Etymology of Place Names


On this page I have collected etymologies of the names of places we have visited where I have been able to determine these. I hope that the page will continue to expand as I add more names.

To locate a place on the map, click the map symbol beside its name.

I do not lay any claim to original research in these etymologies. I have used such sources as were available in books and online, checking multiple sources when possible in order to rule out mistakes and incorrect “folk etymologies”. A useful book that often served as a starting point in etymological searches is A Dictionary of British Place Names by A.D. Mills, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199609086.

After the list of names, I have added a section for Miscellaneous Notes which I hope will also grow with time.

Place Names

Altrincham Now spelt as Altrincham, this name, which has also been written Altringham, is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon personal name Aldhere, to which was added -ingas, meaning “folk” or “people”, indicating a settlement founded by, or associated with, the named person and his family or clan.

Angel (Islington) The Angel Islington is, strictly speaking, the site of the handsome 1903 building on the corner of Pentonville Road and Islington High Street that accommodates a branch of the Co-operative Bank but, in practice, the name is generally applied to an ill-defined area around it encouraged, perhaps, by the naming of the local tube station as “Angel”. The name comes from that of a coaching inn known from the 16th century but probably in existence much earlier that occupied this site. The inn’s full name was probably The Angel of the Annunciation (to the Virgin) but it, and eventually the neighbourhood, came to be known simply as “the Angel”. The importance of the Angel Inn was that it was here that passengers disembarked from the stage coach that had brought them from points to the the north and from here would undetake the final stage of their journey into London along a City Road that was infested with muggers and highwaymen.

Brighton The town is named Bristelmestune in Domesday Book (1086) and was called Brighthelmstone until the early 1800s when the modern version, Brighton, began to supplant it. The most usual derivation is from the Anglo-Saxon words Beorhthelm, a personal name, and tun, “farm”, to produce Beorhhelmes tun, “Beorhthelm’s farm”.

Bristol The 11th-century spelling Brycg stowe is cited in justification of an etymology in which the Anglo-Saxon words brycg, “bridge”, and stow, a term with rather a vague sense of “place” or “site”, are conjoined to give the meaning “Place by the bridge”. A well known local habit of adding a spurious ‘l’ to the ends of words is cited to explain the presence of that letter at the end of the modern form of the name. However, other etymologies have been proposed though these seem to me rather unlikely as I am not sure what evidence there is for them. You will find some of these in the Etymology section of the Wikipedia article on Bristol.

Brixton (London) The name of this district appears in 1062 as Brixiges stan and in Domesday Book (1086) as Brixiestan, making it clear that a stone (stan in Anglo-Saxon) is involved. It is thought most likely that this would be a stone were meetings were held. The first part of the word probaby derives from the personal name Beorhtsige, hence “Beorhtsige’s Stone”.

Brussels Brussel in Flemish/Dutch and Bruxelles (‘x’ pronounced as ‘ss’) in French. The first written occurrence of the name of this city is Brosella in a document of AD 695 by the then Bishop of Cambrai. Different sources give different versions of the words believed to make up this name, describing the language from which they come variously as “Germanic” or “Old Dutch”. Taking one of these sets of words, we have brocca, “marsh”, and sali, “room or building”. The name therefore perhaps means “Dwelling in the Marsh”.

Bury Found on its own in the name of this town, bury also often appears as part of longer town names. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon burh, meaning “fortress” or “fortified town”.

Charlton There are a number of towns called Charlton or that have Charlton in their names. In each case, Charlton itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon words ceorl, meaning “peasant” or “freedman”, and tun, meaning “farm”. The ‘c’ of ceorl would have been pronounced as ‘ch’ in modern church.

Croydon References to the name of Croydon in various documents show it evolving from Crogedene (Anglo-Saxon charter of 809) through Croindene (Domesday Book, 1086), Croiendene (12th century) to Croindone and Croydone in the 13th century. The most popular etymology derived from these proposes the formation of the name from Anglo-Saxon croh, ‘crocus’, and denu, ‘valley’ (often a long narrow valley of the sort at whose head Croydon stands), giving the settlement the name ‘crocus valley’.
Some etymologists assert that the crocus in question is crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, and that it was cultivated commercially in the valley. The Romans certainly knew saffron and cultivated it in Gaul but it is uncertain whether they cultivated it in Britain and whether, if they did, its cultivation could have survived into Anglo-Saxon times. Perhaps, then, the crocus growing here was the native wild crocus which for some reason grew in sufficient abundance for its name to be given to the settlement.

