History of English Place-Names
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A Survey of the History of English Place­names

By Scolastica la souriete

The subject of English place­names is a complicated one. There are many factors involved, not the least of which is the waves of conquest England suffered during the period in which most of her place­names were formed. The result is that English place­names come from a variety of languages: possibly pre­British, British, Latin, Old English, Old Norse of two varieties and Norman French. Each of these languages has contributed place­names and influenced the form of existing place­names. This makes a rich and complicated subject with much fine detail. I have tried to review the major types of English place­names, but it has not been possible to touch on every aspect of the subject.

A basic fact of English place­name research is that looks can be deceiving. The modern form of a name may clearly indicate its meaning, such as Ashwood (Staffordshire) which means ash wood (Ekwall p. 16). More often, the modern form of a name is deceptive, such as Rockbeare (Devon) which has nothing to do with rocks or bears, but means "grove frequented by rooks" (Mills, p. 274). Yet another problem is that place­names which have the same modern form may have completely different meanings and origins. For example the place­name Oulton may mean "old farmstead," "Outhulf's farmstead," "Wulfa's farmstead" or "Ali's farmstead" (Cameron, p. 18). Only the early forms of the particular place will show the original meaning. Another problem with looking at modern forms is that some words that were distinct in Old English appear identical in modern English. The Old English ham which means variously "homestead, village, manor, estate" (Mills, p. 381) and hamm which means "enclosure, land hemmed by water or marsh or higher ground, land in a river­bend, river­meadow, promontory" (Mills, p. 381) both appear as ­ham in modern names. Obviously, whether a name element was originally ham or hamm would make a major difference in meaning. At the same time the river names Axe, Exe, Esk and Usk are all derived from the British word isca meaning "water" (Reaney p. 77). Any element in use over centuries is likely to change meaning or have local shades of meaning that at a distance of ten centuries or more we may have difficulty ascertaining.

To combat this sort of confusion, scholars of English place­names collect as many early forms of a name as possible and analyze them in the light of their knowledge of language and dialect, grammar, pronunciation, topography, sound shifts and other relevant factors. Although the generally available dictionaries on the subject may cite anywhere from one to a dozen dated forms for each entry, place­name scholars may actually assemble a few dozen to a few thousand examples of early spellings of a name before coming to any conclusions.

Considered structurally, there are two types of English place­names ­­ simplex names from a single element and compounds composed of two, or occasionally three elements. Simplex names were usually local names applied to a single prominent feature of the landscape, typically a hill, valley or remains of a prehistoric or Roman fort. Other simplex names exist because they were an outlying farm or dependency of a nearby village or farmstead. In this case, the local people had no need to identify the place more clearly. Compound names are composed of an adjectival element and a habitative or topographic element. These compound names make up the majority of place­names in England.

Considered functionally there are three types of English place­names. The first type is folk names, which is the name of a folk or people which became the name of their settlement. Essex means "(territory of) the East Saxons" (Mills, p. 124). These names are generally quite old. The second type of place­name is a habitative name, which may be simplex or compound. Wick (Avon) is an example of a simplex habitative name meaning "the dwelling, the specialized farm or trading settlement" (Mills, p. 358). A compound habitative name is Crosby (Cumbria) "village where there are crosses" (Mills, p. 97). Habitative names contain some element which indicates human settlement. Topographical names may also be simplex, such as Wawne (Humberside) "quaking bog or quagmire" (Mills, p. 349) or compound, such as Ottershaw (Surrey), which means "small wood frequented by otters" (Mills, p. 250). They describe some feature of the landscape. Often topographic names later came to be applied to a nearby settlement.

The earliest place­names in England are a small number that may be pre­Celtic in origin, including the river names Colne, Humber, Itchen, Ouse and Wey. These are believed to have been in use before the Celtic inhabitants arrived in the fourth century B.C.E. and some may date back to the Neolithic era (Mills, p. xvii). They survived because of their adoption by the Britons and subsequently by the Anglo­Saxons.

