Etymologies of Placenames in Britain
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On this page I have collected etymologies of the names of places we have visited where I have been able to determine these. I hope that the page will continue to expand as I add more names.
To locate a place on the map, click the map symbol beside its name.
I do not lay any claim to original research in these etymologies. I have used such sources as were available in books and online, checking multiple sources when possible in order to rule out mistakes and incorrect ‘popular etymologies’. A useful book that often served as a starting point in etymological searches is A Dictionary of British Place Names by A.D. Mills, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199609086.
A Note on the ‘Celts’
In the 18th century, historians formed and promulgated the view that, some centuries prior to the Roman occupation, Britain had been invaded and settled by tribes from the continent of Europe. These invaders were labelled ‘Celts’ and their language and culture were deemed to be ‘Celtic’. Their arrival in large numbers supposedly submerged the existing culture or cultures and led to the creation of ‘Celtic Britain’.
In line with this, the Romans were said to have conquered the ‘Celtic’ tribes who, when the Roman army withdrew and the Roman adminstration collapsed, resumed their ‘Celtic’ culture, only to be conquered again, now by the Germanic and Nordic raiders who eventually settled in Britain and made it theirs. A popular theory has it that the Germanic invaders drove the ‘Celts’ west, where they took refuge in the ‘Celtic’ regions of Cornwall and Wales, this idea supposedly explaining why ‘Celtic’ languages survived in those regions but disappeared in that part of the island that was to become England.
More recently, this theory has been debunked and it is no longer legitimate to speak of a pre-Roman ‘Celtic Britain’ or to label native names and words as ‘Celtic’. It now seems that the racial and cultural makeup of Britain continually changed as incomers settled and fought or made alliances with one another, while others left to find new homes elsewhere. The picture provides no room for a unified racial or cultural profile.
‘Very interesting,’ I hear you say, ‘but why does this matter?
It matters because many etymological texts, both in print and online, still refer to old place names or fragments of these as ‘Celtic’ and in transcribing these etymologies it is necessary to replace the now discredited adjective.
So how do we refer to the languages and cultures of the various tribes who have left vestiges in the names of the places where they lived and that were taken over by later occupiers? Sometimes it is possible to give a meaningful name to the language from which a word is thought to come and where this is the case, I will state that name, examples being Welsh, Cornish or Scottish Gaelic. In cases of less certainty I will use a term such as ‘British’. This is admittedly something of a kludge as the speakers of those tongues would not have had any concept of a geopolitical entity called ‘Britain’ or considered themselves citizens of it but it will have to do until something better comes along. It is possible that one will because the historians and archaeologists are still hard at work and turning up new information that their predecessors could not have imagined.
- Arundel The name of the town appears as Harundel in 1086. It is formed of two words from Anglo-Saxon, harhune (“horehound”, marrubium vulgare) and dell (“valley”). The river Arun takes its name from the placename, not the other way about as is more common.
- Barnet See Chipping Barnet.
- Battersea Battersea‘s modern-day name is a corruption of its Anglo-Saxon one, though what this was seems subject to argument. One view is that the land once belonged to the Abbey of St Peter in Westminster and from this it is argued that its name as Patricesy in Domesday Book (1086), should be taken to mean “Patrick’s island” (the names of Peter an d Patrick being cognate). Another view is that a mention of it in 693 as Badrices ieg (“Badric’s island”) shows that the name derives from the land being owned by a man called Badric. In either case, the ieg, ey or island was most likely ground reclaimed from marshland.
- Bermondsey The name of this district of London appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Bermundsey showing clearly enough that it originated in Anglo-Saxon times when a man called Beornmund claimed the land hereabouts. An ey, eg or ieg (the ‘g’ was pronounced like a modern ‘y’) was an island or a raised dry area amid marshes that was cultivated as farmland.
- Birchington The name of this locality derives from two Anglo-Saxon words, bircen (‘birch trees’) and tun (‘farm’). So Birchington started off as someone’s farm where birch trees grew.
- Brighton Appearing in Domesday Book (1086) as Bristelmestune, the name of Brighton is confidently attributed to the Anglo-Saxon words Beorhthelm, a man’s name, and tun, meaning ‘farmstead’.
- Broadstairs Before there was a town here (the nearest was St Peter’s which in modern times has been absorbed into Broadstairs) the area was known as Bradstowe which combines Anglo-Saxon words meaning ‘broad place’, presumably referring to the beach below which is indeed broad and would make a good landing place for boats. When a fishing village sprang up here, a flight of steps was cut in the cliff to provide a means of ascent from the beach. (Some sources claim that these steps were made in order to provide access to a shrine of the Virgin Mary that stood on the cliff-top.) I think it unlikely that anyone ever thought of the staircase as being ‘broad’ and I suspect that the name probably evolved from something like ‘Bradstowestairs’ to Broadstairs. That’s just a supposition, though, and we will probably never know for sure.
