements were on entirely new sites: many Viking settlements continued on the traditional Anglo-Saxon sites.

Other Common Place Names

 
 
 
Toft
A plot of land
Lowestoft.
Stead
Place
Stansted
Wich
Links to food and salt production
Ipswich.
Bury
Fortified Place
Banbury.
Ney
Island
Hackney.

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    • profile image

      Mr G 3 days ago

      The answer is No. England had been already ruled by a Danish King in Canute. King Harold was of Danish origin himself.

      William The Conqueror army was only 33% Norman + 33% French + 33% Welsh speaking Bretons.

      The is no black and white facts when it comes to history.

    • profile image

      Steven from Canada 7 days ago

      The Normans were ancestral Vikings-North-man-emasculated by the Francs, after having conquered Normandy. Therefore was England truly conquered in 1066 by a foreign power?

    • Asp52 profile image
      Author

      Andrew Stewart 2 months ago from England

      Thanks Jorge, even my home city managed to make it across the Atlantic- Peterborough. Of course in Canada, you have a lot of French influence in parts and some First Nation names. I do find the subject very interesting. Glad you found it interesting.

    • Jorge Cruz99 profile image

      Jorge 2 months ago from Canada

      You made it easy for us here in C.anada.

      We just copied your names!

      This is Jorge, from London, Ontario

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