Next in antiquity are the British names, used by the Britons. These are unevenly distributed across England being quite rare in the east and growing more frequent in the west, until one approaches Cornwall and the area near Wales where the Britons were able to maintain a hold on the land the longest. In the east only the names of large rivers such as the Thames and the Yare and important Roman towns such as London, York and Lincoln survived. Further west, some smaller rivers, hills, forests and settlements also retain names of Celtic origin.

Many surviving British names are topographical names, adopted by the Anglo­Saxons as such and later transferred to nearby settlements. British names of rivers, hills, forests and valleys have survived. Two British words for hill, bre and pen survive in a variety of place­names, usually with an Old English addition meaning "hill." Bre is the first element in Brill (Buckinghamshire) with the addition of hyll (Mills, p. 52), and in Bredon (Herefordshire and Worcestershire) and Breedon on the Hill (Leicestershire) with the addition of dun, also meaning hill (Mills p. 49) and also in Brewood (Staffordshire) combined with wudu (Mills, p. 52). Pendle Hill (Lancashire) is composed of pen with the addition of the Old English hyll, which developed into Pendle and Hill was once again added (Ekwall, p. 361). British ced meaning wood appears in Chute Forest in Wiltshire (Ekwall, p. 108), Chetwode in Buckinghamshire (Mills, p. 76) and in the wholly British compound Lytchett (Dorset), meaning "grey wood" (Mills, p. 219). The British kumb, meaning valley was used so extensively that it was adopted into Old English as cumb and has yielded numerous place­names containing Combe and Coombe (Mills, p. 88).

A great influence on the remaining British place­names is Latin. An interesting class of surviving British names come from Latin words that were adopted into British. Foremost among these are egles from the Latin ecclesia, wic from vicus, camp from campus, and funta from fontana. Egles survives today in towns known as Eccles in Lancashire, Norfolk, Greater Manchester and Kent. It appears in compounds with an Old English element in Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Herefordshire and Merseyside. Egles is believed to indicate the presence of an early church (Mills, p. 381).

Some Romano­British place­names survived as the first element in a compound with the Old English element ceaster, which actually comes from the Latin castra. Examples are Manchester (Lancashire) from the British Mamucion (Reaney p. 79), Wroxeter (Lancashire) from Viroconion (Reaney, p. 79) and Winchester (Hampshire) from Venta Belgarum (Reaney p. 80). Other British names have survived in ancient records but have been replaced by names derived from Old English. These include the rivers the Hyle and the Limen (Reaney p. 77) and the British name of Canterbury, which was Durovernon (Reaney, p. 80).

Some Celtic names contain what are called "inversion compounds," in which the adjectival element occurs as a second element rather than as the first. This is characteristic of Celtic names formed in medieval times. They occur frequently in Cornwall and occasionally in other places where a Celtic influence survived late. Lanreath (Cornwall) is a name of this type, meaning "church­site of Reydhogh" (Mills, p. 204). Another example is Pensax (Herefordshire and Worcestershire) meaning "hill of the Anglo­Saxons" (Mills, p. 256).

The vast majority of English place­names are Old English in origin. The arrival of the Anglo­Saxons caused a major disruption in English place­name nomenclature. Names of Old English origin come from all three major types of place­name. Folk names were used in the early stages of Anglo­Saxon settlement. Habitative names and topographic names were formed throughout the Anglo­Saxon period.

Folk names are a small but significant type of place­name. Many are names of important divisions of England today. These became place­names because they were transferred from the people to whom they referred to the territory of that people. A folk name containing an element such as saete meaning "settlers" or folc meaning "folk," is usually a division of a larger established group. Suffolk is "the south folk" (of the Angles) (Reaney, p. 99). Dorset means "settlers at the Dorn" in which Dorn is a reduced form of the Old English name of Dorchester (Mills, p. 108). Cornwall is an Anglicized form of a Celtic tribal name with the addition of the Old English element walh meaning "Briton, Welshman" (Reaney, p. 93). Wessex is "the west Saxons" (Mills, p. 352) and Northumberland "the people north of the Humber River" (Reaney, p. 100). Some names of less prominent folk also exist in place­names. Only a detailed knowledge of early Anglo­Saxon tribal names would indicate that Jarrow (Tyne and Wear) comes from a tribal name meaning "fen people" (Mills, p. 190).

