British place names are a fascinating subject and for anyone with an enquiring mind and a love of history a study which sparkles in the imagination. The image below is of Old Welwyn in Hertfordshire, England. As a British place name it is a bit special.
Find out more about the study of place names, toponymy, British place names and how our landscapes of occupation preserve the past. At the end of this post there is also a video discussion about this subject with the wonderful ancient language linguist, Simon Roper.
What is in a name? Such a simple enquiry but when we think about it, we rarely ever ask this question. We simply take as ‘given’ that the name of a place is just the name of a place. Let us take a very simple example, the American city of New York.
This is the name attached to the most influential city in the world by some reckonings. As a ‘brand’ name it is just about as well known globally as any other city. But where does the name come from and what does it mean?
The vast majority of people will just not know the answer to this question. Many will try and guess and most of them will get it wrong when they, logically, say “Well, there is a city in England called York and the British named the city ‘New York’ after that.”
As said, logical but wrong. The real story is that this place was named after the then-Duke of York in 1664. Originally known as New Amsterdam when under Dutch control, on seizing it from their control the Duke was appointed the ‘proprietor’ of the territories and its main city.
Already we are starting to see that behind names there lies a history and so in understanding place names we learn more about our histories. This study of the meaning of place names is called toponymy and is well known for being a very complicated area of research with very few specialists working in the field. The study of British place names is one of the most complex academic tasks there is.
Britain is an island within which we find three distinct national territories; Scotland, Wales and England. The other matter of its geography which is important to us here is the fact it is close to the continent of Europe. What that means is that settlers, refugees and invaders have had very easy access to Britain across its history of human habitation.
In practical terms for toponymy, the result is that many different languages have entered the British landscape over the past 6,000 years. All of these languages have an impact on the naming of places in Britain. British place names are a conglomerate of linguistics across the stratigraphy of our history. This immediately tells us two things.
The more we know and understand what British place names mean, the more it is possible to see different migration events into the country. We can look at a very specific example here by considering the Saxon word This word derives from the Roman word castrum which denotes a fort.
Moreover, this word ceaster is also changed by accent and language developments into the words chester and cester. What this is telling us is that our places’ names which contain these words were sites of Roman forts and areas of occupation going back nearly 2000 years ago.
Chester Cirencester Caistor Leicester Manchester Ilchester
Already we should be seeing why the study of toponymy is so important. Yet the second element we can conclude as a result of this history of people flooding into Britain with all their different languages is that you have to know a lot of languages to discover what British place names mean.
Here is just a small list of what the average toponymist will have to have some grasp of if not actual expertise. This list also tells you why there are so few toponymists.
Old European – Goidelic – Brittonic – Roman Latin
Anglo-Saxon – Old English
Medieval Church Latin – Old Danish – Old Norse – Norman French
Add to this complex linguistic recipe the fact that the English of the 13th century would not be recognisable to the English spoken today and the final feast we are presented with is one which has changed over the years. What also adds to this level of complexity is that some elements of British place names can be found in more than one old language but with different meanings.
Just because a British place name ends in ‘ton’, like Buxton, does not mean it denotes a farm or hamlet as a corruption of the Saxon word tun defines. This ‘ton’ suffix can also mean hill because the Saxon word for hill, ‘don’, can change to ‘ton’ over time.
Then we have to throw into the mix situations such as the case of Buxton, it can also be a shortening of the word stone.
Not only are the tools needed to decode British place names quite complex, not only are the methods needed to employ a study of toponymy also not simple but the British place names themselves have been squashed, mixed, contracted, adapted and generally slushed into a mish-mash of meanings.
Bringing together what we have discovered so far, we can use the word ‘wick’ to see it all in action. Let’s start with a British place name such as Wickham. There are two components here; wick and ham. Ham was a Saxon word for a village or maybe a settlement. Seems simple so far but we do have to remember that the word ‘hamm’ meant water meadow.
Consequently, we have to consider the geography of a place and then we also have to remember that landscapes change. More so when we are talking about watercourses and wetlands.
Southampton which is located in a river estuary makes a good candidate for its ‘ham’ meaning being water meadow.
But Wickham doesn’t have a geography of water meadow and so we know that this word ‘wick’ comes from the Roman word ‘vicus’. Now ‘vicus’ is the term any archaeologist will tell you is attributed to the village outside of a Roman fort.
