What’s in a place name?

We’ve written a lot recently about place name nicknames as part of the Location Lingo project. There have been some wonderful contributions; my favourites are probably Basingrad for Basingstoke and Ponte Carlo for Pontefract.

But, the stories behind ‘official’ place names are every bit as fascinating and intriguing, and can tell us a lot about our history and the development of the English language. I spoke to Glen Hart, our Head of Research, to uncover more on the history of place names …

Have you ever considered why some places are called what they are? Some may be obvious like Cambridge which grew around a bridge over the River Cam.  Another is Oxford which was a ford over the River Ox, but why are they lots of places ending in ‘Thorpe’ and ‘By’ in the north but hardly any in the south, and just where the do the names Westonzoyland and Sixpenny Handle come from?

The map of Great Britain shows a very rich and varied tapestry of place names and these reflect the development of the country from Celtic times to the present day. The Celts may not have been the first inhabitants but many of the names they used, especially those for natural features like hills and rivers in England are still with us today.


Britain has a rich variety of place names.

In other parts of the country, such as Wales, Celtic names have survived almost everywhere, including settlement names. Avon for example simply means ‘a river’ which is why so many rivers are called the Avon.

Next on the scene were the Romans, but very few Roman names have survived, although they indirectly influenced the Anglo-Saxon names that replaced them.  For example many fortified Roman towns can be identified by their Anglo-Saxon name of ‘Chester’ (derived from an Anglo-Saxon name for ‘a camp’), such as Colchester, Winchester and of course, Chester itself.

The Anglo-Saxons are responsible for many more names, with endings such as ‘Ham’ (farm or home- stead), ‘Ton’ (enclosure), and ‘Ing’ (people of – so Reading was Reada’s People) amongst many others.

Oxford has Anglo-Saxon routes too, from ‘Oxenaforda’, in this case not meaning a ford over the River Ox but a place where Oxen crossed the river.

And then came the Vikings. They settled in the north and east of England and left their mark with place names ending in things like ‘Thorpe’, as in Scunthorpe – meaning ‘a settlement’, and ‘Toft’ (Lowestoft for example) – meaning a homestead or farm.

The Norman’s added names too – Dibden Purlieu near the New Forest was land stolen or purloined from the Royal Forest.  And it goes on to this day – think of Welwyn Garden City – its name recording the creation of a new type of town design.

So, what of Westonzoyland and Sixpenny Handley?  The first is a village on the Somerset Levels and the key to its name is the ‘Zoy’ – a corruption of ‘Sowy’ which is an area of raised land that is not prone to flooding.

The delightful Sixpenny Handley in Dorset is the result of the merger of two Hundreds (old administrative areas of England) called Sexpena and Hanlega, the reshaping of these to Sixpenny Handley is literally history.

Fascinating stuff. The influence of the people who lived many hundreds of years before can be seen everywhere around us.

So why not find out the origins of the places around you, who knows what you will discover?

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9 Responses

  1. Pingback : Tweets that mention Ordnance Survey Blog » What’s in a Place name? -- Topsy.com

  2. My outdoors; There used to be a road that climbed a hill in Macclesfield called Oven Lane, the particular bit you mention was at the foot of it. 🙂

  3. Will

    I lived in Sixpenny Handley for 25 years. I now live in a village outside Blandford Forum. It’s more common for locals to abbreviate town and village names. Sixpenny Handley is known locally just as Handley, while nearby Blandford Forum is known to the younger fraternity, not without a hint of sarcasm, as Blan Francisco.

  4. mike whittingham

    OS produced a hardback book with maps covering North and South. The book is a comprehensive discourse on the origin of place names …. the extract in this blog seems familiar and I wonder if it relates to the book.

    however I can’t remember the full tittle which I need to try to find a copy of the book. A ISBN number would be even better

    I hope you can help


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