What Can Place-Names Tell us about Basically Everything?

Hot damn, place-names though! I have ridiculous levels of enthusiasm for place-names, which may be evident in the slightly breathless roller coaster of exclamations that follows in this blog post, and for that I apologise.

So why would anyone care about place-names? Admittedly they’re niche. But place-names can tell us ridiculous amounts about so much: settlement patterns, landscape, agriculture, farming and commerce, language, societal hierarchies, administration, cultural attitudes and trends, religion, regional politics and probably much more. They do it all! And the reason I get so excited about them is not the names themselves, but the wealth of information you can get from them by looking at an area and studying them in the contexts of the names around them, and the contexts of naming patterns in general.

My area of expertise is Old English place-names, but the theory and patterns I’ll describe here would probably apply to most other languages and cultures. The predominant trend in Old English place-names is the use of landscape terms, which arose because the Anglo-Saxons were an agricultural society and were heavily dependent on the landscape around them. This is reflected in a massively diverse lexicon of landscape terms, which I’ll come back to later.

There are two main structures of Old English place-name: Simplex and Compound. The simplex just has one element or word in it, the compound has two or more in, typically a generic word meaning ‘town’, ‘settlement’, etc, and a specific, modifying word or element which describes that settlement and distinguishes it from other ones. This is off the top of my head, but I believe that simplex names are generally older, and that compound names developed later. These can be used as evidence to date when an area was settled because names, like so much in life, follow fashion.

Within these structures, there are different types of place-names. Simply put, places can be named after different types of things. There are place-names which describe the landscape, which are plentiful, more plentiful and varied than in Modern English, reflecting a different relationship with the landscape. These probably arose as a way to describe the place where people lived, such as the hill shaped like a heel (‘hōh’ in Old English), or the valley with three sides (‘cumb’), or a clearing in a forest (‘leāh’). There are Old English words for different shapes of hill and valley, for different types of water and shapes of river bend, different soil types, plants, woods, walls. All sorts. A lot of them have since died out in the general language but remain fossilised in place-names.

There are places named after an important figure, such as the leader of that community. A famous example is ‘Nottingham’, which is literally ‘settlement of the followers of Snottr’, a Norse name which probably came about after the Viking invasions and settlement in the North of England. After the Norman Conquest, French speakers, unfamiliar with the <sn> consonant cluster, dropped the <s>, and their usage has given us the modern spelling. Place-names after people are interesting not just because they tell us about the presence of different nationalities, or about the names of leaders, but because they can tell us about the growth and spread of a community. Depending on whether a place-name ends in -ham, -ingas, or -ingaham, we can tell whether it was the point of initial settlement, or a satellite settlement as the original community grew too large and had to spread out into the surrounding area (because these name-elements follow fashions and trends, too). Typically, the earliest settlements (and thus names) are those near water and on the best soil, and as demand for land grew, the community would have to spread on to poorer and poorer land. Sometimes there’ll be a connected place-name some distance away from the original settlements, and a path or road linking them, which shows the distance a community would have had to travel to find decent farmland.

Places can also be named after the people who live there. These names will be given not by those who live in the place, but others around it, as a way of labelling and of distinguishing ‘us’ and ‘them’. A nice example is ‘Wales’, which means ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in Old English (from ‘wealh’).

There are also places which describe what type of agriculture, faming or lifestyle the people who lived there had (for example, ‘Swindon’, which means ‘pig hill’ (or swine-hill), so the people there farmed pigs. On a hill) (or, for example, Gropecuntelane, Clawecunte and Shavecuntewell as described in this paper (admittedly some of these are particularly graphic topographical descriptions but I couldn’t NOT mention them!) (this paper also mentions the excellent Orcas in Sandford which is from the Old French ‘Oriescuilz’ meaning ‘golden ballocks’. David Beckham, take note).

There are places named after religious figures or practices. These are typically pagan, by which I mean non-Christian, and are quite rare. Weirdly, there are about 5 clustered together in Hampshire and Surrey, where I’m from, and include Thurston and Tuesley (named after Thor and Tiw (as are Thursday and Tuesday) and Peper Harow, which means the Piper’s Hearg, ‘hearg’ being a pagan temple. With the Christianisation of England, pagan temples were ransacked and paganism died out. If the names were still recognisable to the people living there they were likely to rename it, perhaps to disassociate themselves from paganism. We also find Christian place-names, the most common I can think of is ‘eccles’, which is the Latin for ‘church’ (as in ‘ecclesiastic’). These are interesting, because the survival of a Latin name means that place must have been settled in the time of Roman settlement, and continued to be lived in by people long beyond the presence of Romans and the use of Latin as a vernacular language, and that the name continued to be used by people even though they didn’t necessarily understand its meaning as a Latin word.

There are also some oddities which can tell us about a specific moment in time.

