English place-names

How did Great Slaughter get its name? What does Giggleswick or Great Snoring mean?

And why did the original inhabitants of your town or village name the place in the way that they did?

Was it something to do with the people there? Or was it because of the flora, fauna, or geography?


Norfolk and Suffolk Place-Names

by James Rye

Perhaps the place-name 'Norwich' has always been associated with shopping or football in your mind, 'Newmarket' was where you visited your sick Aunt Maud as a child, and 'Exning' was where you stayed the night with friends. It has never occurred to you that the Norfolk and Suffolk place names actually mean something. However, the East Anglian place names didn't just happen because the first people to use them liked the sounds that the words made. Our ancestors chose the place names carefully to describe the people, the wildlife, or the countryside where they lived.


The material on this site is adapted from the author's

(1991-2006) A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-Names, Guist Bottom: The Larks Press

(1997) A Popular Guide to Suffolk Place-Names, Guist Bottom: The Larks Press

These books are available directly from The Larks Press, or from Amazon.

All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced without the prior permission of the publisher. © James Rye 1997-2006


Discovering Place-Names

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Folk Information  

Many place names are derived from the person or group of people who first settled in the area. For example, Sweden literally means 'the Swedes'. A less obvious example is Wales. This came from an Old English word wealas which meant 'foreigners'. To the early Anglo-Saxon invaders, Wales became the place of the foreigners after the invaders had driven many of the original Celtic inhabitants westward. Wessex was the area where the West Saxons lived, Sussex where the South Saxons lived, Norfolk where the Northern People lived and the Southern People inhabited Suffolk.

The names of some of the towns and villages of Norfolk and Suffolk are a memorial to the people who travelled from the Continent, some as early as the fifth century, to cut the forests and attempt to make a living out of the land. The earliest of these place names usually end in ing which is derived from the Old English ingas and originally meant 'dependants or relatives' of a certain man.

Exning *Gyxen + ingas The settlement belonging to *Gyxen's people
Gissing Gyssa + ingas The settlement belonging to Gyssa's people

(An * before a name indicates a hypothetical form.)

Sometimes the place names end in ingham or ington . This is because ham or tun meaning 'homestead' and 'farmstead' respectively (see below) have been combined with ingas . The result is ingaham or ingatun meaning 'the homestead/farmstead of the people of ...'

Dersingham   Deorsige + ingas + ham Homestead belonging to Deorsige's people
Kedington   Cydda + ingas + tun Farmstead belonging to Cydda's people

Schram (1961) has pointed out that there are a remarkable number of identities or close similarities between the early Anglian place names of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Both counties have Barningham, Barsham, Brettenham, Elmham, Fakenham, Helmingham, Ingham, Needham, Rougham, Shimpling, Thornham, Tuddenham, and Walsham. Identical though with slight modern variations are Ludham (Nf) and Loudham (Sf), Shotesham (Nf) and Shottisham (Sf), Saham (Nf) and Soham (Sf); and there are a number of others where the first element, usually a personal name, can be closely paralleled in the two counties: such are Dalling (Nf) and Dallinghoo (Sf), Framingham (Nf) and Framsden, Framlingham (Sf), Hevingham (Nf) and Heveningham (Sf), Harling (Nf) and Herringfleet (Sf: Herlingaflet DB). It cannot be mere coincidence that the similarities and identities are almost entirely among the three types -ing, -ham, and -ingham; these may be regarded as constituting a clear proof that the two counties, making up the Kingdom of East Anglia, formed a distinct linguistic as well as an ethnic unit from the earliest centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period.

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Habitation Information

Many place names contain element meaning something like 'farm, homestead, enclosure'. As the settlements grew in size the same elements came to mean something like 'village' and later on even 'town'. Ham first meant 'homestead'. Tun first meant 'enclosure' or even 'fence'. Later it came to mean 'enclosure round a homestead, a farm' and then 'village'. By meant 'homestead' or 'farmstead' then 'village'. thorp(e) usually meant a secondary or outlying farm attached to some other settlement. These words meaning 'some form of habitation' were combined with a variety of other elements to give more precise information about a place.

Colby Koli + by Koli's farmstead
Westhorpe vestr + thorp Westerly outlying farmstead
Stanton stan + tun Stony farmstead
Gisleham Gysela + ham Gysela's homestead

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Nature Information

Some place names give information about the natural features of the area. We find references to a range of flora. There were alder trees, ash trees, aspens, barley fields, beans, bent-grass, box-trees, beech, quite a lot of broom, pollarded and natural oak trees, corn fields, elms, hawthorns, oat fields, cress, leeks, flax, orach (goosefoot family), nettles, pears, garlic, reed beds, rye, brushwood, thorn trees, willows, and crosswort. The fauna is equally diverse. There are horses (in Norfolk, but noticeably absent from Suffolk) gadflies, wild cats, swans, woodpeckers, trought, frogs, geese, goats, stags, hawks, wild birds, martens, owls, pigeons, gnats, bullocks and oxen, pigs, wether sheep (castrated rams), wolves, cuckoos, and possibly mules. There are also numerous references to streams, fords, landing-places, mounds, hills, valleys, ridges, meadows, woods, clearings, marshes, and islands.

