Place names

Indigenous people frequently and correctly point out that Indigenous place names in North America are based on geographical features or things that happened in that place, whereas settler place names in North America are either named after the first person to settle there, or a place in Britain or Europe. This is true.

What’s more, the place names in Britain and Europe are named after geographical features, things that happened there, Pagan deities, and previous inhabitants’ names for the place. So it makes no sense to transplant them to a place with different geographical features (though I assume people did it for nostalgic reasons).

Geographical feature place names

Interestingly, these can sometimes combine a Celtic river name with an Old English or Viking suffix.

  • Cambridge — the bridge over the river Cam
  • Grantchester — the river Cam is also known as the Granta, so just upriver from Cambridge is Grantchester, the fortified town on the river Granta.
  • Ely (eel ey) — the island of eels (it’s in the middle of the Fens, so this is very appropriate)
  • Oxford (Oxenford) — a ford over the River Thames where oxen could cross. Mentioned in Chaucer as Oxenford.
  • York (Jorvik, Eboracum) — the place of yew trees (from the Briton word Eburākon meaning ‘place of the yew trees’). Eboracum was the Roman name of York, and it was changed to Jorvik by the Vikings. From Jorvik, we get York.
  • Lancaster — the fortified town on the River Lune.
  • Kirkby Lonsdale — the church village in the valley of the Lune.
  • Stanton Drew was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Stantone, meaning ‘The stone enclosure with an oak tree’ from the Old English stan and tun and from the Celtic deru.
  • Place names with the suffix —thwaite are found in the Danelaw, the northern part of England which was conquered by the Danes. Modified forms of thwaite are also found in Orkney, Shetland, Normandy, Norway, and Sweden. Thwaite means a meadow or clearing.
  • Place names with the suffix —lea or —leigh are found in formerly Saxon areas. It also means meadow or field.

These are just a few examples of geographical place names. Quite often, places have a double or even triple name meaning the same thing, for example the River Avon (Avon is derived from Welsh afon, meaning a river). Another example is Pendle Hill in Lancashire (Pen is a Celtic word for hill or head; hyll is the Old English word for hill; these two got munged together as Pendle; then hill was added later as a separate word.)

Stanton Drew stone circle

Places where things happened

  • Battle — this is a place near Hastings; the name commemorates the Battle of Hastings.
  • New Invention — a village in Shropshire.

Place names commemorating events seem to be much more common in North America.

Places named after Pagan deities

  • Grimspound, Grime’s Graves — named after Odin (Grim was one of Odinn’s by-names, or alternate names).
  • Wednesbury (Wodensbeorh) — Woden’s barrow (burial mound).
  • Carlisle — “the name of the city probably means ‘the fort of Lugus’, who was a Celtic god. Early forms include the Old English ‘Cair Luel’, the Welsh ‘Caer Liwelydd’ and the Latin ‘Luguvalium’.” (English Heritage)
  • London (Londinium, Lugdunum) — the town (dun) of Lugh.
  • San Gemini, Italy — there’s a temple of Castor and Pollux, the Divine Twins (after whom the constellation of Gemini is named) near San Gemini, so I think this is a very thinly veiled deity name rather than a saint.

Places named after people

The Old English seem to have named a lot of places after people. Perhaps this was because they didn’t yet have a relationship with the land that they had conquered.

  • Scarborough — “the town was founded by Danes in the 10th century, when Thorgil (also known as Skarthi, meaning ‘hare-lip’) built a stronghold here – hence ‘Skarthi’s burh’.” (English Heritage)
  • Ipswich (Gippeswic) — probably taken either from an Old English personal name or from an earlier name given to the Orwell Estuary.
  • Places named after Christian saints — there are a lot of these, e.g. Bury St Edmunds (the walled town of St Edmund — he’s buried there).

7 thoughts on “Place names

  1. How do you feel about names like New England or New London or Nova Scotia?I just want to point out that we have kept many indigenous place names, at least in the Northeast. Naugatuck. Pampering come to mind, though it is also true that the colonists likely mispronounced them, as often happens with unfamiliar languages.

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    • Yes there are many Indigenous place names in Canada too. Mississauga, Toronto (T’karonto), Etobicoke, for example.

      All the examples you gave — New England, New London, Nova Scotia — all have Indigenous names. Nova Scotia is part of Mi’kmaki.

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  2. Yay for the Ely shout-out! This is a brilliant look at where place names come from, and helps explain how weird I sometimes find it to see UK village names in the middle of maps of the USA!

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  3. Another fun name creation mechanism is mistranslation: Jorvik, for example, is a Norse version of Eoforwic (settlement of the boar), which is what post-Roman Anglo-Saxons called York because (according to people who have studied it more than me) they thought that’s what Eboracum meant.

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  4. From a very UK-centric perspective, something that really struck me when I moved back to Wales for a bit was just how much sense the place-names made to me: the meanings are often clear and accessible to Welsh speakers in a way which English place-names are not to English speakers (e.g. many of the English examples you give above require etymological explanation). I had never reflected much before on the effect this had on my relationship with places in Wales vs. places in England. I do like the way that English place names are often a smooshing together of the various different languages and cultures that went into making this far-from-homogenous island what it is, though 🙂

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  5. In Southern Africa lots of place names were similar to the ones you mentioned. Many indigenous names have changed spelling in modern maps, as the orthography has changed. So the river that used to be spelt Tugela us now eThukela, and Umgeni is now uMngeni.

    Intereting that in the UK river names follow the designation, while in southern Africa and North America it follows it — River Tees versus the Vaal River or the Mississippi River.
    Many places were named after people who had nothing to do with the place, like Adelaide, named after a member of the British Royal family. We had too many places named after living politicans. There was Jan Smuts Airport, which was changed briefly to Johannesburg Airport in the mid 1990s, when a lot of places named after politicians were given geographical names, but now the politicians; names are returning.
    We live in Kilner Park, which was named after the general secretary of the Methodist Missionary Society in England. It was formerly part of a Methodist mission statement, where a lot of black Methdists lived. The Nationalist government drclared it a white are, and so all the black s were ethnically cleansed, and the Methodist Church was forced to open it up for white housing development, giving names of Methdist significance, like Queenswood and Kilner Park. There was also a big educational centre, called the Kilnerton Institute, which was forced to close, and the road that led to it was called Kilnerton Road, and the then Nationalist-controlled City Council changed the name of part of it to C.R. Swart Drive, who as Minister of Justice was responsible for a lot of unjust treatment of black people, but it retains that name to this day. That’s one of the problems of having Place Names Commissions, they rarely take into account the names that local people give to places, which I think most UK place names are. .

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