What is now the United Kingdom has been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans. All of these peoples contributed words which make up the place names we have today.

  Place names have three main origins:

  The earliest names are those of the main rivers which generally originate before the arrival of the Celts indicating the importance of rivers for travel and communications.

The Celts

  Peoples from a northern section of the main European Iron Age tribes, known by the Greeks as Κελτοι ‘Keltoi’ and later as the Celts, who lived in northern France and the Netherlands, moved north into Britain in small numbers from the fourth century B.C.E. bringing their language (p-Celtic) with them.  The tribes in the south of Britain were known to the Greeks as the Πρετανι that is ‘Pretani’ (Britons) which probably came from the Celtic language.  A little later, a Celtish tribe from southern France and Galicia in Spain, known as the ‘Gaels’, settled in Ireland.  They spoke Goidelic or Gaelic (q-Celtic).  The Britons left behind fragments of names that are now most often found in the west of England and in Wales, places to where they retreated as the next invaders arrived from Europe.  Scottish and Irish place names have Gaelic roots.  Celtic names are particularly found in isolated spots which suggests that more remote groups remained Celtic-speaking long after other groups had accepted the language of the post-Roman Anglo-Saxons.  The names themselves usually contain elements which make up a description of the place.

  Celtic place-name elements include:

aber-  means the mouth of a river in Welsh and Pictish     Aberdovey, Gwyd.  Aberdour, Fife
baile-  means farmstead, village in Irish Gaelic     Ballygomartin, County Antrim
beinn (ben)  meaning a hill in Gaelic     Ben Nevis, Highland  Bengore, County Antrim
cair-  fortified town     Carlisle, Cumbria
penn-  means a hill or hill tor (particularly found in Cornwall)     Penrhyn,  Penn, Bucks.
gleann (glen)  a narrow mountain valley     Glencoe = valley of the river Coe
tre- (tref- in Welsh)  a settlement or farm (particularly found in Cornwall)     TremaineTregaron.

  The River Ouse gets its name from the Celtic word for water, and Lynn from the Celtic word for lake.

The Romans

  The Celts were conquered by the Romans and from 43 and 410 A.D. England was the a distant part of the Roman Empire. The Romans only left behind around 300 place names so it seems that the Roman administrators must have continued to use existing Celtic names. Roman names for their main towns were usually replaced with Old English names by the Anglo-Saxons. Thus Aquae Sulis translated to Bath and Eburacum became York.

  Latin place-name elements are:

-ceaster (-chester, -caster)  a Roman station or walled town in Old English
colonia (-coln)  a settlement     Lincoln
pons- (pont-)  a bridge     Pontefract = broken bridge
porta (-port)  a gate, entrance - hence later a harbour
portus (-port)  a harbour     Portsmouth
-strata (Strat-, -street)  a Roman road     Chester Le Street, Durham

  As with the Celtic elements, there are very few names that contain Latin elements but one is significant.  Ceaster is derived from the Latin castra (camp) and this forms the second element of many English towns and cities such as Manchester, Winchester and Cirencester.  A few names contain the much later designations of Magna (Greater) and Parva (Smaller).

The Anglo-Saxons

  With the departure of the Romans, three west Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to invade the British Isles in 449 AD.  They came from Denmark and the coast of Germany and Holland.  The Anglo-Saxons named their new country Engaland (the land of the Angles) and their language was called Englisc, now termed 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'Old English'.  The Angles settled in the centre (Mercia)and east (Anglia) and the Sazons in the south and west.

  Old English place-name elements include:

-burna (-borne)  a brook, stream     Otterbourne, Hampshire
-burh (-burg)  a fortified place, castle     Tewkesbury, Glos.
-broc  a brook or stream     Drybrook, Glos.
-brycg  a bridge     Bristol  Pembridge, Hfds.
-cumb (coombe)  a deep valley     Ilfracombe, Devon
-cot  a cottage     Didcot, Oxon.
-den  a valley     Micheldean, Glos.
-dun  a hill or down     Swindon, Glos.
-eg (later -ey)  an island or raised ground surrounded by marsh     Godney, Somerset
-feld  open space later a field     Sheffield
-ford  a river ford     Hereford
-halh  a nook, corner of land     Shifnal, Shropshire
-ham  a homestead     Birmingham
-hamm  an enclosure, water-meadow     Passenham, Northants.
-hrycg  a ridge    Lindridge, Worcs.
-hyrst  a wooded hill     Midhurst, West Sussex
-hyll  a hill     Sedgehill, Wilts.
-ingas (-ing)  the people of ...     Hastings, East Sussex  Pickering, North Yorkshire
-leah (-ley)  a woodland clearing     Hatherley, Glos.
-mer (-mere)  a lake     Ringmer, East Sussex
-mutha  a river mouth or estuary     Lynmouth, Devon  Barmouth, Wales
-stede  a place, site of a building     Hampstead, London = the homestead
-tun  an enclosure, farmstead, estate     Castleton, Derbyshire
-wella  a spring or stream     Hartwell, Northants.
-wic  Romano-British settlement     Ipswich, Suffolk  Harwich, Essex
-wick  produce (of a farm, particularly dairy)     Giggleswick, North Yorkshire
-worth  an enclosure, homestead     Knebworth, Herts.

