Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. This time we continue the tour of Western Europe and a look at the largest Belgian cities.
Antwerp is Belgium's most populous settlement, the origin of the name being the subject of some debate. Currently the most common explanation is the Germanic an der werp or 'by the wharf', this port being on the River Scheldt. However this would mean the place would have been named after the wharf had been put to use and thus there would have been an earlier name for the place and no record has survived. Yet there is an alternative origin of Germanic anda werpum meaning 'at the alluvium' (silt deposited by annual flooding) and, in my experience, this makes a much more likely origin for a place name of this age. What is certain is is nothing to do with the legendary explanation of the mythical giant Antigoon. He demanded a toll from those wishing to cross the river, those refusing to pay had a hand severed and tossed into the river. Eventually he was beaten by the hero Brabo, who cut off Antigoon's hand and tossed that into the river. Hence the name is said to come from Dutch hand werpen and related to Old English hand wearpan not 'weapon' but meaning 'to throw'.
Ghent was once known as Ganda, this likely shows these names came from a Celtic ganda meaning 'confluence' and this is where the Scheldt joins the Lys. The idea this comes from a the deity Guntia has virtually no evidence to support it, although it cannot be written off entirely.
Charleroi was only officially founded in 1666, as fort built by the Spanish governor of the Netherlands and named Charles-Roy to honour the Spanish king Charles II.
Liege is either from a Germanic word liudiz meaning 'people' and seen as '(the place) of the people'. The same word can be seen throughout the Germanic tongues of Europe: Dutch luiden, German Leute, Old English leod, and Icelandic lythur. The Old English version also explains the record from 770 as Leodicum, which virtually rules out the explanation this is the personal name Leudi.
Brussels was originally situated on dry land in the marshes of the River Senne. Then it was known as Bruoc-sella 'the settlement in the marshes'.
Bruges is not difficult to see as coming from the Dutch brug meaning 'bridge', the original bridge being over the Rei and constructed by the Romans. Later the term has been seen as plural for this is indeed a town of many bridges and, as a place, one of my personal favourites.
Mons is not difficult to see as related to the French for 'mountain' and in documents dating from before the seventh century this place is recorded as Montes. To the Romans it was Castrilocus, from the castrum or 'military encampment' they built here.
Molenbeek is from two Dutch words, molen beek speaking of 'the mill brook'. Originally this was the name of the brook, by 985 the name of the village, and today the name of one of the nineteen municipalities in the Brussels-Capital Region.
Hasselt is from Hasaluth meaning 'hazel wood', the earliest known record of this form of the name comes from a document dated 1165.
Ostend is from Dutch oost einde or 'the east end'. The modern location of Ostend is not the original but a planned 'New Ostend' behind dykes to protect the area, the unstable coastline of the North Sea a reminder this arm of the ocean is only 10,000 years old, not even yesterday in a geological sense. The original was on the 'east end' of the island of Testerep, now joined to the mainland.
Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.