A spotty history of place name origins in Britain

One thing that I love and hate about England are the place names, which can deviate wildly in pronunciation from how it looks (see: Loughborough, Leicester, Beaulieu and my personal bugbear, Belvoir). There’s even an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to ‘counterintuitive pronunciation’ for those you who like a headache with your learning. Since I’ve just come back from a mini-holiday to Devon last week, I decided to look at various place names in England. Like America, England’s names and accents are the result of many languages and cultures melding together over the millennia, from the Romans to the Vikings.

A quick and basic (some would say spotted) history: Devon was part of the kingdom of Wessex, ruled by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons from the 5th to 11th centuries ACE. Other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed at the time were the main kingdoms of Northumberland (which still exists as a county) and Mercia and the minor kingdoms of Sussex, Essex, Kent and East Anglia, all of which still exist as counties. From the 8th to 11th centuries Britain was invaded and occupied by Viking forces from Denmark and Norway. Their occupied land became known as The Danelaw, or the land of the Danes’s law, based on the Treaty between Wessex king Alfred the Great and Viking king Guthrum. Guthrum had taken land from Mercia and Northumbria, and after a series of successful battles against Alfred’s forces to conquer Wessex, was defeated in 878 and a final time in 884 after attacking Kent.

The Danelaw, which was allowed to continue under Danish rule, stretched from Yorkshire in the north all the way to Essex in the southeast, flanked on both sides by the still English kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex. Alfred’s daughter, the amazingly named Æthelflæd, became ruler of Mercia, eventually taking back parts of the Midlands and East Anglia in the early 10th century before her death in 918. Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder becomes King of Wessex after Alfred’s death, taking over Æthelflæd’s kingdom when she died and taking back all of Essex and East Anglia from the Vikings, which extended Wessex’s boundaries. By 911, he’d also annexed London, Oxford and all of Oxfordshire and Middlesex from the Vikings as well. By 918, Edward had reclaimed the southern part of the Danelaw, bringing it back under Anglo-Saxon control. By 954, Viking king and ur-metal singer Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of Northumbria in the north, ending Viking rule in England and helping to smooth the path of a united England under Wessex rule (though this was short-lived) by 973 by Edgar the Peaceful, Alfred’s great-grandson.

I attempt to explain this history in order to give a better understanding of where many northern England names originate. Travel upwards from Essex, through the Midlands towards Yorkshire and Scandinavian linguistic remnants abound, mixing with Saxon and Roman place names. One such affix is –thorpe, which can be found in names like the giggleworthy Scunthorpe and nearby Raventhorpe, Thorpe Audling in Pontefract, Copmanthorpe in York or Hilderthorpe in Middlesbrough. Thorpe derives from the Old Norse þorp, which means outlying farm or settlement, a linguistic reminder of Viking occupation. Another suffix is –by or –bie (in Scotland), which means ‘village/settlement’, which can be found in place names up and down the northeast coast, like Clee With Weelsby in the aptly named Grimsby, Thoralby in North Yorkshire and Derby (pronounced dar-bee). A particular suffix that I noticed in York was –gate, which comes from gata and means road or street, which makes perfect sense since I mostly saw it on street signs. Some major streets are Colliergate, Petergate, Gillygate, Swinegate (a penny if you can guess its origins) and the famous Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate, whose origins are debated, but may have originated from the stocks and whipping posts that once stood on this tiny street! There are also towns with the suffix, such as Spittlegate in Grantham.

Further north towards Scotland the prefix kirke- or kirk- becomes noticeable. Derived from the Old Norse kirkja, or church, there are villages from Northumberland to the Shetland Islands bearing this word, such as Kirkabister in the Shetlands (from ‘church’ and btólstaðr, or dwelling place/house), Kirkwall (which comes from vágr, bay) in the Orkney Islands, Nunnykirk (Nunni’s church) in Northumberland And Kirkandrews-upon-Eden in Cumbria, which simply means Church of St Andrews upon the River Eden. In the county of Cumbria in the northwest, places with –waite and –waithe suffixes are more prominent, which may reflect the geography of the area, since thwaite or þveit means meadow or clearing. These villages can be found all over the county, from Upper Allithwaite, Subberthwaite, Scalthwaiterigg, Crosthwaite and Lyth, to Gawthwaite, Legburthwaite, and Micklethwaite. Other seemingly strangely named places with Norse origins are Skegness, skegg means beard and nes means promontory, it could have originally meant beard-like promontory or the promontory of someone named Skeggi. Ainderby Quernhow in Yorkshire is the result of a few Norse words, bȳ, kvern– a mill stone, and haugr– a grave hill or barrow, which also has an Anglian equivalent (barrows can be found all over the country, I’ve stood on one next to Stonehenge). So the name translates as ‘Eindrithi’s farm/settlement’, with the mill stone shaped barrow acting as a physical barrier between two other villages in the area.

