Sunday, 17 November 2013

Origins of English Place Names

This week saw me complete negotiations for more books on the origins of place names. These, together with previously released volumes, mean I will have penned and published something on every English county by the time the last of these is released by the summer of 2014. I make no apologies for taking this opportunity to define the names of the counties and include a shameless plug for each volume and include a link to each. The list appears in the same chronological order these books were and/or wiil be released.

My first book was Staffordshire Place Names in 1996. The county, as with so many names, simply adds Old English scir to the name of the county town. The Saxon ‘shire’ was an administrative region, created when they realised something was required between the hundred and the nation. When it comes to Stafford, we see two elements where staeth ford speaks of ‘the river crossing near the landing place’. It stands to reason the landing place would have been at the highest navigable point upstream, a place which would also have been shallow enough to ford. I should add that while this book is now out of print, there will be an e-book version out within the next few months.

Next came Warwickshire Place Names which is already available as an e-book. Another ‘shire’ attached to the name of the county town. Here we see Warwick from Old English waering wic or ‘the dwellings at the weir’.

Examining Worcestershire Place Names we see another scir or ‘administrative district’, this time following the city of Worcester, named as ‘the Roman stronghold of the Weogora tribe’. These Celtic peoples are thought to have been named as ‘the dwellers at the winding river’.

On to Derbyshire Place Names and the city of Derby. Here another scir with Old Scandinavian deor by telling of ‘the farmstead where deer are found’.

In Leicestershire and Rutland Place Names two counties were covered. With Leicester we see another Celtic tribe named. Although ‘the Roman stronghold of the people called Ligore’, again with scir, features a tribal name which has never been understood. In Rutland we have a place name which was adopted as the county name, this referring to ‘the estate of a man called Rota’.

South to yet another scir and Oxfordshire Place Names with the city of spires being named from far humbler beginnings, this ‘the ford used by oxen’.

My next volume was Shropshire Place Names and a county town where pronunciation will never be agreed, at least not by Salopians. So we will ignore Shrewsbury and define Shropshire and find another scir or ‘administrative district’. The first element comes from Old English scrob meaning ‘scrubland’, thus correctly it should be Shrobshire, although the question of where this ‘scrubland’ was found remains. The answer is the county town, for Shrewsbury began as scrob’s-bury and shows why it should be pronounced Shro- and not read as Shrew- for it is the spelling of Shrewsbury which is in error and as a wise professor once told me, no name was ever mispronounced before the people could read. I am already aware the ‘correct’ pronunciation is becoming less popular and already I am wondering when the ‘incorrect’ form will become the accepted version.

No such problems when tackling Nottinghamshire Place Names where this scir suffixes the city named as ‘the homestead of the family or followers of a man named Snot’. Whilst I’m sure the residents would not appreciate the initial ‘S’ being reinstalled, they might be interested to learn the name refers to Snot’s followers, not Snot himself. Thus it is likely he was never here and this settlement may well have been named posthumously.

With Hampshire Place Names the county town is Southampton, this recorded simply as Hamtun in 825 and telling of ‘the farmstead of the hemmed-in land or promontory’. The question of why ‘south’ was always answered with Northampton being on the other end of a ancient trade route. While there may have been a regular supply of goods along a road, this is not the correct Northampton, that is in Hampshire although, for reasons nobody has ever understood, that suddenly changed the suffix and is today known as Northington.

Sharing a suffix with other Roman strongholds, the name which resulted in Gloucestershire Place Names comes from ‘the Roman stronghold called Glevum’, this a Celtic place name meaning ‘bright place’.

No scir for Dorset Place Names although it is derived from another major settlement within its borders. Today known as Dorchester, the county name simply an abbreviated version, telling of ‘the Roman stronghold known as Durnovaria’. As with the previous name this is a Celtic place name describing ‘place with large pebbles’.

Back to the suffix scir or ‘administrative district’ for Northamptonshire Place Names. As we have seen this has nothing to do with Southampton and does not share the same meaning. Here ‘the northern home farmstead’ distinguishes it from other ham tuns much closer to home.

No scir for Somerset Place Names and yet, like neighbouring Dorset, is based on a local place name. Here the county speaks of it being that of ‘the settlers around Somerton’, itself telling of its humble beginnings as ‘the farmstead used only in summer’.

The large county of Devon, covered in two volumes by firstly South Devon Place Names and the forthcoming 2014 release of North Devon Place Names, has no scir today but did originally. Here is ‘the administrative district of the Devonians or Dummonii’.

