Page updated 12 October 2007
This page is about British place names, pronunciation, meaning and origin. The aim is to show the reader what a fascinating subject this is.
I tried to keep it simple. The etymology and origin notes are informal, not rigorous academic work - there are useful books on the subject. Most villages have an explanation of their name in their local history and many are on the Web - try a Google search.
All place names have meaning, even if the precise origin is hard to prove for a few. Many names are of Anglo-Saxon or Danish origin. Some have Roman parts, others have Celtic origins. Some probably originated before the Celts arrived. Some have Norman parts. Names were rarely arbitrary and usually described the local geography, the resources, the owner, the kind of settlement or a combination of these. The distribution of place names can show us, for instance which parts of the country were settled by Danes in the Danelaw.
Some words happen to be the same in several languages, usually because they share a common root. In some cases these roots go back to Indo-European, resulting in related words in languages from India, Latin based languages like Spanish, Germanic languages and others.
I have not tried to use the old Anglo Saxon alphabet. I have written Saxon for what used to be called Anglo Saxon and is now called Old English or Middle English (it was the language of Angles as well as Saxons). I have not tried to go into detail on the differences. It is important to realise the significance of old Danish - a Germanic language similar to Anglo Saxon but with different word endings so that when combined into English, most inflexion (declensions etc.) got dropped. The addition of Norman (an old form of French) simply added extra words to English. Even today there is some feeling that the Norman words are nicer than the Saxon equivalent (e.g. purchase and buy) - this is a pompous, class distinction issue and it is strange that it is strong in American.
I have described some typical elements of names. The only certain way of knowing the meaning of any name is to use research based on old documents. The Domesday Book (1086) is an important catalogue of all place names and is readily available and quoted. Some place names have been altered over the years and are not what they seem. Some dropped letters because they were not pronounced or the meaning of the name was not understood by clerks who wrote it down (e.g. Barsby should have been Barns-by).
Some places had the odd letter altered deliberately since the advent of a public postal service and other communications, in order to differentiate between two places that were often confused. Bits have been added to names for centuries to help distinguish - e.g. Bishop's Itchington, Long Itchington.
Many places have changed considerably since they were named. The little village of Birmingham is now such a big city that it is called the West Midlands. Some places that were once thriving towns or villages are now deserted, some through the Black Death and Highland Clearances (which were not just in Scotland). In a few cases, places have disappeared into the sea and land has been reclaimed from the sea.
Many place names have moved a little from the thing that they were named after. So a place named after a hill fort is probably not on top of the hill but down on the flat.
Settlers founding new towns and villages in overseas territories like North America and Australasia often used the name of their favourite place. Then the name was no longer in context and any reference to local geography became irrelevant. So a settlement called Chesterton in USA no longer meant it was a farmstead near a Roman fortification.
Names containing ...chester or cester are derived from the Latin word castra meaning fortress. Not all were Roman fortresses but almost all were believed to be some kind of Roman settlement. The Saxons tended to use the word for any walled town or fort that was there when they arrived (and they did not know how to build stone walls for themselves). Some changes have occurred in pronunciation during the Roman occupation and since then (the local dialects might not have pronounced Latin in the way it is taught today). Other variants, all with connections to a nearby Roman fortification are Exeter, Uttoxeter, Mancetter, Lancaster and may more. Most names that contain the letter X are related to Chester names and so to Roman sites (e.g. Exeter, Uttoxeter)
Names ending in ...ton are mostly based on the Saxon word tun meaning farmstead. Often the prefix is the name of the owner. Sometimes the name has ...ing(a) meaning the people of (a place or a leader), e.g. Reading. So ...ington sometimes means the tun of the people of ...
Names ending in ...ham are mostly based on the Saxon word for a homestead or village. (There is another hamm origin meaning bend in a river). Note that originally a ham was bigger than a tun, even though tun sounds as if it means town.
...worth, hurst, farmsteads
Hay means a clearing in the forest, reflecting the time when much of the land was wild and uncultivated, long before inclosure. E.g. Idridgehay
Ey, Ea means island, inland or at sea, but some were islands in a marsh which has since been drained and so is not recognisable as such. Examples are Jersey, Swansea, Ely, Eaton, Eton etc. The word ayot means a small island in a river.
Names ending in ...stone mostly refer to stone. However, the ending .. ton and ..stone have been mixed up so that Silverstone is really a tun (I think?) but Kingston (Notts) meant The King's Stone and was written Kingstone relatively recently.
Bur, burgh, borough, bury usually mean a settlement at or near some previously fortified site. So the Saxons found an ancient hill fort, a fortified manor or a Roman fortification and named their new settlement after it.
bar, bree mean hill (of a particular kind??)
Names ending in ..don refer to a hill fort.
A name like Breedon on the Hill says hill 3 times as a result of various people naming it over the centuries.
Names ending ...den mean dene or dean (a kind of valley), not to be confused with ..don
...by, (village) .. thorpe (or thorp or throp, farmstead) are Danish names similar to ham and tun.