More expected are Anglo-Saxon affixes, which can be seen all over Britain. A popular suffix that originates in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons is –ton, which was originally tūn, or a farmstead, village or estate. This mutated into –ton and –tone, as seen in Thrumpton, near Nottingham, Swarkstone in Derbyshire, Kettlebaston in Suffolk, Teddington in southwest London, and Turweston in Buckinghamshire. An explanation to why many places with different affixes share similar pronunciations is due to their shared origin. The suffixes -bury, -borough and –burgh all derive from burh– a fortified place or settlement, which leads to names like Upton Snodsbury in Worcestershire (pronounced Wusster-sheer, glad you asked), Loughborough (that’s Luff-burrah) in Leicestershire (lester-sheer),and Whinburgh in Norfolk.

If many Norse affixes describe conquered settlements, than Anglo-Saxon affixes focus on the environment. There are several water-based affixes- mouth (unsurprisingly, the mouth of a river, as seen in Portsmouth, Yarmouth and Weymouth), -mere (lake or pool, Windermere being a famous lake and serendipitously containing both Old Norse and Old English), -bec (stream, can be found in the hilariously named Tooting Bec in southwest London), -ford (narrow stream that can be crossed, seen all over London in Brentford, Deptford, Ilford and Stratford) and -bourne/burn (brook or stream, seen in Blackburn, Eastbourne). Land affixes are even more extensive, here are a few common ones: the seemingly related -dean/den/don (from denu, wooded valley/denn, wooded swine pasture/dún, valley respectively). -Dean can be seen in Brighton and Hove in towns like Ovingdean, Rottingdean and Bevendean, which were all originally valleys named after figures of the time, as recorded in the Domesday Book. The -don suffix can be seen in a few places in London, from Croydon and Wimbledon in the south, to Hendon and Farringdon in the north. -Den can be seen in Morden in the outer boroughs and Willesden in north London.

My blog’s namesake comes from the saying that London is a city of villages, areas that have been incorporated into the city as it spread over the centuries. They are remnants of a geography long since lost under a millennia of city-building. -Ham makes this clear, as it derives from ham or hamm, meaning homestead/village or sometimes meadow. It can be found all over the city, from Twickenham, Fulham and Clapham in the southwest, Rotherham  and Dagenham in the east,  to Lewisham and Peckham in the southeast. -Stead/sted also indicates place, a meaning that’s survived to the present, from the original stede. This can be seen in the southeast in Pumstead, and in the north with the beautiful Hampstead Village and Wanstead. A final locational affix is -wich, from -wīc, which means a place of activity and trade. This can be seen, unsurprisingly, in Greenwich, one of London’s most important historical harbours, and further east in Woolwich, where, where wool was traded while it was still a tiny Kentish village.

This started off as a post to gently poke fun at British place names, but quickly transformed into a small research project. It’s been illuminating learning about the origins of these places to the best of my ability, since I am neither a linguist nor a historian. It’s shown me that the multiculturalism dreaded by some in modern society is nothing but a continuation of what has always happened on these lands, culture, conflict and change. These names have developed over the centuries due to the constant influx and melding of cultures that reached even the most isolated of the Scottish isles.  I could not even hope to delve into the impact made by the variety of indigenous languages, which borrowed from conquering foreigners and also made it back to the continental mainland. All of these places, from ever-expanding London to the smallest coastal village, contain immeasurable histories, and act as placeholders for moments that have long turned into dust. So maybe, in the future, when I pass Mucking, or Chipping Sodbury, or Gog Magog Hills, or god help me, Belvoir, within my giggles or sigh of irritation for a bizarre pronunciation, there will be a curiosity around how they came about.


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