- Cambridge The name of this town appears around the year 745 as Grontabricc and in Domesday Book (1086) as Cantebrigie. These milestones help trace the evolution of the name from Granta, the British name of the river on which the town stands, and Anglo-Saxon brycg, meaning ‘bridge’. The change from Granta- to Cam- is thought to be owing to the influence of Norman scribes who greatly revised the spelling of the developing English language (not always to the benfit of future generations of English readers and writers). Usually it is the town that takes its name from the river but in this case, the modern name of the river, Cam, was formed by popular etymology from the name of the town. The meaning of the original name of the river, Granta, is unknown.
- Chipping Barnet Originally known as Chipping Barnet, this district of the London Borough of Barnet is these days more often called High Barnet, perhaps because that is the name of the nearest London Underground station. The word Barnet derives from an Anglo-Saxon word bærnet which meant “burning”, perhaps indicating that the land here had been cleared for cultivation by burning. The first part of the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ceaping, which meant “buying” or “marketing and was often added to the names of towns where markets were held. Chipping Barnet’s charter to hold a market was granted by King John in 1199 and renewed in 1588 by Queen Elizabeth I.
- Croydon References to the name of Croydon in various documents show it evolving from Crogedene (Anglo-Saxon charter of 809) through Croindene (Domesday Book, 1086), Croiendene (12th century) to Croindone and Croydone in the 13th century. The most popular etymology derived from these proposes the formation of the name from Anglo-Saxon croh, ‘crocus’, and denu, ‘valley’ (often a long narrow valley of the sort at whose head Croydon stands), giving the settlement the name ‘crocus valley’.
Some etymologists assert that the crocus in question is crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, and that it was cultivated commercially in the valley. The Romans certainly knew saffron and cultivated it in Gaul but it is uncertain whether they cultivated it in Britain and whether, if they did, its cultivation could have survived into Anglo-Saxon times. Perhaps, then, the crocus growing here was the native wild crocus which for some reason grew in sufficient abundance for its name to be given to the settlement.
- Dover To the Romans, this sea port was known as Dubris, their version of the native name Dubras. This word meant “the waters” and was the name the pre-Roman inhabitants gave to the river that flows through Dover still, though it is now culvetted in many places. We know it as the Dour.
- Dulwich The various spellings of this name from the Middle Ages onward plausibly suggest its origin in two Anglo-Saxon words, dile meaning ‘dill’ (the herb) and wisc meaning something like ‘wet or marshy meadow’.
- Dungeness The name refers to the projecting shape of this spur of land. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word næss, meaning “headland”, and the name of the nearby Denge marsh.
- Dymchurch The settlement appears around 1100 as Deman circe. This suggests a likely derivation from the Anglo-Saxon words dema,”judge” and cirice, “church”, hence “Church of the Judge”.
- Edinburgh The modern name of Edinburgh seems to derive from an earlier name, Eidyn, which may have been the name of the settlement itself or of a wider area. This was later combined with the Anglo-Saxon word burh, meaning ‘fortification’ or ‘fortified town’. The Gaelic name of the town, Dun Eideann, comes from Eidyn joined with dinon, a British word for ‘fortress’. The meaning of Eidyn, which appears in combined forms in other placenames, is not known.
- Folkestone The name Folkestone was finally settled only in the 19th century. In Domesday Book (1086) it appears as Fulchestan but its 697 appearance as Folcanstan gives a clearer indication of its origin as this means “Folca’s Stone”, Folca being a personal name. It seems that the settlement was named after a stone or rock designated as the place where the community met for important matters to be dealt with. Why would this stone be named after a person? Perhaps because it stood on his land but we will never know.
- Gateshead There has been some argument over the origins of the name of Gateshead. One theory suggests that its name came from the fact that it is the point where Watling Street ends. In that case, ‘gate’ might then be the Norse word for a street or road and the name mean ‘Head (i.e. ‘end’) of the road’.
The most popular explanation cites a reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede to a place called Ad Caprae Caput (‘(at) the goat’s head’) and while there is uncertainty surrounding this mention, it is true that that the Anglo-Saxon word gat (assuming that the ‘a’ is long) means ‘she goat’. The appearance of the name in 12th-century documents as Gateshevet and Gatesheued suggest the etymology gat plus heafod (‘headland’ or ‘hill’).