Another two volumes were released for the southeast county of Sussex, now officially split in two and covered by East Sussex Place Names andWest Sussex Place Names. As with the other counties sharing this suffix the reference is to the Saxons, here is ‘the territory of the south Saxons’ – now correctly, and rather confusingly, the east south Saxons and the west south Saxons.

Another scir is found in Herefordshire Place Names where we find ‘the administrative district of the ford capable of carrying an army’. Note the relevant part is ‘capable’, for Hereford does not tell us an army was marching back and forth but says it was of good size and solidly built.

With the county town of Chester leading to Cheshire Place Names, this is ‘the administrative district of the Roman stronghold’ from Old English caster scir.

With Buckinghamshire Place Names we see Old English inga hamm and a Saxon personal name speaking of ‘the administrative district of the hemmed-in land of the family or followers of a man called Bucca’.

North to the find Cambridgeshire Place Names and ‘the administrative district of the place at the bridge over the River Granta’ otherwise known as the Cam – this odd change is entirely down to Norman error.

Down south and another large county split into East Kent Place Names and West Kent Place Names. As a name, Kent has never really been understood. Clearly it is different from other counties and this is down to it once being a Saxon kingdom in its own right, although the name is certainly Celtic. Possibly this is ‘the coastal district’ but an origin of ‘land of the hosts or armies’ can also be seen.

Back to the scir for Bedfordshire Place Names and ‘the administrative district of the ford of a man called Beda’.

Another scir in the Home Counties and Hertfordshire Place Names where ‘the administrative district of the ford frequented by harts’ is the origin.

On the east coast is the large county covered by Lincolnshire Place Names where we find the Roman influence once more. Here the city dominated by its cathedral gives us ‘the administrative district of the Roman colony by the pool’. That ‘colony’ was for retired legionaires.

Publishing in early December 2013 Berkshire Place Names is an oddity in being a scir but without a town called ‘Berk’. Here the term describes the region as ‘the administrative district of the hilly place’, what we know as the Berkshire Downs.

Appearing in early 2014 Surrey Place Names is no scir but comes from Old English suther ge and tells of ‘the southern district’.

Another early 2014 release is Essex Place Names which, as with Sussex, speaks of itself as ‘the territory of the East Saxons’.

Set for the spring of 2014 Middlesex Place Names covers ‘the territory of the middle Saxons’.

Another scir and Lancashire Place Names will be out early next year. Here the basis is the town of Lancaster, thus this ‘the administrative district of the Roman stronghold on the River Lune’ – where the river name is understood as ‘healthy, pure’.

Spring 2014 will see Cumbria Place Names which is a modern county name based on an eighth century record speaking of ‘the territory of the Cymry or Cumbrian Britons’.

The Scilly Isles are covered in the 2014 release of Cornwall Place Names. As with the previous name, this refers to the native Celtic peoples in ‘the territory of the Cornovii tribes’.

Another new county in a 2014 release is Isle of Wight Place Names where the island, so often said to refer to the ‘white’ chalk lands, is from a Celtic word speaking of ‘the place of the division’, that the two channels between here and the mainland known as the Solent. Note the name Solent has never been understood, although it has been given to the river which eroded this valley in the millennia before our islands were severed from mainland Europe with the rising of sea level at the end of the last Ice Age.

Spring of 2014 will also see the release of County Durham Place Names where the word ‘county’ is added to differentiate between the city and the shire. Here is the dun holmr or ‘hill of drier land in the marsh’.

Also available in early 2014 is the neighbouring county covered by Northumberland Place Names and another scir in all but name. This former Saxon kingdom was much larger than the present county and it is that kingdom of ‘the territory of the Northhymbre’ or ‘those living north of the Humber’ which has led to the modern name.

Also publishing in May 2014 is Suffolk Place Names and ‘the territory of the southern people of the East Angles’.

Spring 2014 and Wiltshire Place Names and ‘the administrative disctive of Wilton’, the town itself ‘the farmstead near a spring or stream’.

In the summer of 2014 we will see four volumes for Yorkshire. The county town of the original county giving us ‘the administrative district of the yew tree estate’. Not only the vast area covered by the original county but the tremendous number of small settlements means one volume would be very heavy and very expensive. Eventually it was decided to combine the three ridings and three counties to produce four volumes entitled North Yorkshire Place Names, South Yorkshire Place Names, East Yorkshire Place Names, and West Yorkshire Place Names

Finally towards the end of 2014 Isle of Man Place Names will appear. True this is neither a scir nor a county but a place I wanted to write about and to examine its place names. The island’s name is thought to be derived from an early leader by the name of Manu, although traditionally this was said to be named after the fabled Irish sea deity Manannan mac Lir.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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