Edmonton This place is named as Adelmetone in Domesday Book (1086), which indicates a derivation from Eadhelm (an Anglo-Saxon personal name) and Anglo-Saxontun, “farm”. Thus “Eadhelm’s Farm”.

Enfield Enfield appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Enefelde. This suggests two possible derivations, one from the Anglo-Saxon personal name Eana and the other from Anglo-Saxon ean, “lamb”. Together with Anglo-Saxon feld, “field”, this means either “Eana’s field” or “Lamb’s field”, that is, “Field where lambs are kept or reared. Note, however, that the word ean is inferred to exist but is not actually attested.

Hackney It seems probable that this name, which appears as Hakeneia in 1198, is formed of two Aglo-Saxon words, haca and ieg. While the meaning of the second is “island” but also, and more likely here, “dry land in a swamp”, that of the first is ambiguous. It can mean “hook” but was also used as a name. In both cases, the genitive was hacan. Thus, Hackney was perhaps “hook-shaped piece of land” or “Haca’s island”.

Haringey The names of Haringey, Harringay and Hornsey are believed to be related by a common etymology. This derives them from Anglo-Saxon Hæring, a personal name, and hege, “hedge” or possibly “enclosure” (i.e. that which is enclosed by a hedge). Thus the names mean “Hæring’s hedge/enclosure”.

Harringay See Haringey

Homerton This appears as Humberton in 1343 and derives from the female personal name Hunburgh and tnun, meaning “farm”. Thus “Hunbugh’s Farm”.

Hornsey See Haringey

Hove Hove does not appear in Domesday Book or any other early documents as far as I know and its etymology is uncertain. A.D. Mills (A Dictionary of British Place Names) gives a derivation from Anglo-Saxon hufe, meaning ‘hood’ or ‘head covering’ and interprets this as ‘hood shaped hill’ or ‘shelter’ though I do not know on what authority he extends the meaning of the word.

Hoxton Given as Hochestone in Domesday Book (1086) this name derives from Hoc, a personal name, and tun, meaning “farm” or “enclosure”.

Islington The name appears in past times in such forms as Gislandone, Isendune and Iseldone, the latter as copied by Norman scribes into Domesday Book (1086). From this it is plausible to see it as deriving from two Anglo-Saxon terms, the personal name Gisla (genitive Gislan) and the noun dun, meaning ‘hill’, thus ‘Gisla’s Hill’. An alternative (and less favoured) etymology posits its formation from Anglo-Saxon isen, meaning ‘made of iron’ and dun. The resulting name ‘Hill of iron’ could be explained by the existence of local chalybeate streams.

Lambeth Found as Lamhytha in 1069, Lambeth is formed from two Anglo-Saxon words, lamb (“lamb”) and hyþ (“port” or “landing place”), hence “Landing place for lambs”.

Manchester There is some uncertainty about how the name, which appears in Domesday Book in 1086 as Mameceastre was formed. The Anglo-Saxons added ceaster to an existing name, indicating that it had been a Roman, possibly fortified, town. The first part probably derives from the name of the Roman settlement of Mancunium but according to some may instead come from the native name for the river, though what this was called is open to speculation. The Roman name Mancunium may derive from a native word reconstructed as manucium, meaning “breast-shaped hill”.

Margate In 1264 this town is cited as Meregate and this gives a strong clue to the origin of the name in two Anglo-Saxon words. The first is mere meaning ‘sea’ (as in the word ‘mermaid’) and the second is geat, a word that has several possible meanings. Here, as elsewhere in Kent’s seaside town names, it probably means a gap in the cliffs allowing access to the sea although it can also refer to pools that form in gaps in the chalk cliffs.