Much of the original fauna has long since vanished. The farming practices have changed. The woods have been cleared. The marshes have been drained, making the islands disappear, and the streams may have dried up or changed course. Only a few hills retain an obvious link with the past for the modern visitor. The natural world of the Counties that we drive through today would not be recognisable to the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian settlers. However, the place names they have left us are a kind of time-capsule which reveals secrets of what the traveller would have seen between a thousand and fifteen hundred years ago.

Ousden uf + denu Owls' valley
Cromer crawe + mere Crows' pond
Bramford brom + ford Broom ford
Thorndon thorn + dun Thorn-tree hill

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A Variety of Language Sources

British place names contain elements that can be traced back to the languages spoken by at least five quite distinct groups of people. Some of us may have been misled by the victory in World War II into thinking that Britain has never been 'slaved'. However, the truth is very different from what we may want to think. The Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish are well aware that they have often been invaded by the English (amongst others). And a brief excursion into English history will reveal that the country has been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavians, and the French. All of these groups contributed words which make up the place names we have today.

The Celts

The Celts were one of the many tribes living in Europe in the years before Christ. About 400 BC they began to leave Central Europe, possibly because of harassment from other tribes. The Celts from Northern France and the Netherlands crossed the Channel and settled in England. They were known as the Brythons (Britons). Later, about 350 BC, Celts from Southern France settled in Ireland. They spoke Goidelic (Gaelic).

The Celts left behind names that are found most abundantly in the North and West (especially Wales and Cornwall). They also gave names to many rivers. Celtic names are often found in isolated spots which suggest that more remote groups remained Celtic-speaking long after other groups had accepted that language of the Anglo-Saxons.

Celtic elements include:

aber - mouth of a river

coombe - a deep valley

glen - a narrow valley

pen - a hill tor a hill

There are very few names in Suffolk which contain Celtic elements. Most of the Celts probably fled the area when the Anglo-Saxon invaders arrived along the Eastern coast. Despite the survival of their Anglo-Saxon names Walpole and Walton were originally Celtic settlements and the first element of Dunwich is possibly linked to the Celtic word for 'deep', meaning something like 'port with deep water'. The River Ouse gets its name from the Celtic word for water, and Lynn from the Celtic word for lake.

The Romans

After 300 years of calling the British Isles their own, the Celts were conquered by the Romans. Between 43 AD and 410, England was the north-west corner of the vast Roman Empire. Although the Romans occupied the country for over three centuries, they only left behind approximately 300 place names. This strongly suggests that the Roman administrators tended to use existing Celtic names.

The main Latin elements in place names are:

castra (-chester, -caster) a Roman town, fort

colonia (-coln) a settlement

porta (-port) a gate

portus (-port) a harbour

strata (Strat-, -street) a Roman Road

As with the Celtic elements, there are very few names that contain Latin elements. Caister is derived from the Latin castra (camp) and this forms the second element of Brancaster. A few names contain the much later designations of Magna (Greater) and Parva (Smaller).

The Anglo-Saxons

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to invade the British Isles in 449 AD. They came from Denmark and the coast of Germany and Holland. The Anglo-Saxons named their new country Engaland (the land of the Angles) and their language was called Englisc (what modern scholars refer to as 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'Old English'.

Most place names in Norfolk and Suffolk were originally given by the Anglo-Saxons. The Old English words that they used in the place names are far too numerous to list here (see references to A.H.Smith in the suggestions for further reading). I have given a few of the common Old English place-name elements below:

burna (-borne) a brook, stream

dun - a hill

eg (-ey) an island

halh - a nook, corner of land

ham - a homestead

hamm - an enclosure, water-meadow

ingas (-ing) the people of ...

leah (-ley) a clearing

stede - a place, site of a building

tun - an enclosure, farmstead

well - a well, spring

worth - an enclosure, homestead

Cantley, Downham, Elmswell, and Wortham are good examples of Old English place names.

Cantley Canta + leah Canta's clearing
Downham dun + ham Hill village
Elmswell elm + wella Elm-trees' spring
Wortham worth + ham Homestead with enclosure

The Scandinavians

From 789 AD onwards, the Vikings from Denmark and Norway raided most parts of the British Isles. After much savage fighting they eventually settled down to live alongside the Anglo-Saxons. Modern Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk and Suffolk became subject to Danish rule. The Scandinavian language, 'Old Norse', had the same Germanic roots as Old English so, over the years, the two languages mixed quite well.

There are more Scandinavian names in Norfolk than in Suffolk, reflecting the fact that the early Viking invaders sailed up the River Yare and eventually made some settlements nearby.

