Toponymy of England

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The toponymy of England, like the English language itself, derives from various linguistic origins. Modern interpretations are apt to be inexact: many English toponyms have been corrupted and broken down over the years, due to changes in language and culture which have caused the original meaning to be lost. In some cases, words used in placenames are derived from languages that are extinct, and of which there are no extant known definitions; or placenames may be compounds between two or more languages from different periods. Many names predate the radical changes in the English language triggered by the Norman Conquest, and some predate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons.

Placenames typically have meanings which were significant to the settlers of a locality (not necessarily the first settlers). Sometimes these meanings are relatively clear (for instance Newcastle, Three Oaks); but, more often, elucidating them requires study of ancient languages. In general, placenames in England contain three broad elements: personal names (or pre-existing names of natural features), natural features, and settlement functions.[citation needed] However, these elements derive from ancient languages spoken in the British Isles,[citation needed] and the combinations in a single name may not all date from the same period, or the same language. Much of the inferred development of British placenames relies on the breaking down and corruption of placenames. As the names lose their original meaning (because a new or modified language becomes spoken), the names are either changed, or drift to new forms, or are added to. An example is Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, whose name seems to have grown by the accretion of elements stressing the hill in the language currently spoken.[1]


The placenames of England are of diverse origins, largely due to historical changes in language and culture. These affected different regions at different times and to different extents. The exact nature of these linguistic/cultural changes is often controversial,[2] but the general consensus is as follows.

The British Isles were inhabited during the Stone and Bronze Ages by peoples whose language is unknown. During the Iron Age, we can observe that the population of Britain shared a culture with the Celtic peoples inhabiting Northern Europe at the time.[3] Land use patterns do not appreciably change from the Bronze Age period, suggesting that the population remained in situ.[3] The evidence from this period, in the form mainly of placenames and personal names, make it clear that a Celtic language, termed Common Brittonic, was spoken across England by the Late Iron Age. At what point these languages spread to, or indeed developed in, England, or the British Isles as a whole, is open to debate, with the majority of estimates falling at some point in the Bronze Age.

The principal substrate of British placenames is thus Celtic in origin, and more specifically Brythonic ('British'), ancestral to modern Welsh and more distantly related to the Gaelic languages of Ireland and Scotland. The oldest placenames in England appear to be the names of rivers, many of which should certainly be interpreted as Brythonic in origin. In the areas of England in which Brythonic languages were not replaced until relatively late on (Cumbria, Cornwall), most placenames are still essentially Brythonic in origin.

After the Roman conquest, many Latinate placenames appear, particularly associated with military settlements. Often, these were simply the latinisation of existing names; e.g. Verulamium for Verlamion (St. Albans); Derventio for Derwent (Malton). After the collapse of Roman Britain, few of these placenames survived. Most Roman sites are known by later names; many are marked as Roman sites by the suffix chester/cester/caster (from the Latin castra = camp), but with no reference to the Roman name. The influence of Latin on British placenames is thus generally only slight.

In the so-called "Dark Ages", which followed the end of the Roman Empire, major changes occurred in most of the part of Britain now called England. (Brythonic-speaking Cornwall was an exception, more akin to Welsh toponymy.) The language of this region became Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language originating in north-west Germany and Denmark. Traditionally, this has been supposed to be due to a mass migration of Angles and Saxons into Britain, "pushing back the Celts into Wales and Scotland".[2] However, this view is supported neither by archaeology nor by genetics, and it is possible that a small ruling class of Anglo-Saxon settlers culturally 'Germanised' the region of Britain over successive generations.[4] Whatever the cause, due to this linguistic (if not cultural) replacement, most placenames in modern England are discernibly Anglo-Saxon. A large fraction of these contain personal names, suggesting that they were named after the first Anglo-Saxon to dwell there. Personal names are less common in Brythonic placenames.

Some English placenames commemorate non-Christian religions. Many of them refer to the old Germanic religion: see List of non-Christian religious placenames in Britain.