A distinct type of folk name is represented by Hastings and Reading. The Old English ending ­ingas means "the descendants, followers or people of" (Cameron, p. 64). These two names mean "the people of Haesta" and "the people of Reada." In the case of Hastings, one sees the survival of the plural form, while Reading shows the more normal pattern in which the plural is lost. Traditionally, scholars believed that names formed with ­ingas represented the oldest English settlements, but more recent evidence has cast doubt on this theory (Gelling, p. 106­109). Some compounds of ­ingas were formed with a topographical term instead of a personal name. In this case, the people took their name from a feature of the landscape around their settlement and this name then became the name of the settlement. Avening (Gloucestershire) derives its name from "people living by the river Avon" (Mills p. 18) and Epping (Essex) from "the upland people" (Reaney p. 107).

Most habitative names occur in compound forms, but certain elements can occur as simplex names as well. Burh "fortified place, stronghold" (Mills, p. 380) and ceaster "Roman station or walled town, old fortification or earthwork" (Mills, p. 380) are often indicators of Roman or prehistoric fortifications. As such they tended to be rare in a given locality and needed no adjectival element to separate them from others like them. Burh gave rise to names such as Burg in Suffolk (Mills, p. 58) and Bury in Cambridgeshire (Mills, p. 61). Chester in Cheshire (Mills, p. 75) and Castor in Cambridgeshire (Mills, p. 68) are derived from ceaster.

Other simplex names occur in that form because they were originally dependencies or outlying settlements of an established settlement. As such, they were originally clearly defined to the local inhabitants. Bere­tun and bere­wic are compounds that mean essentially barley farm or outlying part of an estate (Mills, p. 379). They have given rise to numerous Bartons (Mills, p. 25) and Berwicks (Mills, p. 33). Stoc, meaning "place, outlying farmstead or hamlet, secondary or dependent settlement" (Mills, p. 384), has given Stoke as a common place­name (Cameron, p. 28).

Compound English habitative names typically end with an element indicating a human settlement. The two most common Old English elements of this type are tun "enclosure, farmstead, village, manor, estate" (Mills, p. 384) and ham "homestead, village, manor, estate" (Mills, p. 381). Ham is believed to be the older form, but it was not used consistently throughout England and it is easily confused with hamm (Gelling, p. 112). Ham is rarely combined with topographical elements, particularly clif, ea, eg, halh, hyll, mersc, mor and ofer (Ekwall, p. xvi). Tun is the most common habitative element in Old English. It originally meant enclosure, farmstead. Later it came to mean village and hamlet as well, and in names formed after the Norman conquest, it could mean manor or estate (Cameron, p. 141). Which meaning is correct for a particular place­name depends on its age. This can be determined from written records if the place­name is mentioned, but most place­names do not occur in written records as soon as they are named. This same sort of uncertainty of meaning applies to any English place­name element in use over a long period of time.

Habitative elements of English place­names usually occur as the second element of a compound place­name. However, examples of habitative elements occurring in the first position are not unknown. Tonbridge (Kent), composed of the Old English tun and brycg, is believed to mean "bridge belonging to the estate or manor" (Mills, p. 332). Wickmere (Norfolk) is composed of the Old English elements wic and mere, meaning "pool by the dwelling or dairy farm" (Mills, p. 358).

