Origins of British place-names


Onomastics (Onomotology), the science that studies names, has a geographic branch called “Toponomy.”
Toponomy is important since place-names supply information regarding a society’s history, customs and structure. Sometimes, the sole proof of some historical event lies in the place-name.
Such information is more common in “old” countries. In Canada, Australia, the U.S., etc., hundreds of names have been lifted from wherever settlers originated. Think of London, Ontario. Think of the Kildonans. But let’s look at Britain.
Place-names often indicate original settlers. For example, over 200 modern British places show Roman beginnings, notably those ending in port (Stockport) or chester (Winchester).
Another 1,500 names indicate Scandinavian origin. More than 600 of these, like Rugby, end in by — Norse for “farm” or “town.” Toft, thwaite and thorp endings are also Norse (Lower Stoft, Storthwaite, Cleethorpe).
Minster (mynster) means “monastery,” but other place names also show religious connections —Whitchurch, St. Leonardo-on-Sea, Falkirk.
We have pagan indications as well. Harrow, for example, means, “heathen temple.”
Tribal groups or clans lurk in names, usually illustrating the chief or family head. Reading means, “the place of Read’s family.” Tewksbury means, “Teodec’s fort.”
However, most British places suggest the lay of the land. Let’s look at these:
• Rivers; streams: Proximity to running water is found in beck, brook, burn, ey, fleet, font, ford, kild, lade, lake, latch, marsh, mere, mouth, ore, pool, rath, wade, well, and water.
Examples: Blackpool, Mersey, Bannockburn, Bedford, and Guernsey.
• Hills; slopes: The words bank, burrow, borough, breck, cam, cliff, crook, down, don, head, hill, how, hurst, ley, ling, lith, mond, over, pen, ridge, side, or tor, suggest a rise of land.
Examples: Middleborough, Camberley, Abbingdon, Penzance, and BeachyHead.
• Coastline features: Look for ey, holme, hulme, hythe, nage, ness, port, and sea.
Examples: Inverness, Newport, Rothershithe, Holmes, and Swansea.
• Valleys; hollows: bottom, clough, combe, dale, dell, den, ditch, glen, grave, hole, hope, and slade.
Examples: Waddell, Weldon, Fairclough, Ilfracombe, and Ramsbottom.
• Woods; groves: bear, carr, derry, fen, frith, greave, grove, heath, holt, lea, moor, oak, rise, scough, show, tree, well, with, wold,and wood.
Examples: Aintree, Woodburn, Musgrave, Londonderry, and Pytchley.
• Dwellings; farms: barton, biggin, berwick, bald, by, cote, ham, hampstead, hampton, house, scale, sett, stall, thorp, toft, ton, and wick.
Examples: Mablethorpe, Oldham, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Borstal, and Northampton.
• Fields; clearings: combe, croft, den, ergh, field, ham, hough, hay, ing, land, lease, lock, meadow, rick, redding, rode, shot, side, thwaite, wardine, worth, and worthy.
Examples: Huddersfield, Wycombe, Dorking, Fylde, and Hebblethwaite.
• General locations; routes: bridge, ford, gate, path, stead, stoke, stow, street, sty, and way.
Examples: Mundford, Holloway, Knightsbridge, Margate, and Padstow.
• Buildings; stones: brough, burton, caster, church, kirk, cross, mill, stain, stone, and wark.
Examples: Staines, Doncaster, Falkirk, Folkestone, and Southwark.
Some topographical elements listed above have many spellings. For example, beorg (hill; mound) also appears in names as bar, berg, berry, borough, and burgh. As well, some terms share a spelling but have different meanings because they originate in different Old English words. So, ey could refer to a river or an island, having developed either from ea (river) or from eg (island).
The word toponomy (1870s) is from the Greek topos (place) and onumia (naming).