Meaning of Place Names: Why do we call places by certain names?

Signpost, Bluff, Stirling Point, South Island, New Zealand

Behind every name is a story, and this goes for place names too. Although each individual place has a unique specific definition, there are some common components and terms for the names of English-speaking cities, towns and settlements. Knowing the meaning of these recurrent, generic root components can help you decipher the original meanings of place names.

Here follows a small dictionary of place names, or more specifically, of their components:

Place names based on surrounding hills, mountains and valleys:

Many places are named after nearby land features such as hills and valleys:


HILLS:
Synonyms for hills include:

Berg
Usually found at the end of a place name, “berg” means hill or mountain, and is derived from Germanic origins. It can be seen in the place names Falkenberg and also in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. The term “berg” has even reached non-place name words like the word “iceberg” which literally is ice-mountain.

Farmhouse, Val D' Orcia, Tuscany, Italy

In some cases “berg” has evolved into berry, bury, and borough, although usually these are derived from a different root, “burg”, which has another meaning as will be discussed below.

Bryn or Vern

These mean hill in Celtic e.g. the place Malvern which literally means “bald hill”.

How or Howe

“How” (originally spelled haugr) is an Old Norse word for a hill or a mound. Examples of places with “how” in them: Greenhow, Gledhow, Howe

Tel

“Tel”, as in Tel Aviv, means hill in Biblical Hebrew. The full phrase “Tel Aviv” means Hill of Spring.

Don or Dun

Places with the suffix “–don” or “–dun” come from the word dun which means hill in Old English.

For example:

  • Swindon means Swine Hill
  • Hendon means Highest Hill

Note that sometimes don became corrupted to “–den” which has a different meaning as is addressed below. Corruption of the word is what happened for the name of the London area of Willesden which should really be Willesdon because it got its name as a result of being situated on a hill.

VALLEYS:
Places that are named for their valleys may include the following synonyms for valleys:

Meadow of Wildflowers in the Many Glacier Valley of Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Den
“-den” on the end of a place name is either a corruption of “don”, or it comes from the word “denn” which means valley or pasture in Old English. Examples of place names that use –den:

  • Camden – The “cam” is from the same root as the Old English word “campas” which means an enclosure, and “den” means valley. So Camden means: enclosed valley.
  • Harlesden
Otztal-Otz Valley & Town of Oetz, Tyrol, Austri

Sometimes places with “–den” were misspelled as “don” and the incorrect spelling was kept, as in the case of the London area of Croydon which is in a valley despite having the word for “hill” (don) as its suffix.

Dale
A dale is an Old English word for a valley and several place names like Rochdale, Bairnsdale or Colindale utilize this word component. In other languages Dale becomes Tal (Germanic), as in the place Wuppertal or Otztal.

Combe or Coomb
The terms combe or coomb come from the old Saxon word, “cumb”, meaning valley. Examples of place names with this word element include:

  • Compton where the Comp was originally Cumb (valley), and the ton means farm; Valley Farm.
  • Ellacombe, Babbacombe, Watcombe and more.

Hope
“Hope” means valley in Old English, as in the place name Woolhope and Bramhope. Sometimes it becomes corrupted to “-op” as in Glossop.


Place names based on nearby rivers and other bodies of water:

Ponte Vecchio and Arno River, Florence, Tuscany, Italy

Burn, Born or bourne
The terms burn, born or bourne which are often seen at the ends of place names as in Melbourne, Cranbourne, Gisborne, Goulburn, Eastbourne or Blackburn come from the Old Anglo-Saxon English word meaning brook or stream. It is likely that these settlements arose around streams.

Beck

Snake River, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, WY

A place name that contains the element “Beck” in it refers to the Old English word for a stream that may have Viking origins. In Germany “beck” is sometimes seen in place names as “bach”.

  • The place Boosbeck in Northern Britain means the cow shed (boos) near the stream
  • Birkbeck may translate to “birch tree by the stream”, or to a market (byrck) by the stream.

Fleet
Fleet as in the famous Fleet Street in London comes from the Old English word flēot which means a river or estuary. Fleet Street is indeed not far from the river Thames.

Ford
Places that have the Suffix “-ford” were often places that had fords, which were portions of a stream that were shallow enough to cross by foot or horse. Examples of places with this name:

  • Bradford – Literally it means broad (= brad in Old English) ford.
  • And others: Oxford, Trafford, Milford, Gosford
Strathmore Valley, Loch Hope and Ben Hope, 927M, Sutherland, Highland Region, Scotland, UK

More or Mere
A “mere” or “more” is an Old English word for a pond, lake or pool. Examples of place names with this term:

  • Windermere which literally means Vinandr’s lake”, from the Old Norse name Vinandr.
  • Stanmore which means stoney (Stan) lake or pool (More) in Old English.

