Home Language HacksEnglish 20 Hidden Meanings of English Place Names You Probably Didn’t Know

20 Hidden Meanings of English Place Names You Probably Didn’t Know

by Michele
6 comments
Meanings of English Place Names Explained
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Behind every English street name is a fascinating story and origin that’s rich with history. Deriving from Old Norse and Latin words, English place names have all sorts of hidden meanings.

In various parts of the world, known as the “Old World”, such as Africa, Asia and Europe, the names of many places aren’t easily interpreted or understood. Over time their original and obvious meanings were lost. This process contrasts with that of the “New World”, which includes North America, South America, and Australasia, here the origins of many place names are known.

Even if today, the origin of many place names is forgotten, we can still decipher their construction to reveal their original meaning. While Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words, toponymy is the study of place names.

Armed with a few prefixes and suffixes (a word placed before and after the stem of a word respectively) you will not only be able to easily interpret the names, but it will be a sort of game as you travel from place to place.

Without going into too much detail, these affixes originate from and are the result of various linguistic influences including Brythonic, Cumbric, Cornish, Pictish, (all four of which are ancient Celtic languages) then Irish, Latin, Middle English, Norman French, Old English, Old Norse, Scots Gaelic and Welsh.

Here are the most common affixes you will come across in your travels which will reveal the meanings of English place names.

 English Place Name Meanings - Stratford-Upon-Avon

Photo Credit: Elliott Brown via Flickr, Welcome to Stratford-upon-Avon – Bridgeway, Stratford-upon-Avon – sign

1. avon, afon

Origin: Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Cornish and Irish
Meaning: River
Example: Stratford-upon-Avon. The name is a combination of the Old English strǣt, meaning “street”, and ford, indicating a site at which a road forded a river.

 English Place Name Meanings - Beckenham

Photo Credit: My London Travels

2. beck

Origin: Old English and Old Norse
Meaning: Stream
Example: Beckenham, meaning “homestead by the stream”.

 English Place Name Meanings - Roseberry Topping

Photo Credit: Keith Evans

3. berg, berry

Origin: Old English and Old Norse
Meaning: Hill or mountain
Example: Roseberry Topping, Berkhamsted

 English Place Name Meanings - Ashbourne

Photo Credit: Rod Johnson

4. bourne, burn

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Large stream or small river
Example: Bournemouth, Bourne, Eastbourne, Ashbourne, Blackburn

 English Place Name Meanings - Edinburgh

5. bury, borough, brough, burgh

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Fortified enclosure
Example: Edinburgh, Bamburgh, Peterborough, Knaresborough, Scarborough, Jedburgh, Aldeburgh

6. By

Origin: Old Norse
Meaning: Farm
Example: Derby, Crosby, Rugby, Corby, Wetherby

 English Place Name Meanings - Gloucester

Photo Credit: Robin Scott

7. caster, chester, cester, ceter

Origin: Old English, Latin
Meaning: Camp, fortification (of Roman origin)
Example: Doncaster, Gloucester, Manchester, Worcester, Chester, Colchester, Leicester

8. cheap, chipping

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Market
Example: Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden, Chepstow

9. combe

Origin: Brythonic
Meaning: Valley
Example: Barcombe literally means “Valley of the Britons”. Usually pronounced ‘coo-m’ or ‘cum’. There is also a Castle Combe in The Cotswolds.

 English Place Name Meanings - Oxford Street

Photo Credit: Alex Dawson via Flickr

10. ford

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Ford or crossing (of a river)
Example: Oxford, literally means ‘where the oxen cross’.  There is also the village of Burford, in the Cotswolds, where burh means ‘fortified town’ or ‘hilltown’, it it literally means ‘the fortified town at the crossing of a river’.

11. gate

Origin: Brythonic
Meaning: Road
Example: Gate Helmsley, Harrogate. Gate has its roots in Old Norse, and is in Norwegian still means road. For example, Karl Johans Gate is the name of the main commercial road in Oslo.

 English Place Name Meanings - Hastings

Photo Credit: Oast House Archive

12. -ing

Origin: Old English
Meaning: People of
Example: Hastings, Reading

13. -ham

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Homestead
Example: Nottingham, meaning “people of the homestead”

 English Place Name Meanings - Westminster

14. minster

Origin: Old English
Meaning: large church, monastery
Example: Westminster, Wimborne Minster, Leominster

15. mouth

Origin: Middle English
Meaning: Mouth of a river or bay
Example: Plymouth, Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Monmouth, Sidmouth, Weymouth

 English Place Name Meanings - Davenport

Photo Credit: Gordon Griffiths

16. pool, port

Origin: Old English and Middle English
Meaning: Harbour
Example: Liverpool, Blackpool, Davenport, Newport

17. stead

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Enclosed pasture
Example: Hampstead, Berkhamsted

 English Place Name Meanings - Bishopthorpe

Photo Credit: Carl Spencer

18. thorp or thorpe

Origin: Old Norse
Meaning: Secondary settlement
Example: Cleethorpes, Thorpeness, Scunthorpe, Armthorpe, Bishopthorpe, Mablethorpe

19. thwaite, twatt

Origin: Old Norse
Meaning: Secondary settlement
Example: Huthwaite, Twatt, Slaithwaite, Thornthwaite, Braithwaite

 English Place Name Meanings - Kensington

20. tun, ton

Origin: Old English
Meaning: Enclosure, estate or homestead
Example: Kensington, meaning “people of the Ken estate”


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Sources:
Wikipedia – UK and Ireland place names
Wikipedia – Place name origins


Over to you!

What other words would you like to know the meaning of? How many of these did you already know?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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6 comments

Amitava Mandal August 1, 2021 - 05:22

There are so many place names with the suffix ‘-ley’, like Shipley, Auckley, Ilkley etc. What does ‘-ley’ mean?
Also, are such ‘-ley’ ending place names spread throughout the UK or there is a concentration in the Yorkshire area?

Reply
Michele August 20, 2021 - 17:23

Great question! 🙂 leigh / lee / ley all mean ‘forest clearing’

Reply
Terry Howat July 8, 2020 - 22:54

Very interesting article. I would like to know what hoe means. As in Wivenhoe, Fingringhoe, Kirkmahoe, to name 3.

Reply
Michele July 27, 2020 - 21:28

Hi Terry, ‘-hoe’ is derived from Oxford English ‘hoh’ and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as follows: “A projecting ridge of land, a promontory…; originally a point of land, formed like a heel, and stretching into the plain, perhaps even into the sea…; a height enduring abruptly or steeply…”

Reply
Opa October 13, 2016 - 20:49

Very interesting article ? Many thanks ?

Reply
Michele October 20, 2016 - 23:23

My pleasure, thank you Opa 🙂

Reply

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