Placenames in England

Words index  Vivian Cook

English placenames have often been a problem to students of English as they seem to have quite different rules for pronunciation and spelling. Many of them are made up of components that were fully meaningful in earlier periods of English but say little to us today; it is only when there is flooding, we remember Oxford and Stratford have fords on rivers. Here are some common components of English placenames with what are believed to be their sources, difficult as these are to unravel over 2000 years. Mostly these reflect the practice of the Anglo-Saxons in naming the new country they had invaded in about the 6th Century AD in what is now called Old English (OE). Sometimes they called the places by their Roman names; Colchester, Doncaster and Cirencester would have had Roman camps (castra). Sometimes they called places after the people who lived there Suffolk where the South Folk lived, Essex where the East Saxons dwelled, Goring where the people of Gor lived. Often they named it after natural features like Bournemouth (mouth of the stream) or Sheffield (open land by the river Sheaf).

-caster, -chester, -cester etc Lancaster, Doncaster, Chester, Manchester, Leicester. 
    From the OE ‘ceastra’ meaning a fortified place which in turn comes from the Latin ‘castra’ for military camp.
Grantham, Witham, Streatham
    From the Old English (OE) ‘ham’ meaning home; there is also an OE word ‘ham’ meaning an enclosed field, which underlies some placenames.
Bournemouth, Ouseburn, Southbourne
From the OE 'bourn/burn' meaning a small stream
-bury, -borough, -burgh, -brough
Salisbury, Edinburgh, Canterbury, Middlesbrough 
    From OE 'burh' a fortified town or manor house
-don, -down
Huntingdon, Swindon, Abingdon
    From OE 'dun' a small hill
 Heathfield, Sheffield
    From OE 'feld' meaning open land
Suffolk, Norfolk
    From OE 'folc' meaning people
Oxford, Stratford, Brentford
    From OE. 'ford' river crossing
-hythe  Hythe, Rotherhythe, Lambeth (Lamb-hythe) 
    From OE 'hyth' a small port often on a river
-ing, -ingas, -ingham
Birmingham, Goring, Walsingham, Ealing
    From OE 'inga' people. Sometimes the ending means ‘followers of’ (Beormund etc); sometimes simply ‘people’. The difference between these seems too subtle for us to appreciate now.
-lea, -leigh, -ly  Burley, Leigh-on-sea, Eastleigh, Osterly          
    From OE 'lea' wood or cultivated land.
Middlewich, Nantwich, Sandwich
    From OE 'díc' (ditch) (used for salt-mining towns where ditches were dug).
Yorkshire, Lancashire, Perthshire
    From OE 'scir' meaning an administrative division of the country
Hampstead, Greenstead, Stansted, Steeple Bumpstead
    From OE 'stede' inhabited place