The first element in a typically formed habitative name is adjectival. Adjectival elements come from a wide assortment of words: personal names or folk names, adjectives indicating age, size, color or situation, direction, topographical elements including rivers, plants wild and domestic, animals wild and domestic, industry, or buildings associated with the settlement. From personal names we have place­names like Hildersham (Cambridgeshire) which means "homestead of a man called *Hildric" (Mills, p. 370), and Homerton (Greater London) meaning "farmstead of a woman called Hunburh" (Mills, p. 132). Folk names often contain the element ­inga so Effingham (Surrey) is "homestead of the family or followers of a man called Effa" (Mills, p. 118) and Framingham (Norfolk) is "homestead of the family or followers of a man called Fram" (Mills, p. 136). Compound names with adjectives as the first element are represented by Breadenham (Buckinghamshire) where the first element means "broad" (Mills, p. 46), Glatton (Cambridgeshire) which means "pleasant farmstead" (Mills, p. 144) and Horham (Suffolk) meaning "muddy farmstead" (Mills, p. 178). Habitative names containing directions are Narborough (Leicestershire) meaning "north stronghold" (Mills, p. 238) and Westcote (Gloucestershire) "westerly cottage(s)" (Mills, p. 352). Color in habitative names is fairly rare but Whitby (Cheshire) meaning "white stronghold or manor­house" (Mills, p. 356) is one example. Features of the landscape are common: Fenwick (Northumbria) means "dwelling or (dairy) farm in a fen or marsh" (Mills, p. 130), Compton "farmstead or village in a valley" (Mills, p. 88) and Dunton (Norfolk) "farmstead on a hill" (Mills, p. 112). River names appear in Exton (Somerset) on the river Exe (Mills, p. 125) and Frampton (Dorset) on the river Frome (Mills, p. 136). Plants occur in such formations as Ashwick (Somerset), from the presence of ash trees (Mills, p. 15), Mapledurham (Oxfordshire) from the presence of maple trees (Mills, p. 222) and Brompton (North Yorkshire) from the presence of broom (Mills, p. 54). Crops are represented by Barton "barley farm" (Cameron, p. 144) and Flaxton "flax farm" (Cameron, p. 144). Habitative names from animals include Shipdham (Norfolk) from a flock of sheep (Mills, p. 294) and Foxton (Cambridgeshire) from the presence of foxes (Mills, p. 135). Industry is represented in Sapperton (Lincolnshire) "farmstead of the soap­makers or soap­merchants" (Mills, p. 285). Milton (Cumbria) "farmstead or village with a mill" (Mills, p. 231) and Burham (Kent) "homestead near the fortified place" (Mills, p 59) demonstrate a prominent building occurring in a habitative name.

Topographic names are the third major type of English place­name. Originally, all of these were names of features of the landscape. Those that are now settlement names have been transferred from the topographical feature to a settlement nearby. In early Anglo­Saxon documents this was indicated by inserting the Old English preposition æt or Latin ad in front of the place­name (Ekwall, p. xix). Stratford­on­Avon appears in a document from 691­2 as Æt­stretfordæ, meaning (the settlement) at the ford by which a Roman road crosses the river (Ekwall, p. 449). This sort of elliptical use survived in some cases into Middle English. When the preposition was dropped from Atten ashe, the name became Nash, because the final consonant of the preposition became the initial consonant of the new place­name (Ekwall, p. 336). The same process occurred in the name Nayland (Ekwall, p. 337).

Topographic names occur in both simplex and compound forms. Simplex forms are represented by Lea (Derbyshire) and Eye (Cambridgeshire) from the Old English elements leah meaning variously "wood, woodland clearing or glade, later pasture, meadow" (Mills, p. 382) and eg meaning variously "island, land partially surrounded by water, dry ground in a marsh, well­watered land, promontory" (Mills, p. 382). Most topographical names are compounds consisting of an initial adjectival element and then a topographic element such as leah or eg. Adjectival elements include personal names, colors, types of soil, position, location or condition, the names of trees, wild plants or crops, and wild and domestic animals and birds. The topographic element in the name could be a natural feature of the landscape such as a hill, valley or plain, a type of country such as marsh, wood or moorland, a body of water such as a river, stream, pool or sea, small portions of land defined by the landscape or a human­created or used element such as a barrow or ford.