Thwaite means clearing or meadow or wild land made arable. Of Norse
origin and more common in Yorkshire and other northern counties. It has similar
meaning to paddock derived from the Old English for "to cut"
Street/ Streat/ Stret../Strat... as an old place name for a sizable village often means a village near a straight road - a Roman road. Examples are Streatley, Stretton (several along the Fosse Way), Stratford.
Gate as a street name in the 5 Danish boroughs (Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Stamford and Lincoln) or other Danish towns like York means street - something you can "go" or walk through (like the word gait). Similar words are used in Scandinavia. Gate can also mean a gate into a city, a forest or a tollgate on a road.
Ley, Leigh, Leagh meant wood, clearing or water meadow - more likely the latter when away from habitation. Lea - water meadow, probably only usable for grazing in the summer. Purley Berks means Pur - ley - water meadow with bittern or snipe (or similar marsh fowl). On the other hand Purley, Surrey means Pur Leagh - Wood or clearing with pear trees (or Pure Lieu nice place in Norman?).
Stoke, Stowe mean a farming store - a barn or cowshed. Some of these were for summer pasture and so remote from villages until people moved out to live on remote farms.
Barton means barn-ton. Usually these were outlying places with a barn or similar farming store building, possibly occupied during the summer. Some of them became permanent dwellings as farmsteads and villages following the spread out from villages in the 18th C.
Castle names sometimes refer to a recognisable castle, the site of a Norman Motte and Bailey or an old hill fort, some of which are iron age or older.
...wich is a Saxon word for a works - possibly something like a quarry, salt works, dairy etc. as in Norwich and Middlewich. ...wick could mean the same
Ford, Well .. usually mean what they say. many ford were replaced by bridges and you can still see the kink in the road, particularly at places like Bretford on the Fosse Way - the Romans didn't bother with bridges much.
A Barrow is a burial mound - there are various kinds - long, round etc. and the original barrows are pre Roman. .
Bourne means small river as in Pangbourne, Ashbourne and the same word appears in Scotland and Northern England as burn.
Comp.., combe mean a combe ( a kind of valley) and the word is similar to the welsh cwm. E.g Compton, Ilfracombe.
Ecc, Itch mean a church (from the Latin Eccles) and were used when the place with the church was special - perhaps the land belonged to the church or there was another village nearby without a church.
Loe, Looe, Lough, Loch, Lake, leake are words for lake or stretch of wetland, in various languages
Low meant mound so the name was used for big hills, burial mounds (tumuli or barrows) or mounds used as meeting places (moots).
Will... Wall... are places occupied by Celts (Walles, Welsh) in an area other wise settled by others e.g. Willington, Wallingford, Wellington. Likewise Ingle... for English (probably in a Danish area). Normanton is a Saxon ending for a Norman farmstead.
...or means a heel shaped hill but ...sor as in Windsor is believed to mean a landing stage
A name like Ashby de la Zouch is a Danish village name with a Norman owner's suffix. The de la should be pronounced "dee lar" not as in modern French - or just say Ashby to avoid embarrassment. In this case Zouch is pronounced "zoosh" but the village called Zouch in Notts is pronounced "zoch". Zouch was the name of a family who also owned Codnor Castle.
Shepshed was written SheepsHead even in recent records. It means a hill (head) where they kept sheep - with sheepfolds and other buildings related to shepherding.
Six Hills (Leics) This is an intriguing place in Leicestershire at the crossing of the Foss Way and other Roman roads. The real explanation of this name can only be resolved using ancient sources. Some people say that the current name Six Hills was a mistake made by original Ordnance Survey mappers in mid 19thC and most earlier sources give the name Segs Hill. Earlier maps such as Moule's in early 19thC show "Sex Hill or Segs Hill", (not that kind of sex, but sex means 6 in some languages and even if it did not, conversion to Six would be easy) so maybe this was not just a slip of the pen. However, the place is a significant summit on the Foss Way and 6 roads on ridges meet here, some of them going up hill to the place. So it is six ridges meeting at one summit therefore it is reasonable to call it six hills - maybe the map makers made that mistake but perhaps they were given the name by local administrators or residents. There are six valleys too and each has the source of a brook, three merging to form the Kingston Brook which goes via East Leake and Kingston to the Soar. Also six parishes meet here - there is something about 6 even if it is not the origin of the name and the old maps clearly show this feature.. The place must have had great significance to the Celts who had lots of special names for natural features, especially for special places like hilltops and rivers, many still used in modern place names.
The name origins for Six Hills are not completely clear and may relate to Segs which appears in other Roman-British names (e.g. Segsbury, Segedunum, Segontium, Segelocum which may be based on a Celtic word for vigorous or strong - that could have been adopted as a name for a person or tribe who were strong warriors etc.). One possibility is that Seg relates to a word for oxen or sheep. It could be related to the latin origin of the words segment or segregate, which had to do with flocks. Segs Hill and Segsbury are both known to be places on ridge roads where livestock was driven and traded. In the days before field enclosure, many free roaming herds and flocks had to be rounded up and sorted out at certain times of the year at special places - this still happens in The New Forest etc. It is even possible that that may in turn have a special connection with the number 6, perhaps (e.g. honeycombs, tessellation and general good luck).
