Sunday, 21 December 2014

Origins of Place Names: France

Over the last few years I have sampled several of my books on the origins of place names, all of which refer to those found in England. On occasions I have also looked at the etymologies of the nations of the world and followed up with their respective capitals. This only gave a glimpse into the origins of non-English place names and, with many overseas names being found on England's welcoming signs as a result of town twinning, I thought it time to look at the origins of the place names of other nations.

I decided to start with France. This was an arbitrary decision not influenced by anything etymological (although I was thinking about croque-monsieur moments earlier).

Paris was known to the Romans as Lutetia Parisiorum or 'Lutetia of the Parisii'. Here the Latin lutum 'clay' or perhaps 'mud-like' precedes the name of the local tribe, the Parisii a Gaulish people is either from a Celtic par 'ship' and a reference to those living and working on the Seine or from a word meaning 'border town' where, once again, the Seine is influential, this time in marking the border.

Marseille is first seen as Massalia, a Latin reference to a town founded by the Phoenicians about a millennium earlier and named after the Massili tribe. The tribal name is of uncertain origin but is thought to be based on the mas- element which probably meant 'spring'.

Lyon was known as Lugdunum by the Romans, a name featuring the Gaulish suffix dun 'fortress'. The first element has three possible origins: lugus meaning 'little'; the Celtic pagan god Lug; or Celtic lucodunos 'bright mountain'.

Toulouse on the River Garonne is first recorded as Tolosa, then the home of the Tolosates. The name has never been adequately explained but may take the Celtic tul as its first element, this meaning 'mountain'.

Nice was founded and named as the Greek colony of Nikaea, itself named after goddess of victory Nike.

Nantes was named after the Gaulish tribe Namneti, although their name has never been explained.

Strasbourg is as close to an English place name as we are likely to find in France. This is derieved from a Frankish name Strateburgum, linked to strasse 'street' and burg here used in the sense of 'town' and thus speaking of 'the town by the road'. This important way took traffic from the River Rhine and across the Vosges.

Montpellier is recorded in a document dated AD 975 as Mons pestellarius, Latin for 'woad mountain'. Doubtless it was named such as the blue dye was produced here.

Bordeaux was known as Burdigala to the Romans, itself taken from the Gaulish tribal name Bituriges Vivisci. AUnfortunately the origins of the tribal name are unclear.

Lille has finally given us a place name in France named from the French language. Here this is from Old French l'isle meaning 'the island' and a reminder of the city being founded as a fortress on a virtual island in the marshland.

Next time I shall move east and examine some German place names.

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