Sunday, 22 February 2015

Origins of Place Names: Swiss Cities

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. Here we continue the tour of Western Europe and a look at the largest Swiss cities.

Zurich's name is first recorded under the Roman occupation as Turicum. This came from the Germanic dur with the Latin suffix for 'town' icum and thus giving 'the town on the water'. That 'water' being Lake Zurich, itself named from the city and both influenced by the pronunciation of the Germanic Alemanni tribe.

Geneva is another city with a name from a Celtic tongue. Here Celtic gena or 'mouth' does not refer to its modern location on the Rhone but its original position at the mouth of a tributary, known as the Arve and itself meaning simply 'water'.

Basel's earliest records are as Robur, this from the Latin roburetum or 'grove of oaks'. The modern name can be dated to 374 AD, the official name changed to Basilia and from the Greek basileus or 'king'. This 'king' was actually the Roman emperor Valentinian I, who ordered the fortress to be built here.

Lausanne is, once again, first recorded as a Roman settlement. Here the Roman name of Lausonna probably represents a Latinicised Celtic name of leusa or 'smooth stone'. However some sources give this as another originating from a river name, when this would be Celtic Lausodunum or 'the fort on the River Laus' and the river name meaning 'stony', yet this river name is not recorded at this early stage and thus not provable.

Bern is of uncertain origins but seems most likely to be from an early Indo-European ber or 'marshland'. However folklore speaks of the founder of the city, Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen, having already decided this was a good spot roaming around wondering what to name it. It is held he met a bear on this trek and decided it should be 'bear town' from the German bar.

Lucerne was named before the better-known Lake Lucerne on which it stands, although there is no agreement as to the origin of this name. The four most often cited are (i) the Latin lucerna 'the lighthouse'; (ii) Latin lucius or 'pike-basket' and pike would have been a popular food fish; (iii) Romansch lozzerina or 'marshy place'; and (iv) the Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Leodegar and founded by 740 AD. Note while the popular name of the lake is Lucerne, the German name is Vierwaldstattersee or 'lake of the four forest cantons', these the Swiss districts of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Luzern.

St Gallen evolved from the 7th-century hermitage of St Gall, its abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains books which are more than a thousand years old.

Lugano probably comes from the Gaulish name of Lakvannos, the first element from laku 'lake' and thus speaking of 'the dwellers on the lake'. Other suggestions of the Latin lucus 'grove' or the pagan god Lugus seem less plausible without further supporting evidence.

Thun comes from a Celtic term, dunum referring to 'the fortified city'.

Schaffhausen is first recorded as Villa Scafhusun in 1045. Perhaps this comes from scapha or 'ford' which was actually where goods were removed from vessels and brought overland around the Rhine Falls before continuing the journey by boat. However another possible origin in schaf representing 'sheep' or 'ram' which is seen on the town's coat of arms. Hopefully the former is the true origin and, if proven, enables us to form an image of the earliest days around Schaffhausen, an image no camera could capture and no artist could paint.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

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