Origins of English place names

Bunkers Hill in St Ives. On June 17, 1775 during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Massachusetts)

Have you ever wondered where the name of a place has come from? Prior to the 15th Century, the majority of English place names referred to the land ownership or were based on features of the location or landscape.

This can be useful to a surveyor or anyone with an interest in a specific location. For instance, a place name that means lake, river or stream, might indicate that buildings could be more likely to flood.

The naming of these places date back to the Celts, Romans, Vikings, Angles and Saxons as well as the French of the new Norman Invaders of England.

Over 1,500 place names in England reputedly have Scandinavian origins which, for obvious reasons of invasion, were focused on the eastern side of the country in counties such as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Examples of the common roots and components of place names in the UK include:

Avon ‘River’ in Celtic
Beck The Scandinavian word for stream is Bekkr
Bury, Borough A fortified place or settlement, such as Congresbury
By Village – usually at the end of the word – Derby, Corby or Coningsby
Caster, Chester, Cester A Roman fort or settlement – Chichester, Chester, Cirencester
Clopp A hill – Clophill, Clapham
Coombe, Comb, Coomb, Cumb A valley – Mothercombe
Cott, Cote A house, home or cottage
Dean or Dene Little valley
Den Pasture for pigs
Don Derived from Dun, meaning hill
Essex See Sex. East land of the Saxons
Eg, Ea or Ey Promontory or Peninsular – Withernsea, Pevensey, Romney
Farn Anglicisation of Fern – Farnborough, Farnley
Field Feld means open land or area without trees – Sheffield
Flete A stream
Frith A wood for hunting for the use of a lord or king
Ham A village or estate
Hamlet A little village
Holme or Holme. Holt A wood (Saxon)
Hurst A wooded Hill (Saxon)
Ing At the end of the place name it means ‘the people of’
Inga In the middle of a place name it means ‘belonging to’ – Nottingham (once known as Snottingham) is derived from ‘Snott inga ham’ – the village belonging to Snotta
Kirk Church (Scandanavian)
Ley, Leigh, Ly Wood or clearing in a wood
Mere, More Pond or Lake
Pen Head
Prest Priest
Rith The Scandinavian word for little stream – Penrith (head of the little stream)
Sex Ending that means ‘land of Saxons’ – Sussex (south Saxons land), Essex (east), etc
Sted, Stedding, Stead Literally means ‘place’ – West Grinstead (west green place)
Stoke Means Hamlet (usually which depended on a larger settlement nearby)
Stour Strong (river with a strong flow)
Stowe, Stow Meeting place
Sutton From ‘Sud Tun’, meaning South Farm
Umbria, Umbra Dark Land or Land of Shadow – Northumberland
Thorpe Means hamlet that depended on a larger settlement nearby (Danish origin) – Thorpe Park
Thwaite Scandinavian word for clearing
Toft Scandinavian word for house
Tun, Ton Farm or hamlet – Taunton – hamlet on the Tone
Wald, Wold, Weald A Forest (Saxon)
Whitchurch White church (usually as made with white stone)
Wick or wich Roman for ‘in the vicinity of’ (vicus). Wickham means ‘in the vicinity of a village’.

It could also mean either a trading place (Norwich, Greenwich) or, if at the end of a name, a specialised farm: Gatwick – Goat Farm

Worth Timber enclosure or enclosed settlement.