Wickham in Hampshire is situated on a Roman road which connected the Roman settlements at Winchester and Chichester. Nearby to the village, we also find archaeology of Roman industrial processes. These are believed to be the remains of iron works.
All of this gives us the meaning of this British place name of Wickam to mean something like ‘the settlement or estate near the old Roman village by the fort’.
If you love history you should be starting to see the real excitement in working in toponymy. As a subject, it provides the opportunity to bring our past historical landscapes to life. But it is a subject that will test you.
This word ‘wick’ in British place names only means ‘vicus’ when it appears as a prefix in the word. Where wick appears as a suffix it has a completely different meaning again.
If you think that may be a bit awkward but still easily manageable then think again. Toponymy will not let you get away with it that lightly. No, there are other possible meanings of the word ‘wick’ where it occurs at the end of a place name.
The first is the meaning of a trading place, perhaps something like a market. We recognise this construction in the British place name Norwich; the north trading place.
The next meaning of wick is in the sense of a small port and that is found in the name of Greenwich. And here we see how the original name has transformed from wick to wich. Another problem for the detective of British place names.
Then, just to make sure that you don’t go jumping to any conclusions and are left bereft of any possibility of assumption, there is the meaning of ‘farm’ which can be applied to ‘wick‘. Such as in Gatwick, meaning goat farm, and Chiswick, meaning cheese farm.
What you will have realised by now is just how much information is sitting there on your map when you are looking at place names. You just have to learn how to read them. Once you do you will find that the way you look at a place will change.
What is even more exciting for that enquiring historical mind is that when you discover the history of a British place name it can then lead you into making other discoveries about the history of that location.
What’s in a name eh?
History and Landscape
Old English hæð “untilled land, tract of wasteland,” especially flat, shrubby, desolate land;” earlier “heather, plants and shrubs found on heaths,” influenced by cognate Old Norse heiðr “heath, moor,” both from Proto-Germanic *haithiz (source also of Old Saxon hetha, Old High German heida “heather,” Dutch heide “heath,” Gothic haiþi “field”), from PIE *kaito “forest, uncultivated land” (source also of Old Irish ciad, Welsh coed, Breton coet “wood, forest”).
[Note: PIE means Proto Indo-European]
The image below is of Colney Heath in Hertfordshire. “One of the few remaining acid heathlands in Hertfordshire, this 60-acre site, bordering the river Colne, provides a haven for wildlife and a place for quiet relaxation for local people.” says Coney Parish Council.
This is how a journey can begin for the enthusiastic lover of history when looking at place names in the landscape. A heath is an old social construction of landscape which over time have been lost to enclosures and development.
They were wild places which the population could access and use. The process of the Inclosure Acts was a means by which the profitability of the land could be transferred into the hands of elite landlords.
Prior to enclosure, local populations held pasture, pannage or estover rights. The collecting of firewood, the grazing of stock and other access to financial incomes provided the common people with a lifestyle which allowed for certain freedoms.
By the time of the industrial revolution, it was in the interests of the wealthy industrialists to move the people into their factories. Removing their living by the process of enclosure was seen as a method to turn countryside populations into factory workers.
An old heath such as Colney Heath tells us that there was a history of its preservation. As we delve into the meaning of the name we can start to ask questions about this history of survival and that will lead us to all sorts of other interesting stories within this landscape.
There is the claim that soldiers fleeing the Battle of Barnet, in 1471, were slaughtered on the Heath. This connects us to the Wars of the Roses and through this association we find that the battle is remembered in the coat of arms of the current London Borough of Barnet.
According to A. D. Mills, in the (2003). edition of “. A Dictionary of British Place-Names. Oxford University Press” “The place name Barnet is derived from the Old English bærnet meaning “Land cleared by burning”. And so we can summise that the place of Barnet was cleared and settled land during Saxon times, probably from the 7th century or possibly earlier.
This is why British place names and what they start to reveal about our landscape are such a treasure for the enquiring mind.
Simon has a brilliant YouTube channel in which he produces the most amazing work on old languages.
I have been fortunate to have him help me with some of my ideas and presentations. If you enjoyed this blog post then you can only gain great enjoyment by looking at Simon’s channel.