You are on page 1of 9

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 pre-
British, 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, river-
meadow, 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, place-
name 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 Anglo-

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.

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 place-
name. 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 place-
name (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.

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

Originally converted to HTML Format by Tibor of Rock Valley/Mark Schuldenfrei

Maintained by Codex Herald. This page was last updated on Wednesday, December 31, 2014.
The site is copyright 1995-2017 Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.
The copyright of certain portions of are retained by the original contributors as noted.
Paper texture used with permission from