The study of place names is called toponymy. The fact that there is a specific word for the practice suggests it is a much pored over part of history with a vast reading list. But understanding the basic principles of where place names come from can be whittled down to a few hundred words, as I shall now demonstrate.
Some of the oldest place names in the UK derive from those given to rivers, but getting a grip on their origins is problematic. This is because they would have derived from pre-Celtic times where little is known about the language of our Stone or Bronze Age forbears. From the Iron Age onwards it gets a little easier as it’s generally accepted that Common Britannic - which combines Cumbric, Cornish, Old Welsh, (French) Breton, and, in likelihood, (Scots) Pictish - underpins the Celtic tongue.
Bear in mind that literacy in adults only became commonplace at the start of the 18th Century, and our journey begins well over 2,000 years before that. So, as we’ll soon see, place names have evolved through word of mouth via a multitude of accents.
We’ll break down our place names into four basic sections, each for one of the UK’s earliest residents. Of course, these periods are a basic guide, and there would have been pockets of the UK where the distinctions between those coming and going wouldn’t be definitive. And, lest we forget, from 800 AD until 1066 AD, the Vikings, who also had a bearing on the British language, have made themselves known in place names too.
Celts: 600 BC-50 AD
The Celts gave us plenty of words steeped in the landscape around them. We’ve already alluded to the fact that some of the earliest names derive from ‘river’ and the Celt word for one is ‘Avon’. Furthermore, the Celt word for ‘dark one/water’ is ‘Thames’ or ‘Tamar’. Sound familiar?
Here are some non-river inspired examples of other words: Pen = hill, Combe = valley, Brock = badger, Tor = hill, and Lindo = pool. Any guesses where the word ‘lido’ comes from?
Romans: 40-400 AD
Apart from aqueducts, central heating, indoor plumbing, roads, bricks, streets, and, er, cabbages, what did the Romans ever do for us? Well, they only went and introduced Latin into the British language. However, not as much of it survived as you might think.
Most of the Latin words we know today arrived during the 6th and 7th Centuries via Christianity and, predominantly, around 1500 AD-1650 AD during the English Renaissance. This is when some 10,000 to 12,000 words entered the language.
Some do remain, such as Strata = street, Coln = colony, Eccles = church, and Uncia = one-twelfth, more commonly known as an inch. Towns with Chester/Cester/Caster in them derive from 'castrum', which means that they were once held in high esteem by the Roman military, implying that they were fortified.
Anglo Saxons: 400-1066 AD
During the 5th and 6th Centuries, the Anglo-Saxon identity developed as a result of interactions between incoming (read that as invading) Germanic tribes and the indigenous British people. According to the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of three different Germanic peoples, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from northern Germany.
They had a huge impact on the British language that we use today, and many of the names of our towns and cities are directly influenced by the events that took place between 1,000 and 1,600 years ago. It was at some point during this period that Beowulf, the oldest known piece of English literature, was created.
Here are some from a long list: Cott/Cote = house, Burgh = fort, Burn = brook, and Holt = wood. Sex means Saxon and therefore, Sussex is 'south Saxon', Middlesex is 'middle Saxon', and Wessex is 'west Saxon'.
Wald = forest and Ford = for, so Oxford and Herford are ‘for oxen’ and ‘for hart’, with ‘hart’ being another name for deer. Hampton and Sutton are suffixed with Ton/Tun meaning hamlet or farm, Hamp/Hamm = meadow, and Su = south.
Normans: 1066-1360 AD
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that 1066 has cropped up a few times. It’s quite specific because this was the year of the Battle of Hastings, the one we all remember from school because King Harold took an arrow to the eyeball, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. In short, it was a punch-up between the English and French (Norman) and as you may have guessed by the title of this section, the latter won, changing the British language thenceforth.
The Normans were inclined to add suffixes to existing place names. However, Greys Thurrock is a rare prefix example where 'Thurrock' is Anglo Saxon for a ship’s hull, and 'Greys' derives from Henri de Grai (or Sir Henry de Grey to give it an anglicised spin) who happened to be besties with King John.
Following suit, a lot of the suffixes derive from people or families that owned the land on which villages and towns were built. Newport Pagnell is 'Neuport' (Anglo Saxon for new port) and 'Pagnell', from the Paynel family that took on the land. Similarly, Ashby de la Zouch (Ashby = Ash tree settlement or farm, and Zuche was the family) is a good example because you can even see the French workings in the place name.
Finally, Old Norse came from two Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Norway, and had a profound impact on the British language. Old Norse also ended the moment King Harold wished he’d ducked/worn goggles. Here’s a selection: Holm/Holme = island, Thorpe = settlement, Thwaite = clearing, Toft = house, and By = village, as in Grimsby.
As 'grim’ is an Anglo-Saxon word, Grimsby can literally mean ‘grim village’. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that Grimsby is a horrible place to live (I would never say such a thing), but rather 'grim’ could be the name of an early settler or derive from the Old Norse definition of a person wearing a face mask or helmet. Pretty sure the Vikings had a few of those knocking about.