Mouth
Places with “–mouth” on the end are likely to be talking about the mouth of a river. Such places include Plymouth and Bournemouth. The German equivalent is the suffix –mund.

The mouth is not the only body part that is used to describe certain locations. The term “ness” as was made famous by Loch Ness and also Iverness literally means “nose”. This alludes to the portions of land that jut out into the open water like a nose into the open air.

Names based on specific nearby rivers
Some places are named after specific rivers, for example:

  • Aberdeen is named after the river Dee and literally means “Mouth of the Dee”.
  • Cambridge is named after the river Cam and literally means the area where there was a bridge over the river Cam.


Places named by nearby woodland

Lime Tree Avenue in Autumn Colours, Clumber Park, Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England, United Kingdom

There are many examples of these including:

  • Hurst means wooded hill in Old English. Places with this word element include Dewhurst, Bromley Hurst and Woodhurst.
  • Holt is also a wood or a wooded hill, as in the place Northolt
  • Ly, ley or leigh are all from the same root for a word (leah) that means a wood or clearing in a wood. It is used in many place names including Barnsley, Hadleigh and Crawley. In some place names it is seen as “loh” or “loo” as in Waterloo.
  • Shaw is an Old English word for a woodland area, as in the places Grimshaw, Birkenshaw, Penshaw and Openshaw.
  • -try: The suffix –try as in “Coventry” or “Daventry” is the Saxon spelling of “tree”. So Coventry translates to Coffa’s tree.
  • Wold or Wald are the Old English words for woods. The quaint Cotswolds in England are named after their location near woodland.


Place names based around a well or a spring

The obvious place names based on wells or springs are those that have these words within their names, as in Bakewell, Stawell, Clerkenwell, Shadwell, Shaklewell, Muswell.


Places named after roads


Having “gate” in a place name comes from the Old English word gata which means a street or road. Examples include Highgate and Billingsgate.


Places named after the fact that they were near or resembled islands

Corbiere Lighthouse at Dusk, Jersey, Channel Islands, UK

-ey on the end of a place name comes from the Old English word “haeg” which means “enclosure” or “island”.  The place names Orkney (a small island in Scotland), Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney are clear examples of how this was used for actual islands, but it can also be used to describe enclosed inland settlements, as in the place Hornsey.


Place names based on fortified areas or settlements

Edinburgh Castle and Old Town Seen from Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Burg / Burgh / Borough/ Brough / Borg
The suffix “burg” or “burgh”, as in Pittsburgh, Salzburg, Johannesburg, Hamburg, Gothenburg and Edinburgh, means a fort or fortified settlement from Germanic roots. Fortified places were often towns or cities which made the term “burg” synonymous with both forts and cities. For example Salzburg came to mean “Salt City”.

Later burg and burgh became corrupted into bourg (e.g. Strasbourg), borough (e.g. Scarborough, Marlborough), brough (e.g. Middlesbrough), borg, and even bury (e.g. Salisbury) or berry, although it is likely that they all come from the same origin.

Chester / Caster / Caer / Car / Cester
All these place name elements come from the Latin root for camp, “castra” and are derived from the days of the Roman Empire to describe a Roman town that was often fortified. Examples of place names with these elements:

  • Chester in northern England
  • Cardiff which literally means fortified city (Car) on the River Taff (diff).
  • Gloucester which literally means “bright” (glou from the Celtic word Glevo) “fortified town” (cester).
  • Chichester which literally means Cissa’s fortified city (where Cissa was a Saxon landowner)
  • Doncaster which may mean a fortified city (caster) on a hill (don).

In some cases “caster” can also mean “castle” as in the place Lancaster which means “castle on the Lune river”, although Lune became modified to “Lan”.

Phone Booth, the Cotswolds, England

Ham
Places with “–ham” on the end refer to the Old English word for farms, villages, homes or estates. It may be linked to the word heim which is the Germanic word for a home.  Examples include Birmingham, Rotherham and Newham.

In some place names this heim element is sometimes shortened to –eim, -im, -um, or –m.

Stoke
Stoke comes from the Old English word, “stoc” meaning small settlement or hamlet.

Examples:

  • Stoke-on-Trent literally means the small settlement on the river Trent.
  • Basingstoke translates to Basa’s people’s (ing) settlement (stoke).

Worth
In Old English, “worth” translates to “enclosure” and would refer to settlements that were often enclosed by a wall or fence of some sort. Examples include Tamworth and Warkworth.

-by

Places that end in –by are from the Old Norse word for village or settlement. Examples:

  • Derby is Deer (der) Village (by)
  • Grimsby,  Tenby,  Corby,  Selby, Lumby


Places named for simply being places!

Stead
The suffix “–stead” comes from the word “stede” or staddt if you look at the Germanic version of it, and it translates simply to “place”. A good example is the London area of Hampstead which ties in the word components “ham”, meaning home, village, estate or farm, with “stead”, meaning place so that the full word means Home Place.

