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.)
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).