A few centuries after, in the period c. 850–1050 AD, the north and east of England and the islands and coasts of Scotland were settled by Norwegian and Danish 'Vikings'.[5] Many placenames in these areas are thus of Old Norse origin. Since Old Norse had many similarities to Anglo-Saxon, there are also many hybrid Saxon/Norse placenames in the Danelaw, the half of England that was under Danish rule for a time. Again, many of the Viking placenames contain personal names, suggesting they are named for the local Norse/Danish lord or chieftain.[6]

After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, some Norman French influences can be detected in placenames, notably the simplification of ch to c in Cerne and -cester, and the addition of names of feudal lords as in Stoke Mandeville.[7] However, extension of the Norman system into the lowlands of Scotland resulted in the development of Scots as the spoken language, which was based on the Northumbrian dialect of Old English. Non-Celtic place names are therefore common in the southern part of Scotland, for instance Edinburgh.

Placenames in Britain have remained relatively stable since the early Norman period, breaking down and 'weathering' to modern forms, but without further dramatic changes. At most, some place names have continued to accrue pre- or suffixes, such as 'Little'; or distinguishing features, such as a local river name.


Many other languages have shaped and informed the nomenclature of England: various Celtic languages (including Brythonic, Gaelic (Old Irish), Welsh and Cornish, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Norman French, modern French and perhaps a few others besides.[8]


There is currently much debate about the identity of the earliest dwellers in the British Isles, during the Stone and Bronze Ages. Patterns of land use in Britain suggest a continuity of population throughout these periods and into the Iron Age.[3] However, it has been suggested[by whom?] that the original population of Europe ('Old Europeans' or Proto-Europeans) were 'replaced' by peoples speaking Indo-European languages from the end of the Neolithic onwards, eventually reaching the British Isles. However, the assumption of complete replacement has fallen out of favour, and a more nuanced model, involving cultural and linguistic diffusion and assimilation, is now favoured.[3] It is therefore believed that the population of the British Isles spoke a now unknown language or rather several unknown languages, before adopting Celtic languages during the Bronze or Iron Ages. Some unexplained placenames in the British Isles (particularly of rivers, which tend to be the oldest names) may be derived from these lost languages.


Celtic languages appear to have been spoken in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest (see above). It is therefore a general assumption that many placenames in the British Isles have a substrate of Celtic origin, if they are not indeed self-evidently Celtic. In the Iron Age, the language spoken in England is known as Common Brittonic. Hundreds of placenames across the whole of England are of Brittonic origin, and the modern languages of Cornish and Welsh are descended from it. Cumbric was spoken in northwestern England, Northumbria and Lowland Scotland until the eleventh century.

In Wales and Cornwall, most placenames are, respectively, Welsh or Cornish. In Cumbria, there are Celtic placenames, mostly associated with natural features rather than settlements. These include the mountains Blencathra and Helvellyn,[9] and the rivers Ehen and Cocker.


Very few Roman names survived the end of Roman Britain, though many Roman settlements were re-used. These were generally renamed, although usually with the suffix caster/chester, from the Latin castra (camp). A number of Latin names survived through Celtic, such as Carlisle (cf Welsh caer for Latin castra), Porthleven (cf Latin portus for 'harbour'), and some associated with Christianity such as Eccles (cf Latin from Greek ecclesia, 'church'). Several places contain the element street, derived from the Latin strata (paved road); these are generally on the course of a Roman road, e.g. Chester-le-Street, Stratton-on-the-Fosse – though this word was almost certainly borrowed into Germanic before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, as it is found in almost all other Germanic languages as well.

Other Latin elements in British placenames often derive from the medieval period as affectations. This includes the use of magna and parva instead of the more usual Great/Little; e.g. Chew Magna. Some Latin elements are more recent still; for instance Bognor Regis, which received its honorific suffix (meaning 'of the King') from George V after he convalesced there.[10]


The terms "Old English" and "Anglo-Saxon" are fundamentally equivalent in meaning, though the former is normally used for the language and represents the Germanic language in use between the arrival of the Saxons (with Jutes and Angles) up to about 100 years after the Norman invasion of 1066.[11] Old English existed in a number of forms, such as West Saxon, Kentish and Anglian. Middle English was used from about 100 years after the Norman Conquest until the end of the Middle Ages. Modern English is derived directly from Middle English. Old English derived names form the majority of placenames in England, as well as a substantial number in Lowland Scotland, and some in Wales.