Examples of topographic names are not hard to find. Topographic names containing a personal name include Edgmond (Shropshire) "hill of a man called Ecgmund" (Mills, p. 117) and Edingale (Staffordshire) "nook of land of the family or followers of a man called *Eadin" (Mills, p. 117). Blackmoor (Hampshire) "dark­coloured pool" (Mills, p. 39) and Grinlow (Derbyshire) "green hill or mound" (Mills, p. 149) demonstrate topographic names containing colors. Types of soils are found in Clayhanger (West Midlands) "Clayey wooded slope" (Mills, p. 82) and Stanfield (Norfolk) "stony open land" (Mills, p. 306). Position is indicated by Upwood (Cambridgeshire), meaning "higher wood" (Mills, p. 340). Dalwood (Devon) shows a location: "wood in a valley" (Mills, p. 102). Condition is indicated by Windle (Lancashire), Defford (Herefordshire and Worcestershire) and Hendon (Greater London) meaning respectively "windy hill" (Ekwall, p. 522), "deep ford" (Mills, p. 103) and "(place at) the high hill" (Mills, p. 168). Tree names cam be found in Oakley (Bedfordshire) "wood or clearing where the oak­trees grow" (Mills, p. 246), Withycombe (Somerset) "valley where the willow­trees grow" (Mills, p. 366) and Birchover (Derbyshire) "ridge where birch­trees grow" (Mills, p. 37). Examples of topographic names containing wild plants are Gorsley (Gloucestershire) "woodland clearing where gorse grows" (Mills, p. 146) and Redmire (North Yorkshire) "reedy pool" (Mills, p. 270). Flaxley (Gloucestershire) is a topographical name containing the name of a crop (Mills, p. 133). The name of wild animals are found in Deerhurst in Gloucestershire (Mills, p. 103) and Foxt in Staffordshire (Mills, p. 135). Names of domesticated animals are found in Callerton (Northumbria) and Shiplake (Oxfordshire), meaning "hill where calves graze" (Mills, p. 64) and "sheep stream" (Mills, p. 294). Bird names can be found in Dunnockshaw (Lancashire) "small wood or copse frequented by hedge­sparrows" (Mills, p. 111) and Ousden "valley frequented by owls" (Mills, p. 250). Islip (Northamptonshire) shows the use of a river name in a topographic name "slippery place by the River Ise" (Mills, p. 188).

The influx of Danes and Norwegians, beginning in the mid­ninth century was the next major influence on English place­names. Both groups spoke dialects of Old Norse. They primarily affected the names of northern England, where the Danes settled in the eastern parts and the Norwegians mostly in the west. The exact details of Danish and Norwegian settlements are a matter of disagreement among scholars, but the effects on English place­names are clear. The Scandinavians created new names, substituted their words for similar English cognates and changed the sounds in existing English place­names.

Most Norse place­names in England are habitative names. The majority of these are compounds ending in by or thorp. By, at the time of its use in England, meant "village" (Fellows Jensen, p. 6) and thorp "secondary settlement, dependant outlying farm or hamlet" (Mills, p. 384). In general, names ending in ­by are older than names ending in ­thorp. Both are typically combined with personal names, but may also be combined with other categories of words including groups of people, topographic terms and adjectives. Thorp also appears as a simplex name, because of its meaning of a secondary settlement.

Norse habitative names are usually formed with Old Norse personal names, but a few are found which contain English and Irish given names. Kettlethorpe (Lincolnshire), which contains the Old Norse name Ketil (Mills, p. 194) and Asenby (North Yorkshire), which contains the name Eysteinn, (Mills, p. 13) are typical of this type of name. The Old English name Baldhere occurs in Baldersby in North Yorkshire (Mills, p. 21)

Norse habitative names containing groups of people include nationalities, sex, station and occupation (Fellows Jensen, p. 13). Examples of nationality are found in Ingleby (Derbyshire), which indicates an English settlement (Fellows Jensen, p. 30) and Irby (Lancashire) an Irish settlement (Fellows Jensen, p. 31). An example of sex in a habitative name is Whenby (North Yorkshire) "of the women" (Fellows Jensen, p. 41). An occupational name occurs in Copmanthorpe (North Yorkshire) "outlying farmstead or hamlet belonging to the merchants" (Mills, p. 90).