Stowe, Vermont, USA

Stow
The word “stow” or “stowe” found in several place names including “Stow-on-the-Wold” and Walthamstow, simply means “place of assembly”.

The British town Bristol was originally Brigg Stowe meaning the place of assembly (stowe) by the bridge (brigg).

Thorp or Thorpe

These are from the Danish word for settlement. A few example places with “thorpe” in them include: Kellythorpe, Langthorpe and Burythorpe.


Place names based on the landowner’s name or of the people living there

View of Johannesburg Skyline at Sunset, Gauteng, South Africa

Many place names seem to be named after previous landowners. A few examples are:

  • Johannesburg: Johannes’ town or fortified place
  • Petersburg or Peterborough: Peter’s town or fortified place
  • Frederiksberg in Denmark

An “ing” in the middle of a name also indicates that a place belongs to someone. Some examples:

  • Birmingham is likely to translate to “village belonging to Birm”, although Birm is likely to be a corruption of the name Beorma.
  • Sheringham is likely to translate to “village belonging to Sher” or its uncorrupted equivalent.
  • Nottingham translates to “village belonging to Nott”, (or as history books tell us, to Snotta. Good thing Nottingham is no longer called Snottingham, eh? :D ).

Other places are named for the people living there. For example the ending “ing” comes from the Latin word “ingas” which means “people of”. So a place like Hastings is named for the people of Hast, and Kettering is named after Ketter’s people.

Sometimes “ing” also comes from the Old English word used to describe a place or a small stream.


Place names based on nearby farms or estates

Round Straw Bales in Field, Morchard Bishop, Mid Devon, England

If an area was mostly defined by a farm being there, it often got named after this farm.

Tun or Ton mean farm in Old English but can also mean someone’s estate too. Later on some people extended the use of “ton” to refer to towns. Some examples:

  • Skipton is a corruption of Shipton which means Sheep Farm.
  • Preston means the priest’s farm or estate
  • Kensington means Cynesige’s estate or farm, where Cynesige is an Old English personal name.
  • Bickerton means bee keeper’s farm
  • Washington means settlement or farm of Wassa.
  • Brighton means Beorhthelm’s farmstead
  • Others: Wellington, Islington, Clapton, Newington, Paddington, Hamilton, Shepparton, Frankston

Ster
Having “ster” on the end of a place name indicates that it was a farm, because “ster” is from the Old Norse word for a farm. Note that these are not places with a “cester” suffix, but just a “ster”.

Wich or Wick
These endings of place names can have several different meanings but one possible translation is “farm”, as in Chiswick which translates to “Cheese farm” or Gatwick which was once a “goat farm”.

Others interpretations of wich or wick may be “place” (from the Latin word vicus which became “wick”), or it may mean “bay” if the place got its name through Norse origins from the word vik.

Place names based on whether a place had a market

Names with “cheap”, “chep” or “chip” in them are from the Old English word for market. Examples of places that use this name: Chipping, Chepstow, Cheapside, Chippenham

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10 Responses to Meaning of Place Names: Why do we call places by certain names?

  1. piet says:

    most interesting!
    thanks
    piet

  2. RWWT says:

    Excellent comprehensive survey. Quite a few unsuspected connections here.

  3. Dean says:

    Very interesting read – thank you :)

  4. adamant says:

    Burg’s were traditionally built on Bergs as hills are easily defended and less prone to seasonal flooding. Thus, burg is derivative of berg as well, albeit with its own unique added meaning.

  5. Carl says:

    Thank you for this wonderful writeup. I enjoyed it immensely!

  6. Garima nag says:

    i guess the name of the city “Melbourne” is not named after the hills..it was initially called Batmania because it was estd by Norman Bats and then when lord Melbourne became the govenor he changed it to Melbourne

  7. 123grahamd says:

    the suffix “wich” comes from the old Roman word for Salt in a few towns in Cheshire, Uk…for example…Nantwich, Northwich, Middlewich, Leftwich…all are or have been salt mining towns since Roman times

  8. PJB says:

    In Irish/Scottish Gaelic, Dun means a fort, not a hill

  9. David Hull says:

    Cambridge, while it is on the river Cam, actually was named after the upper river (above the weir) still named the Granta. Its Roman name was Grantabridgia, which over time became “Cantabridgia, hence the latin name “Universitas Cantabridgiensis” and the nickname “Cantabs”. The town and the university acquired its current name by reversing the usual sequence of naming things. Harvard went on to purlion the nick name.
    I know, my Ph.D. is from Cambridge and my license plate reads “ICANTAB”. I get
    a lot of interesting comments about that plate: Are you a Harvard graduate? No,
    my college was founded in 1284!

  10. Mark says:

    Just to point out Fleet Street was not named because it is near the Thames, but because the River Fleet flows underneath it So I suppose River Fleet means River River!

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