Sunday, 1 March 2015

Origins of Place Names: Norwegian 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. This time we continue the tour of Western Europe and a look at the largest Norwegian cities.

Oslo, as so many crossword compilers are fond of asking us (and that includes me), was known as Christiana from 1624 until 1925 (with the later spelling of Kristiana). This alternative came from King Christian IV, who rebuilt the city after it had been destroyed by fire. Now reverting to its original, and quite ancient, name, Oslo comes from an Indo-European os or 'mouth' with the addition of the river name. Hence this is 'the mouth of the River Lo', with the river name thought to come from Old Norwegian ass og or 'the forest clearing'. Hence a real chicken / egg / chicken situation where the city was named after the mouth of a river, itself named after a feature on dry land.

Bergen is of more recent and simple origins. Here the Norwegian name of Bjorgvin is derived from 'mountain pasture'.

Trondheim has a surviving listing from 997 AD, earlier than any other Norwegian name but certainly not the most ancient of derivations despite the area having been settled for thousands of years. Trondheim may well have a claim as the most renamed city in Europe. It was first known as Kaupangen , this meaning 'trading place'; later it is Nidaros or 'mouth of the River Nid'; it is only now it becomes Trondheim, albeit Nidaros was reinstated for 14 months in the early 1930s and during the German occupation of the Second World War became Drontheim. The present name is taken from the district name of Trondelag, itself meaning 'the district or people of a common law'.

Stavanger takes us back to water, here the two elements are stafr meaning 'staff or branch', followed by angr 'inlet or bay'. In the case of stafr it is not clear if it refers to the shape of the inlet or to the nearby mountain. Whilst the latter is certainly not shaped thus, it is a common description when speaking of high and steep mountains in this country.

Kristiansand is, like medieval Oslo, named for King Christian IV with the addition of sand a reference to the headland on which it was constructed.

Fredrikstad is simple enough, the suffix stad indicates 'city' and follows the name of the founder King Frederick II.

Skien was known as Skitha, this Old Norse name literally meaning 'straight plank'. This probably refers to the very straight section of the local brook.

Tromso is named after the island of Tromsoya, itself of uncertain etymology although the element oy clearly means 'island'. Possibly this comes from an unrecorded name of Trumsa, a common enough river name derived from straumr or 'strong current'.

Drammen a name which has undergone several changes making the origins difficult to pinpoint. Yet the most likely is from the river name, known in Old Norse as the Drofn and coming from drofn meaning 'wave'.

Sandnes is a simple and fairly modern name derived from its position on 'the sandy headland' and coming from sand nes.

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

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