Norse habitative names may also contain adjectives or topographical elements. Examples of names containing adjectives are Austhorp "east thorp" (Fellows Jensen, p. 51) and Mickleby "large farmstead" (Mills, p. 229). Names containing a topographic term include Barrowby (Lincolnshire) containing the word hill (Fellows Jensen, p. 20) and Sowerby (North Yorkshire) containing a word meaning "mud, dirt, sour ground" (Fellows Jensen, p. 38). A name frequently found in England is Kirby or Kirkby meaning "church­village" (Fellows Jensen, p. 229)

A small number of Norse topographical names exist in England. These can be simplex or compound. Examples of simplex names of this type include Wath (North Yorkshire) "the ford" (Mills, p. 348) and Holme (Nottinghamshire) "island, dry ground in marsh, water­meadow" (Mills, p. 175). Hanlith (North Yorkshire) "slope or hill­side of a man called Hagni or Hogni" (Mills, p. 156­7), Ulpha (Cumbria) "hill frequented by wolves" (Mills, p. 339) and Thornthwaite "thorn­tree clearing" (Mills, p. 329) are examples of Old Norse compounds.

Other names are compounds of Old Norse and Old English elements. Old Norse given names are found combined with English habitative and topographical elements and vice versa. Old Norse given names combined with tun are believed to have been formed when a Norseman took over a village or manor, in which case his name was substituted for the original (Gelling, p. 232). Examples of this type of name are Nawton (North Yorkshire), which contains the Old Norse name Nagli (Mills, p. 239) and Thruxton (Hampshire), which contains the Old Norse name Thorkell (Mills, p. 327). Ullswater (Cumbria) combines Old Norse Ulfr with Old English wæter (Mills, p. 339) while Levenshulme (Greater Manchester) combines Old English Leofwin with Old Norse holmr (Mills, p. 209). Dunholm, the original form of Durham, is a compound of Old English dun "hill" and Old Norse holmr "island" (Mills, p. 112)

Old Norse and Old English had many similar sounding words with the same meaning, such as their words for stone stan in Old English and steinn in Old Norse. Old Norse cognates have been substituted for Old English elements in some names. For instance, Stainton is a Scandinavianized form of Stanton (Ekwall, p. 436), both of which usually mean "tun on stony ground" (Ekwall, p. 438). The Old Norse rauthr is believed to have been substituted for Old English read, both of which mean "red", in names like Rawcliffe and Rawmarsh (Ekwall, p. 382).

Old Norse also caused sound changes inside wholly English place­names. While Old Norse and Old English are similar, some English sounds caused problems for the Scandinavians. Two sounds in particular were a problem: "sh" and "ch". The normal sound represented by Old English sc occurs in the beginning of Shipton, but the same name is now Skipton in Scandinavian areas. Likewise, Cheswick is the normal English form of a name found in Scandinavian areas of England as Keswick (Ekwall, p. xxv).

The final major influence on English place­names was the Norman conquest in 1066. Because this was generally a settlement of political overlords rather than of large groups of people, this did not cause massive renamings nationally or locally. A certain amount of naming and renaming was done, of course, but the greatest effect was in sound changes.

Many of the new French names were compounds of the pattern demonstrated by Beaumont "beautiful hill" and Beauchief "beautiful headland or hill­spur" (Mills, p. 28). Others were French place­names brought over and bestowed on English places. Richmond and Grosmont are examples of these types of names, though in the case of Richmond (North Yorkshire) at least, the meaning "strong hill" is entirely appropriate to the site. Rougemont and Ridgmont are French descriptive names of the sites of the villages (Reaney p. 194). The monastery of Rievaulx combined the name of the Rye river with Old French vals meaning valley (Reaney p. 194). Substitutions of French elements for English elements also occurred in place­names, of which ville for feld is the most common (Cameron, p. 89). Enville (Staffordshire) occurs in the Domesday Book as Efnefeld (Mills, p. 123) and Turville occurs in the form Thyrefeld in 796 (Mills, p. 336). A few new names were also coined from Norman given names or surnames and English elements. Williamscot in Oxfordshire (Mills, p. 360) and Johnby in Cumbria (Mills, p. 190) are examples of what are probably late formations of this type.