Some of the common Scandinavian place-name elements are listed below, although, as with the Old English elements, the Old Norse list does not claim to be anywhere near comprehensive (see references to A.H.Smith in the suggestions for further reading).

by a farm, then a village

dalr - a dale, valley

gathr - a yard

gil - a ravine

holmr (-holm) flat ground by a river

lundr - a grove

thorpe - a secondary settlement, farm

thveit (-thwaite) a meadow

toft - a site of a house and outbuildings, a plot of land

Tyby Tidhe + by Tidhe's farmstead
Barnby Barni, or Bjarni + by Barni's farmstead
Lowestoft Hlothver + toft Hlothver's plot of land

The Norman French

The Normans invaded in 1066 AD, with the result that the language of the English Parliament was French for the next 300 years. However, like the Romans before them, they left a very small legacy of place names. This is because most of the settlements would have been well established by the time of their invasion. Their presence can occasionally be glimpsed in modern distortions of the names of foreign lords who may have owned land on both sides of the Channel. Thirteenth and fourteenth century lords owned the manors and gave their names to the places at Ashbocking, Carlton Colville, Stonham Aspall, Stowlangtoft, Saham Toney and Thorpe Morieux. Boulge comes from an Old French word meaning 'uncultivated ground'.

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Proceed with Care

Although driving through lanes trying to guess the meaning of the names on the sign-posts can be very entertaining (if the children are old enough, it is more fun than playing I-Spy) it is not always too productive. Even if you know that ham is probably derived from the Old English word meaning 'homestead', you wouldn't necessarily be able to say for certain that Langham, for example, meant 'something plus homestead'. This is because the Old English hamm (water meadow or enclosure) also comes out as 'ham' in modern place names. Only by looking at early forms can you distinguish between the two, and even then it is not always possible. In this particular case, Langham could mean either 'long river meadow/enclosure' or 'long homestead'.

Until the early spelling of the name is known (and by 'early' I mean at least the twelfth century or before), it is not possible to see which Celtic, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, or even Old French elements might form the name. Place-name scholars have to hunt through a variety of historical documents in order to record early spellings. The most famous of these sources is the Domesday Book.

Let me illustrate the importance of knowing the early spellings of a place. Superficially Hunston in Suffolk and Hunston in West Sussex and Hunstanton in Norfolk (often pronounced 'Hunston' by locals) appear to be very similar. However, their Domesday spellings reveal important differences.

Hunston (Sf) Hunterstuna *huntere + tun Hunter's farmstead
Hunston (W.Sus) Hunestan Huna + stan Huna's boundary stone
Hunstanton (Nf) Hunestanestuna Hunstan + tun Hunstan's farmstead

Similarly, you may be forgiven for thinking that Stanningfield contained some reference to 'the people of ...' (ing) and that Troston doesn't. Again, their early spellings reveal something very different.

Stanningfield Stanfelda stan(en) + feld Stony open ground
Troston Trostingtun *Trosta + ingatun Farmstead of *Trosta's people

However, knowing that you may sometimes be wrong and that you will need to check when you get home, shouldn't stop you having a guess. You should soon begin to get a feel for the way the names can be broken into two or three elements.

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Author Information

James Rye was born in King's Lynn in 1953. He has studied at the Universities of East Anglia and Nottingham and has held a number of posts in Secondary Schools and Colleges. He taught Humanities at the College of West Anglia and for the Open University, and was an Honorary Lecturer at Anglia Polytechnic University teaching a course on the History of the English Language.

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More Name Information

Ampthill Hill (OE hyll) infested with ants (OE æmette).
Bermondsey Beornmund's (OE male personal name) island/dry ground in marsh (OE eg).
Camborne Crooked Hill (Cornish camm + bronn).
Compton
Dando
Farmstead (OE tun) in the valley (OE cumb) owned by the de Auno or Dauno family in the manor in the C12th.
Euston Efe's (OE male personal name) farmstead (OE tun).
Hayle Taken from the River Hayle. A Celtic name meaning salt river/estuary.
Kedington The farmstead (OE tun) belonging to Cydda's (OE male personal name) people/followers (OE ingas).
Luton
(Bedfordshire)
Farmstead (OE tun) on the River Lea (Celtic River Name - meaning uncertain).
Noctorum Dry (Old Irish 'tirim') hill (Irish 'cnoc').
Osgathorpe Asgautr's (ON male personal name) outlying settlement (ON thorp).
Puttenham The first element (OE putta) is either used as an OE male personal name or literally refers to hawks. The second element is either homestead (OE ham) or enclosure (OE hamm).
Roseland Promontory (Cornish ros) land (OE land).
Shipmeadow Meadow (OE mæd/mædwe) for sheep (OE sceap).
Torrington Farmstead (OE tun) belonging to *Tira's (hypothetical form of OE male personal name) people (OE ingas).
Walberswick *Walbert's (hypothetical form of OE personal name) dairy farm (OE wic). Although Walbert is uncertain in OE it is similar to the Old German names Waldiberht and Walhbert.
Yoxall A nook (OE halh) comprising a yoke or measure of land (OE geoc).

© James Rye 2001-2006