- Glasgow The etymology of Glasgow is uncertain. The settlement was probably founded in the 6th century when the area formed part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and the king, Rhydderch Hael, invited St Kentigern, also known as St Mungo, to build a church and set up a community there. According to the most frequently cited etymology, the name is formed of two words in the Cumbric language, glas, meaning ‘green’, and cau, meaning ‘basin’ or ‘hollow’. An alternative etymology takes the name Glasgu, which is attested in the 12th century, and derives the second element from cu, meaning ‘dear’ in Welsh to interpret the name as ‘Dear Green (Place)’. According to The Old North, this ‘is probably folk etymology based on the early form Glasgu (12C), which gives modern Gaelic Glaschu.’ Whatever the etymological validity of this name, it has become widely popular and ‘Dear Green Place’ is now a commonly cited pseudonym for Glasgow.
- Gosport The name of the town appears in the 13th century as Goseport which strongly suggests an origin in the Anglo-Saxon words gos, meaning ‘goose’. and port, which can have several meanings, though here, its meaning as ‘port’ or ‘harbour’ seems the obvious one. In that case, the name would indicate a port town where geese are sold. An alternative theory proposes that the name derives from gorse which is abundant in the area.
The story that in the 12th century the Bishop of Winchester, having been rescued from a storm at sea and brought ashore here, decreed that the town should henceforth be named ‘God’s Port’ has been dismissed as a 19th-century invention.
- Greenwich The name of this town comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, grene and wic. The first of these means “green” but the second is harder to tie down as it can have many different meanings. Derived from Latin vicus, a town or fortified place, wic (pronounced “wich”) came to mean a town, village or hamlet and was sometimes attached to names of places where there was a (dairy) farm. or a trading centre. Greenwich, then, is perhaps best thought of simply as “Green town”.
- Hastings Hastings appears in Domesday Book as Hastinges and before that in 915 as Hæstingaceaster. These names comprise two and three Anglo-Saxon words, respectively. The suffix -ingas means “people (belonging to the foregoing named person)”. In this case, that person was somebody called Hæsta. It is interesting that an early version of the name contains the word ceaster because this derives from the Latin castrum and by this stage in history simply indicated what was once a Roman town, possibly fortified. The name implies that Hæsta and his folk settled in an old Roman town and gave it their name.
- High Barnet See Chipping Barnet.
- Hook (London) Recorded in the 13th century as (La) Hoke, this name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word hoc, meaning ‘hook’, perhaps because the settlement occupied a hook-shaped piece of land.
- Hove Hove does not appear in Domesday Book or any other early documents as far as I know and its etymology is uncertain. A.D. Mills (A Dictionary of British Place Names) gives a derivation from Anglo-Saxon hufe, meaning ‘hood’ or ‘head covering’ and interprets this as ‘hood shaped hill’ or ‘shelter’ though I do niot know on what authority he extends the meaning of the word.
- Hoxton This area appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Hochestone. It is formed from the Anglo-Saxon personal name Hoc or Hoce and tun, the Anglo-Saxon word for “farm” .
- Islington The name appears in past times in such forms as Gislandone, Isendune and Iseldone, the latter as copied by Norman scribes into Domesday Book (1086). From this it is plausible to see it as deriving from two Anglo-Saxon terms, the personal name Gisla (genitive Gislan) and the noun dun, meaning ‘hill’, thus ‘Gisla’s Hill’. An alternative (and less favoured) etymology posits its formation from Anglo-Saxon isen, meaning ‘made of iron’ and dun. The resulting name ‘Hill of iron’ could be explained by the existence of local chalybeate streams.
- Leeds The name of Leeds (Yorkshire) is said to have evolved from the ancient British Ladenses, meaning ‘people living by the strongly flowing river’. The latter is a reference to the River Aire that still flows through the modern city. Bede gives the name as Loidis, though this seems to refer to the district or region rather than the settlement itself . In Domesday Book (1086), it appears as Ledes.
Inhabitants of Leeds are known locally as Loiners, a word of uncertain origin, or by the Latin-derived term Leodensians.
- Littlehampton The name of this town appears as Hantone in Domesday Book (1086) and as Lyttelhampton in 1482. It seems likely that “Little” was added to the name to distinguish it from other “hamptons”, such as Southampton. The remainder of the name consists of two words from Anglo-Saxon, ham, which has a number of meanings but probably means “home” here, and tun, meaning “farm”.
- Margate In 1264 this town is cited as Meregate and this gives a strong clue to the origin of the name in two Anglo-Saxon words. The first is mere meaning ‘sea’ (as in the word ‘mermaid’) and the second is geat, a word that has several possible meanings. Here, as elsewhere in Kent’s seaside town names, it probably means a gap in the cliffs allowing access to the sea although it can also refer to pools that form in gaps in the chalk cliffs.
- Newcastle upon Tyne Newcastle upon Tyne takes its name from the castle built by Henry II in the latter quarter of the 12th century. It was ‘new’ in the sense that it replaced a wooden castle built by the Normans following the Conquest of 1066. Though the castle was often mentioned in documents by its Latin name, Novum Castellum, its modern name developed from the Old English niwe castel.