The greatest influence of the Norman Conquest on English place­names occurs in spelling and pronunciation. This was because there were many sounds in English names unfamiliar to the Normans. They solved this by modifying the English names to make them easier to pronounce. These changes form recognizable patterns, but the patterns are not universally applied; many English forms were retained in the end. The following are only a few examples of the changes that occurred. The Norman influence appears in many names containing ceaster, in which they substituted c for ch, as in Gloucester, and t for st as occurs in Exeter in Devon (Ekwall, p. xxviii). The loss of an initial s occurs in Nottingham, which was originally Snotingham (Ekwall, p. xxviii). A t was substituted for th in Turville (Buckinghamshire), which appears in the form Thyrefeld in 796. Jarrow (Tyne and Wear) shows a change from g to j. It occurs as Gyruum, Girwe in 1104­8 and by 1228 as Jarwe (Ekwall p. 268). It was also Norman influence that changed n to r in Durham, which was originally Dunholme (Cameron, p. 92).

A final aspect of English place­names are affixes. These additions to the place­names usually occur as separate words such as Nether, St. Peter or Courtney. These serve as additional identifiers added to the name after it is formed. Most of these occur in records for the first time in the thirteenth century, though a few occur in the Domesday Book and many appear later (Cameron p. 107). There are two types of affixes: descriptives and owners. Descriptives could be that of direction (East, Middle, Lower, in Ribblesdale), size (Great or Magna, Little or Parva), shape (Broad, Long), distinguishing features (Cold, Broad Oak, Steeple), products (Flax, Iron, Beans), church dedications (St. Martin, St. Cuthbert) and so forth. These descriptives could occur before or after the actual place­name: Castle Rising occurs in Norfolk (Mills, p. 273), Sutton Coldfield in West Midlands (Mills, p. 316). Some location information occurs in a string of words as occurs in the name Hope under Dinsmore in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Church dedications usually occur after the village name proper as in Chalfont St. Peter.

Ownership affixes occur as given names, surnames and generics. Burton Agnes (Humberside) is derived from the name of Agnes de Percy (Mills, p. 61), and Hemingford Grey (Cambridgeshire) was once owned by the de Grey family (Mills, p. 167). Monks Risborough (Buckinghamshire) which was once owned by the monks of Christchurch, Canterbury (Mills, p. 273). In Temple Ewell (Kent) the affix Temple indicates ownership by the Templars (Mills, p. 125).

Reflected in the history of English place­names is the history of England. The waves of conquest and settlement were accompanied by new languages, each of which left their mark on English place­names. In the names themselves, however, one has the opportunity to glimpse the world through medieval man's eyes. There are the broad brush­strokes of the landscape ­ hills, valleys, forests and bodies of water in all their variety. Information important to a farmer is often included in a name: the characteristics of the soil ­­ stony, clayey, sour, wet or dry, how the land was used ­­ fords on streams and rivers, hills for beacon fires, pastures for herds, clearings for crops and the presence of predators and pests such as foxes, wolves and crows. On a more intimate level, one gets glimpses of the finer details ­­ a copse of hedge­sparrows, a stream filled with otters, a clearing filled with gorse, willows in a valley. This detail provides a different, more personal view of the past than the sweeping pictures of history. For both the large and the small view, this is a subject worthy of further study.


Cameron, Kenneth. English Place­Names. London: B. T. Batsford, 1961.

Ekwall, Eilert. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place­Names. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Fellows Jensen, Gillian. Scandinavian Settlement Names in Yorkshire. Copenhagen, 1972.

Gelling, Margaret. Signposts to the Past. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1978.

Mills, A. D., A Dictionary of English Place­names. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Reaney, P. H. The Origins of English Place­Names. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

© 1997 Kristine Elliott

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