The River Avon, for example, just a Celtic word, a rarity, meaning ‘river’. A nice theory I’ve heard about this is that when the Anglo-Saxons invaded and pushed the resident Celts out (to Wales and Cornwall), there was very little contact (evidenced by the almost total lack of Celtic words in Old English), and when they came to the Avon someone said ‘what do you call this?’, and the Celts shrugged and said ‘a river’, and the Anglo-Saxons, not understanding Celtic, thought it was the name and appropriated it. Why they bothered to ask if they cared so little is unexplained… The same is said of ‘Ouse’, which is Celtic for ‘water’.

There’s Morpeth, which literally means ‘murder path’. Which tells a nice story…!

And Grimston hybrids. These are compound names in which one element is Old English and one is Old Norse. Grimston, obviously, has this: ‘Grimr’ is an Old Norse personal name, ‘tun’ is Old English for ‘town’ (compared to the Old Norse equivalent ‘by’ as in ‘Grimsby’). There are a couple of ways these places could’ve come about. They could be Anglo-Saxon settlements which received an influx of Viking settlers, or which received a new Viking leader, but the speakers remained Old English. Or, it could be a wholly new Viking settlement but they saw ‘tun’ as just what goes on the end of a place-name in this new country, much like ‘ville’ in America which is technically a French element, even though the people who name a place ‘Jacksonville’ aren’t actually French speakers.

The most notable thing about English place-names today is their weird spelling/pronunciation, which causes untold strife to non-native speakers. Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I’m looking at you. But there is a good reason for these weird pronunciations. Basically, place-names start out life an a description or a thing, or a label. They’re just a short noun-phrase used to distinguish a thing or a place from other things or places. At some point, these short phrases stop being phrases and become names. And how do we know that happens? The pronunciation is a big clue. Say, for example, a new estate was built near you, and you referred to it as the new estate. Ten years later, you’re still calling it the new estate, but it’s no longer new, other estates have been built since, but that one’s still called the New Estate. The words have ceased to mean ‘the estate which has just been built’ and have come to mean ‘the place we call ‘new estate”. 100 years down the line, it’s still called the New Estate. Perhaps it’s got some kind of independent administrative system and they’ve taken on the name New Estate and made it official. 500 years down the line English has changed quite a bit, but the name has become twisted, and because no-one connects it to the words ‘new’ and ‘estate’ anymore, that form doesn’t need to be preserved, and people who speak a different language have since invaded and repronounced everything anyway, and now it’s 1,000 years down the line and that place is now called Nustat. That’s how Gloucestershire happened.*

This means, when you’re trying to find out what a place-name means, you need to find the earliest cited form of the name, because confusion can arise. For example, a modern place-name ending in ‘borough’ can be from any of three different words. There’s Old English ‘beorg’ meaning ‘a rounded hill’, Old Scandinavian ‘berg’ meaning hill, and ‘burh’ one meaning ‘a fortification’. Each of these words tells a very different story about the history of that settlement, the people who lived there, and about their relationships with each other and with the landscape. And that, to me, is the beauty of place-names.

*Shameless plug, but I recently wrote a journal article about that. Ask me more!

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9 responses to “What Can Place-Names Tell us about Basically Everything?

  1. Great article, place names are so richly endowed with story telling, I love them – and would love to have a look at your journal article if it’s available somewhere for non-academics, I’m from Gloucester and have been fascinated with our naming history since learning that we’re the Caerloyw of the Mabinogi. It’s all very witchy and exciting in our past.

    • Thanks so much – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I only recently looked into the etymology of Gloucester, but it tells an excellent story, doesn’t it.

      My article’s more about the process by which noun phrases become place-names, so there’s nothing about Gloucester in it (although the charter text I used described some land in Gloucestershire). It’s not easily accessible unless you can get hold of the print version sadly, but I can send you a pdf of an early draft?

  2. great work and well written too. I had no idea place names were so much like bits of amber! What journal is your article in?

    • Thank you so much! I’m very glad you liked it. Place-names are fascinating, and I barely scratched the surface of what they can tell us in this post. There’s some very interesting work being done, particularly at Nottingham, I think.

      My article’s in the newest edition of New Medieval Literatures, on the noun phrases of a Worcester charter.

  3. As the author of more than twenty books on the subject of place names, with another fifteen or so in the pipeline, I am delighted to find someone whose enthusiasm for place names almost rivals mine!
    Whilst the definitions were known to me, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the piece one iota. If only everyone was as enthusiastic as us!

  4. this is great, also about taking ownership of language, maintaining link between language and reality (‘rematerialising’ as quebecois poet gaston miron said). have you read/heard of olof rudbeck’s ‘atlantica’? he bases a lot of his swedish atlantis theory on creative etymology

  5. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this. Please, more!!

  6. Thanks for your insights. India is a fascinating place when it comes to name of places because city names can come from six different languages: various dialects of Dravidian (language of original inhabitants of India), various dialects of Sanskrit (introduced by Aryans as they migrated from Central Asia), Persian, Turkish, Arabic and the modern Urdu/Hindustani which was a combination of all these languages.

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