The Scandinavians

  From 789 AD onwards, the Vikings, seafaring Norseman from Denmark and Norway raided most parts of the British Isles.  But through the ninth to the eleventh centuries they came to settle alongside the Anglo-Saxons.  Eastern and south-east England became subject to Danish rule, the Danelaw.  The north-west of England and Scotland were invaded by the Norwegians.  The Scandinavian languages, Old Norse and Old Danish, have the same Germanic roots as Old English and so, over the years, place names were adjusted.  The Norsemen struggled with ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ sounds and English Shipton became Norse Skipton, English Cheswick became Norse Keswick.

  Scandinavian place-name elements include:

-bekkr (beck)  a farmstead or settlement, then a village     Caldbeck, Cumbria
-by  a farmstead or settlement, then a village     Whitby, North Yorkshire
-dalr  a dale, valley     Patterdale, Cumbria
-ey  an island     Orkney
-fjall  an island     Orkney
-fjorthr  fjord=sea inlet     Strangford, County Down (meaning 'strong inlet';it's Irish name is Baile Loch Cuan)
-gathr (-garth)  a yard, open space     Aysgarth, N.Yorks
-gil  a ravine     Garrigill, Cumbria
-holmr (-holm)  flat ground by a river     Durham
-kirkja  a church hence Scots kirk     Ormskirk, Lancashire
-lundr  a grove   
-nes  promomntory, headland     Skegness, Lincs
-thorp  an outlying farmstead or hamlet     Milnthorpe, Cumbria
-thveit (-thwaite)  a meadow     Haverthwaite, Cumbria
-toft  a site of a house and outbuildings, a plot of land, a homestead     Lowestoft, Suffolk
-vithr  a wood     Skipwith, North Yorkshire

The Norman-French

  The English king, Harold Godwinson, defeated a Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge in 1066 A.D. but, that same year, the Normans, a Germanic tribe with lands in northern France, led by Duke William of Normandy, invaded and defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings.  They were Christians and pushed back the pagan Celts to the margins of the country.  French was spoken by the Court and the nobility and became the language of the English Parliament for the next 300 years.  However Old English of the Anglo-Saxons remained the language of the people and, like the Romans, the Normans left a very small legacy of place names.  Most settlements were well established by the time of their invasion but there were subtle changes in names where Norman scribes had problems with Old English spelling and pronunciation!

  Norman-French place-name elements include:

beau-  beautiful     Beaulieu, Hants
-mond (-mont)  a hill     Egremont, Cumbria

  In a number of locations, the incoming French lords added their manorial name to the English placename such as at Redmarley d'Abitot, Glos., Kingston (de) Bagpuize, Oxon. and Norton Fitzwarren, Somerset.

  Names continue to change and spellings have often drifted away from the original forms: Spalding in Lincolnshire in 2006 is Spallinge in Norman Domesday Book of 1086.  Egglesbreth in Gaelic became Varia Capella to the Romans, then Varie Capelle to the Normans and finally ended as Falkirk from OE fag + cirice=speckled church, that is, made from mottled stone.

  As settlements grew it became important to differentiate neighbouring villages and some had additional words added to the front indicating size, position or some feature, so we have: Great - Little - Broad - Long - Upper - Lower - Up - Down - West - East - North - South - Church - Steeple - in places such as Church Stretton in Shropshire OE cirice=church and straet + tun=village on a Roman road. 

  Later, medieval Latin was resurrected and names such as Blandford Forum, Lyme Regis and Chew Magna appeared at this time.

Particular Places

The Saints  Around sixty towns and villages are named after the patron saint of the local church mainly dating from the 13th C.  They cover the country from St.Andrews in Fife to St. Ives in Cornwall, from St.Davids in Pembrokeshire to St. Leonards in East Sussex.  Sometimes the saint’s name is added after the village name as at Chalfont St.Giles and Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire.

The Stokes  A small number of village have a first name Stoke from Old English stoc, meaning an outlying farmstead or hamlet. The second name is either the saint’s name from the local church, as at Stoke St. Gregory in Somerset or the landowner’s family such as Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire and Stoke D'Abernon in Surrey. Incidentally the ending -shire comes from OE scir meaning district.

Aston and Ashton  One letter difference but the former means eastern farmstead or estate while the latter means farmstead or estate where ash trees grow. Examples are Aston Rowant in Oxfordshire and Ashton under Hill in Worcestershire.


A Dictionary of British Place-Names - A.D.Mills 2003
Society for Creative Anachronism - Kristine Elliott 1997
An Atlas of English Dialects - Upton and Widdowson 1996