Scandinavian languages

Old Norse, a language from which both Danish and Norwegian are derived, was spoken (with dialects) by the Viking settlers who occupied many places in the north of the British Isles during the Viking era. In general, Danes settled in eastern England, whilst the Norwegians settled around the islands and coasts of Scotland, Ireland and western England.[12] Although the language of the two groups were essentially similar, there is bias amongst the elements found in placenames. For instance -by and thorpe are much more common in Danish placenames, whilst toft/taft and bister/ster/bost are more common in Norwegian names; all these elements essentially mean 'settlement/dwelling'.[12][13]

Norman French

Following the Norman conquest, some placenames acquired prefixes or suffixes giving the names of their new owners; for example Grays Thurrock or Stoke Mandeville. Other names that are suffixed with the name of a landowning family include Stanton Lacy and Newport Pagnell. The influence of Norman French also occasionally modified existing placenames into pseudo-French names; e.g. Chapel-en-le-Frith (Fr. 'Church-in-the', OE. 'Woods'[14]); Chester-le-Street.

Processes and patterns in British toponymy

For a general list of toponymic processes, see Place name origins.

  • Back-formation: the process whereby names are derived from one another in the opposite direction to that which would be expected; for example, rivers with an obsolete/forgotten name are often renamed after a town on its banks rather than vice versa. The river running through Rochdale became known as the 'Roch' through this process.[citation needed] Cambridge, perhaps uniquely, illustrates both normal and back-formation. Originally Grontabricc, a bridge on the Granta, the name became Cantebruge and then Cambrugge, from which the river was renamed Cam.
  • Element order: In Germanic languages, and thus in Old English and Old Norse placenames, the substantive element is generally preceded by its modifier(s); 'Badecca's spring' (Bakewell).[15] In Celtic placenames, the order is usually reversed, with the thing being described (hill, valley, farm etc.) as the first element: e.g. Tregonebris 'settlement (of) Cunebris' and Aberdeen 'mouth (of the) Dee'. An exception to this ordering is Malvern 'bald hill'.[16]
  • Translation: The general similarity of Old Norse and Old English meant that placenames in the Danelaw were often simply 'Norsified'. For instance, Askrigg in Yorkshire, 'ash ridge';[17] whilst the first element is indubitably the Norse asc (pronounced "ask"), ask- could easily represent a "Norsification" of the Old English element æsc (pronounced "ash"). In this case both asc and æsc mean the same - 'ash' (tree).
  • False analogy: Sometimes, however, the placenames were changed to match their own pronunciation habits without reference to the original meaning. Thus Skipton should be 'Shipton' (Old English scipetun 'sheep farm'[18]). However, since sh in Old English was usually cognate with sk in Old Norse, the name became changed by false analogy to Skipton, in this way losing its meaning (since the Old Norse for sheep was entirely different from the Old English).


  • Interpreting some names can be difficult if the reason for the name is no longer evident. Some names originally referred to a specific natural feature, such as a river, ford or hill, that can no longer be identified. For example, Whichford (Warwickshire) means "the ford on the Hwicce", but the location of the ford is lost.[19]
  • The elements den (valley) and don (hill) from Old English are sometimes confused now that they lack obvious meaning; for example Croydon is in a valley and Willesden is on a hill. Their expected spellings might therefore be "Croyden" and "Willesdon".
  • Another problematic element is -ey, as in Romsey. This commonly means 'island', from the Old English -eg . However, -ey can also be derived from the Old English haeg, meaning 'enclosure', as in Hornsey.
  • The elements wich and wick can have a variety of meanings. Generally wich/wick/wyke indicates a farm or settlement (e.g. Keswick = 'Cheese-farm'[20]). However, some of the sites are of Roman, or shortly post-Roman origin, in which the wich is related to the Latin vicus ('place'). These "wics" seem to have been trading posts.[21] On the coast, wick is often of Norse origin, meaning 'bay' or 'inlet' (e.g. Lerwick).