Even the word hill deserves some consideration, even if hill was the word used originally. Hill can mean a main hill or some part of a range of hills or ridge/ escarpment, it can mean a road up a hill and it can also mean a small hill as in Six Hills in Hertfordshire where it means 6 barrows also next to a major roman road..
The natives helped the Romans to make straight roads and 2 or 3 Roman roads cross at Six Hills, following the ridges. The Foss Way takes a route which was a feat of surveying, between the vales of Trent and Belvoir on its way to Lincoln to the north. South along the Foss Way is Ratae (Leicester) and then Venonis (High Cross) the great crossroads with the Watling Street (used as the boundary of the Danelaw). Since the Romans didn't have many bridges, this saved them getting their feet wet or being blocked by floods. Many roads in Leicestershire, especially to the north and east, follow ridges and probably have done since long before the Romans. They were significant at times such as the Civil War and for drovers with cattle or sheep. Most are lovely to drive along today. Other interesting material is at At the Edge archive- Six Hills
Irstead in Norfolk is the word Worsted - the cloth made of long fibres of wool, introduced by the Flemish weavers. The spellings diverged a little but have solid history. There is also a village called Worstead a few miles away, possibly with similar origins.
Isley Walton is pronounced Is - ley (not Iley). East Ilsley is pronounced East Ills - ley.
Brumagem is an old name for Birmingham and often used as just Brum by Brummies.
In names like Kedleston and Ilkeston , all the letters are pronounced - never like Kedlston or Ilkston - these are a dead giveaway of foreign invaders from places like London. If you want you can shorten to Ilson.
Restronguet (the last T is not silent, but the U is) was a settlement of Flemish people.
Names like Derby or Henley have multiple possible explanations. It is possible that several explanations apply - some meaning in Celtic gave rise to a name that was taken to mean something else in Saxon or Danish, but retaining roughly the same sound, modified a little to the ear of the new invader. Such things have happened as people from Europe moved into India or America. So Derby is a mix up of a village near Roman Derwentio (by the river Derwent which could be named using the Celtic Darw - oak trees), a deer park and a Danish village name. Henley (at least some of them) could be a mix up of Hen Llys, Lea with moorhens etc.
Celtic parts of the country like Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man are full of names in Celtic languages, mostly with very clear meaning. Many of them either have English names as well or an anglicised version of the Celtic. The Celts were not all moved out of England and there are places with Celtic name origins- plenty of rivers Avon, Mam Tor etc. to support the idea of Celtic Survival. Important names are: Llan (Saint's enclosure - equivalent of Saint in English place names e.g. Llandudno is St Dudno's), Tre (village) Aber (estuary, river mouth) afon (river) Caer (castle of hill fort variety), Castell (castle) Capel (chapel), Pont (welsh for bridge - the same as in Latin), Tor (high round hill), Maen (rock) Nant (brook), Ystrad (vale), Pen (head), Hen (old), llys (hall) Cwm (combe, valley), traeth/ traith/ treath (beach) porth (port). Many have simply been changed from the Welsh alphabet to the English, so that f becomes v, ff becomes f, y becomes u or o, dd becomes th, w becomes oo, etc. C and G are always pronounced hard. E.g. Afon becomes Avon. Sometimes the Welsh mutations (inflexion occurring at the beginning of words) can be confusing - e.g. felyn/ melyn (mill) or mawr/ fawr (great) but they help make it the bardic language.
Field Names are interesting and even the smallest field has had some name for centuries. Sometimes the old name becomes the name of a close on a new housing estate and may reflect some ancient ownership or use - the Augustinian Friars' meadow or the Aniseed Close. Enclosure records from the end of the 18th century are useful sources for this.
Myths. Place names can help correct myths from school history such as the Celts were the original natives, then came the Romans, then we were invaded by Angles, Saxons and Jutes who drove all the Celts into Wales. Then those naughty Vikings came and pillaged us, but they stuck to the East of the Watling Street. Then the Normans invaded us. Then it all got united under an English king. All of this is wrong - there were Saxons in the time of the Romans. There was Celtic Survival in England and not just in Cornwall and Northumberland. Most of the British Isles became part of a North Sea rulership by Northmen. Many of us have Danish, Norman, Angle. Saxon, Jute, Roman and Celt genes (and some of those have been shown not to be separate genetically). Not to mention Neanderthals, Picts, Scots and other peoples who have been in these islands for centuries like Jews, Romanies, Flemish, Huguenot, Spanish etc. and more recent immigrants who have kept the constant change going. So the book "1066 and All That" is on the right tracks with "all the Scots are Irish and all the Irish are Scots". Half the Welsh (at least south of the Landskeld) were Saxon. Place names, people names, genes and civilisation have been passed on across all these changes and it is remarkable what survives. Of these, surely the people are more significant than any artificial boundary or other division.
About the best source
of knowledge on this subject is the book:
AskOxford- Place Names is useful. There are various books and place name dictionaries too.