The name of the river, Tyne, is of uncertain origin. It possibly developed from a word for ‘river’ or ‘water’ in one of the ancient (pre-Roman) British languages but there is no solid evidence for this or for any of the other proposed solutions.
- New Malden The name Malden, which is recorded as Meldone in Domesday Book (1086), comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, mæl, meaning ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix, and dun, meaning ‘hill’ , thus ‘Hill with a crucifix’.
- Old Malden See New Malden.
- Poplar Poplar started as a small village or hamlet surrounded by marshy ground. It is alleged that black poplar trees were abundant here and that the village took its name from the name of the trees. Early versions of the name appear as Popler or Poplier and there was a nearby manor named Popeler, all three words being Anglo-Norman terms for the poplar tree.
- Ramsgate The name of this town does derive from an animal but not from a ram. In 1275 the name is recorded as Remmesgate and this suggests that it combines two Anglo-Saxon words: firstly, hrem (genitive hremmes), meaning ‘raven’ (the bird) and, secondly, geat meaning a gap in the cliffs allowing access to the sea. There is, however, an outside chance that Rams derives from a personal name, that of the owner of the land or of a notable inhabitant .
- Romford Even though the name appears as Romfort in 1177, there is no doubt that ford or fort means what you think it does: Romford is one of those towns that grew from a settlement beside a ford across a river. The first part of the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon adjective rum meaning “broad”. Because the river at Romford is called the Rom, you might be misled into thinking that the town took its name from the river. In fact, the opposite is true: the river’s proper name is the Beam and it is called the Rom as a result of a mistaken inverse etymology.
- Rottingdean This town appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Rotingedene. The probable etymology of this name is from three Anglo-Saxon words, Rota (a man’s personal name), -inga, “family or followers of”, and denu, “valley”.
- Shoreham (Sussex) Appearing as Soreham in Domesday Book (1086), the name derives from two Anglo-Saxon words. The first is proposed to be scora, meaning “steep bank or slope”, though this word is inferred to exist, not actually known. The second is ham, meaning “homestead”.
- Streatham There is general agreement that this name derives from two Anglo-Saxon words, stræt, meaning ‘street’ and ham, a word with many meanings but here probably ‘village’. This ‘Village on the street’ was conveniently situated on the Roman road leading from the Roman sea port of Portslade in Sussex to London and would have made a convenient place to stop to rest and take refreshment.
- Sutton Sutton appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Sudtone which most likely derives from two Anglo-Saxon words suth and tun meaning “south” and “farm”, respectively. So Sutton owes its origins to a property known to the Anglo-Saxon neighbours as “South Farm”.
- Thanet, Isle of The of Thanet contains the most easterly part of the county of Kent and three of its best known and loved seaside resorts, Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate. The title of “Isle” recalls a time when this region was entirely separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel and therefore was indeed an island. The watercourse became silted up long ago but the honorific endures. The origin of the name of Thanet is uncertain but thought by some historians to derive from a British expression meaning “bright island” or “fire island”, perhaps indicating that there was once a beacon maintained here. The name of Wantsum is said to derive from Old English wandsum or wensum, meaning “wandering” or “meandering” though I have not managed to locate these terms.
There is also thought by some to be a connection with the Ancient Greek belief that Britain was the island to which the dead were carried and that Thanet is cognate with Thanatos, the personniification of death in Greek mythology.
- Thornton Heath The name Thornton is said to derive from Anglo-Saxon þorn, ‘thorn (tree)’, and tun, ‘farm’ or ‘(cattle) enclosure’. In the case of Thornton Heath, the word ‘heath’, from Anglo-Saxon hæþ, means what it appears to mean.
- Tyne, River See Newcastle upon Tyne.
- Westgate I don’t know when Westgate acquired its name. Towns with ‘east’ or ‘west’ in their names are usually so called because of their position relative to a larger and more important neighbour. This suggests that Westgate is so called simply to distinguish it from Margate. The ‘gate’ in both names is claimed to come from the Anglo-Saxon word geat, meaning a gate or, in this case, a gap between cliffs allowing access to the sea. Westgate was just plain Westgate until the railway reached it in the 1870s when the station was named Westgate-on-Sea (no doubt in the hope of attracting holidaymakers and day-trippers), an appellation that soon became applied to the town itself.
- York The settlement that was to become York appears in pre-Roman times as Eburacum meaning “estate belonging to (a man called) Eburos”. Here the Romans built first a fort and then a town, the largest in the north of Britannia, and they Romanized the name as Eboracum. The Anglo-Saxons later established a port here and modified the name to Eoforwic, meaning “wild-boar town”. In 866 the town fell to Viking invaders and became their largest town on British soil. The town remained in Viking hands under the name Yorvik until 954 when King Eadred of Wessex recaptured it and made it once more part of Anglo-Saxon England. In time, the name Yorvik mutated to York.