Toponymy by region

Most English placenames are Old English.[8] Personal names often appear within the placenames, presumably the names of landowners at the time of the naming. In the north and east, there are many placenames of Norse origin; similarly, these contain many personal names. In general, the Old English and Norse placenames tend to be rather mundane in origin, the most common types being [personal name + settlement/farm/place] or [type of farm + farm/settlement]; most names ending in wich, ton, ham, by, thorpe, stoke/stock are of these types.

In Cumbria, there remain a number of placenames from Cumbric, the former Brythonic language of this region, examples including Carlisle, Helvellyn and Blencathra.

Most old Roman settlements, whether actually inhabited or not, were given the title of chester/caster in Old English (from the Latin castrum for 'camp'); the specific names for each may only have little relation to the Roman names (e.g. modern Chester was actually called Deva by the Romans). Modern Winchester was Venta Belgarum, the Win- element deriving from Venta in a similar way to the names Caerwent and Gwent from Venta Silurum in south Wales.

In Cornwall, most placenames are Cornish in origin: e.g. Penzance (holy headland). In eastern Cornwall, the names show a stronger English influence. Placenames of Cornish origin are also found in the South Hams, North Devon and West Somerset. Brythonic but non-Cornish placenames, sometimes showing Cornish or Welsh influence, are found in North Somerset and parts of Dorset.

In Northern England, particularly Yorkshire, names record significant Scandinavian influence. For example, the names Howe and Greenhow (both in North Yorkshire) reflect the Old Norse word haugr meaning a hill or mound.[22]

See also


  1. Bre is Welsh, dun English for hill. "It looks as though the local British people spoke of 'the hill' and the English, not realising 'bre' was a common noun, took it for the name of the hill. A later failure to understand the meaning of the Old English 'dun' has caused the .. .. name to become Breedon on the Hill" Gelling, Margaret (1978). Signposts to the Past: Placenames and the history of England. London: J M Dent & Sons. p. 92. ISBN 0 460 04264 5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pryor, F. Britain AD, ISBN 978-0-00-718187-2
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Pryor, F. Britain BC. ISBN 978-0-00-712693-4
  4. Thomas MG, Stumpf MP, Härke H. Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England. Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Oct 22;273(1601):2651-7.
  5. Schama S. A History of Britain Volume 1. ISBN 978-0-563-48714-2.
  6. Standard English words which have a Scandinavian Etymology Archived October 21, 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Place Details[dead link]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past (Phillimore, 3rd edition, 1997, Chapter I)
  9. Essays on the early toponymy of the British Isles. Coates, R. ISBN 0-9512309-1-3.
  10. Place Details[dead link]
  11. old english - Definitions from
  12. 12.0 12.1 Guide to Scandinavian origins of placenames in Britain
  13. Glossary of Scandinavian origins of place names in Britain
  14. Place Details[dead link]
  15. Place Details[dead link]
  16. Place Details[dead link]
  17. Retrieved 3/7/08.[dead link]
  18. Retrieved 3/7/08.[dead link]
  19. Della Hooke, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (Leicester University Press, Reprinted 2001, page 9)
  20. Place Details[dead link]
  21. Pryor F. Britain in the Middle Ages: An Archaeological History. ISBN 978-0-00-720361-1
  22. Standard English words which have a Scandinavian Etymology, s.v. how Archived October 21, 2014 at the Wayback Machine


  • G.B. Adams, Placenames from pre-Celtic languages in Ireland and Britain, Nomina 4 pp46–83 (1980).
  • K. Cameron, A Dictionary of British Place Names (2003).
  • R Coates, Toponymic Topics - Essays on the early toponymy of the British Isles.
  • E.McDonald and J. Creswell, The Guinness Book of British Place Names (1993).
  • M. Gelling, W.F.H. Nicholaisen and M Richards, The Names of Towns and Cities in Britain (1986).
  • A.D. Mills, A Dictionary of British Place Names, Oxford Paperback Reference (2003).
  • W.F.H. Nicolaisen, Old European names in Britain, Nomina 6 pp37–42 (1982.
  • P. H. Reaney, The Origin of English Place Names (1960).
  • A. Room, A Concise Dictionary of Modern Place Names in Great Britain (1983).
  • A. Room, Dictionary of World Place Names derived from British Names (1989).
  • C. C. Smith, The survival of British Toponomy, Nomina 4 pp27–41 (1980).

External links