Talk of the town: The etymology of UK places

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What's in a name? In the case of our villages and cities, there are secrets, snobbery and social change. Caroline Taggart explains the etymology of UK places – and why we could have been stuck with 'Snottingham'

It's a proud boast among the British that we haven't been invaded successfully since 1066.

We fended off Napoleon, Hitler and goodness know who else besides. What we tend to overlook, though, is how often we were invaded before 1066. Starting AD43, four main waves of invaders settled here: the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Norsemen or Vikings and the Normans. Each brought their own culture, their own language and their own way of doing things. As the power of each waned, armies withdrew, royal lineages died out and yesterday's conquerors became today's settlers, they left behind one indelible marker: the names they had given to places.

The name of a place provides hints not only about who used to live there, but about how they made their living, who their leaders were and what gods they worshiped. It tells us why people chose to settle in a particular spot rather than in another just down the road – perhaps there was a ford at A; perhaps B was a farmable valley in a mountainous area and C a hilltop site that was easy to defend. In the most primitive cultures, place names are basic: if you never move far from home, it's enough to call your local river "the river", because it is the only one – or the only one that matters. (The same attitude leads Londoners to routinely call the Thames "the river" to this day.) But as civilisation develops, place names need to be more sophisticated. Once you start trading with nearby villages, you have to be able to tell them apart, even if you call them nothing more inventive than "North Village", "Middle Village" and "South Village" (that's where all those Nortons, Middletons and Suttons come from). A village large enough to have two churches might split in two and become, say, Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles. And so it goes on.

Most modern English place names have their origins in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language; most of the other contributions are either oddities or window dressing. Recurring elements that help us to do our own detective work include the endings "-ham" and "-ton", ancestors of "home" and "town"; Hampton is a combination of the two and Hampstead means, more or less, "homestead". The "-ing" generally means a place was founded by the followers of a certain chieftain: Reading is called after an otherwise forgotten man, Reada, whose name suggests that he had red hair, and Hastings after Haesta, who was probably quick-tempered. Anywhere ending in "-ford" or "-bridge" was at a point where you could cross the river; "-leys" or "-leighs" were clearings in woodland, "-downs" or "-dons" were often hills and "-fields" were – well, you get the idea. Places ending in "-minster" grew up round minsters or monasteries, "-burys" or "-boroughs" were fortified and most "-casters", "-ceisters" or "-chesters" started life as Roman camps. These all have their origins in Old English (even the last, which developed from the Anglo-Saxon version of the Latin castra).

Much of the window dressing comes from the Normans who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. Having confiscated the land held by Saxon nobles, William proceeded to give lots of it away to his own followers. These men didn't generally change the names of the estates they acquired; they simply added their own names to them.

I first became interested in place names during a holiday in Dorset, where every village we drove through – Winterborne Zelston, Bradford Peverell, Melbury Osmond – sounded like a character from PG Wodehouse or a firm of Dickensian solicitors. It was something of a disappointment to discover that they were all the result of medieval Norman ego trips. More interesting, when you look into them, are places like Purbrook, which means "brook haunted by goblins" – why? I have no idea – and Baldock, whose name derives from the Old French for Baghdad. It was founded by the Knights Templar, who wanted to attract wealthy merchants to sponsor the next Crusade and, presumably, to brag about their exotic travels.

England isn't unique in having names from different sources. Massachusetts, Saskatchewan and Wollongong are all indigenous names that survived colonial invasions, while in New Zealand Christchurch is as English as you can get, Dunedin is an old form of Edinburgh and Rotorua and Ruapehu are unmistakably Maori.

Because of our history, we seem to have more than our share of hybrid names – names that derive from one language being superimposed on another. This is because none of those waves of invaders attempted to exterminate the people they conquered. Subjugate, yes, but after they had established their supremacy they settled down, intermarried and had children.

As a result, place names were added to, translated, misheard, misunderstood, mispronounced or any random combination of the above – but not often changed completely. Lincoln is part Old Celtic, part Latin; everyone's favourite Ashby-de-la-Zouch is part Old English, part Old Scandinavian, part Norman French. There are even some where the original source has been forgotten so thoroughly that the modern name becomes a duplication: Beachy comes from the French for "beautiful headland", Cheddar means "gorge" or "ravine" and Canvey means "island", so Beachy Head, Cheddar Gorge and Canvey Island are all saying the same thing twice.

Some of the best changes came about because the Normans weren't very good at pronouncing Old English or Old Scandinavian. And they were the bosses, remember: no one was going to tell them they were getting it wrong, so lots of names evolved to something the Normans found easier to cope with. One family who must be very grateful are the descendants of a certain Midlander called Snot. Sn was one of the sounds the Normans found difficult, which is why Snot's settlement now has the less embarrassing name of Nottingham.

'The Book of English Place Names: How Our Towns and Villages Got Their Names' by Caroline Taggart is published by Ebury (£9.99). To order a copy (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

The origins of...

Croydon

This may come as a surprise to those who live here, but the name means "valley where wild saffron grows". The Old English crog is connected with the modern plant name crocus, to which saffron is related. Valued since earliest times for its wide-ranging medicinal uses, and as a dye and a food flavouring, saffron was growing in Croydon 1,200 years ago. Many centuries later it turned up in Saffron Walden, too.

Liverpool

Let's dispose of "pool" first. It means "pool". Probably a tidal creek that no longer exists. And, believe it or not, the "Liver" part is connected with "liver". The normal (if faintly improbable) explanation is that the water in the pool was dirty and muddy, clogged up with reeds, looking a bit like liver. The adjective "Liverpudlian" started life as a joke because of the connection between "pool" and "puddle".

Cambridge

The development of this name from the eighth-century Grontabricc becomes easier to follow once you realise that the river Cam used to be called the Granta. Grontabricc was the settlement by the bridge over it. The Normans couldn't pronounce it, so Grontabricc evolved into Cantebrigie and eventually to the modern form. Then someone realised that it was daft to have a town called Cambridge sitting on the Granta, so they changed the name of the river to match.

Penzance

"Holy headland", the holiness being a reference to a chapel that once stood at the entrance to the harbour. The town's symbol is the severed head of St John the Baptist, which is odd because the oldest church on record was, and is, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It may be that John was chosen as a macabre pun on "holy head".

Cowes

The name does actually mean "cow", but has no connection with dairy or beef farming. Instead, it is inspired by two sandbanks that used to lie in the mouth of the river Medina, which apparently resembled cows. They aren't there any more, so we have to take history's word for it.

Wem

There are two unfortunate aspects to Wem: its name means "dirty or muddy place" and its famous son is the 17th-century "Hanging" Judge Jeffreys. With these two blots, it's no wonder that the Shropshire Tourist Board concentrates on its other claim to fame – to have invented the sweet pea.

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