Ramsgate The name of this town does derive from an animal but not from a ram. In 1275 the name is recorded as Remmesgate and this suggests that it combines two Anglo-Saxon words: firstly, hrem (genitive hremmes), meaning ‘raven’ (the bird) and, secondly, geat meaning a gap in the cliffs allowing access to the sea. There is, however, an outside chance that Rams derives from a personal name, that of the owner of the land or of a notable inhabitant.

Shoreditch Let us first dismiss a popular etymology of Shoreditch which, despite being debunked, continues to be repeated. According to this, one Jane Shore, despite being at one time a mistress of Edward IV, died old and impoverished in a ditch, giving rise to the name. Whatever the truth of Jane Shore’s life and death, the name which eventually mutated into Shoreditch had existed long before she came upon the scene.
The name appears as Soreditch in the 12th century and as Schoreditch in the 13th. This suggests to some a derivation from Anglo-Saxon scora and dic, alleged to mean “ditch leading to the river bank”, though I can find no meaning for scora that supports that interpretation. Another suggestion is that it comes from a Brittonic word skor, said to mean a fort or rampart. Again, it has been proposed that the name derives from that of Sir John de Soerdich, who was lord of the manor and a prominent citizen during the reign of Edward III. Finally, there are some who support the view that soer is an ancient spelling of the word “sewer”. There exists no firm evidence in favour of any one etymology.

Spitalfields Spitalfields grew to prominence during the 17th century when traders began to operate there, founding the famous market that still exists. The name derives from the fact that the land (the “fields” of the name) originally belonged to the Priory of St Mary’s Spittel or Spital (both forms are attested). St Mary’s was both a monastery and a maternity hospital which also cared for the sick and for infants whose mothers died in childbirth. No traces of St Mary’s remain today.

Streatham There is general agreement that this name derives from two Anglo-Saxon words, stræt, meaning ‘street’ and ham, a word with many meanings but here probably ‘village’. This ‘Village on the street’ was conveniently situated on the Roman road leading from the Roman sea port of Portslade in Sussex to London and would have made a convenient place to stop to rest and take refreshment.

Walthamstow There are two main theories about the derivation of the name Walthamstow. According to the first, the name is composed of three Anglo-Saxon words, weald, “forest”, ham, “farm” or “homestead” or even “manor”, and stow, “holy place”, “place of assembly” or just “place”. This is plausible as the area was indeed forested in ancient times. The second theory starts from Domesday Book (1086) wherein the place is cited as Wilcumestow. This suggests that the name is formed from stow (already explained) and either wilcuma, “welcome”, or Wilcume, a female personal name. Depending on which we choose, we might translate the name either as “the welcome place” (or “place of welcome”) or as “Wilcume’s Place”.

Miscellaneous Notes

Bury The word bury appears in many place names in Britain, whether as part of the name, e.g. Barnsbury, or on its own as in the name of Bury in Greater Manchester. It is cognate with borough, boro, burg, burgh and other similar spellings.

In most cases, bury derives ultimately from the Anglo-Saxon word burh which designated a fort or fortified town.

Many place names dating from Anglo-Saxon times were formed by adding bury to the name of the man or family who founded the settlement. Examples include Salisbury, a fortified town founded by Sorvio, and Danbury, a town founded by a man or family called Dene. Some place names combined bury with topological features, such as Pendlebury, named after the nearby hill called Penn, or Sudbury which originally meant “Southern fortress”.

In the medieval period, bury was often attached to the name of the family holding the land as the name of their manor and of the estate itself. Thus, Barnsbury, originally Bernersbury, was named as the manor of the Berners family. The reason for this use of bury may be that in the Anglo-Saxon period, and perhaps later, manor houses were often fortified against attacks by raiders. By the Middle Ages, however, adding bury to the name may have become simply a conventional way to designate a manor.

-ings The suffix -ings found in many place names, usually derives from the Anglo-Saxon ingas, meaning “family or folk of”. In these cases, the first part of the word records the name of the founder of the settlement. Thus Poynings was a settlement occupied by Puna and his family or band, and similarly, Hastings was that of Hæsta and his people.

Sometimes. however, ing(s) may insert itself into a name without being derived from ingas. Such is the case with Islington which comes to us via Gislandune (11th century) and Iseldone (1086).