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Origins of Placenames

Where do placenames come from?

Many centuries before National Grid, latitude or longitude were invented, places were named by the people who lived there. Once place names were accepted and used by others, places could be related to each other in terms of their physical position, in time enabling the first maps to be drawn.

In general, places were originally named in according to landscape features (topography), nature of settlement (habitat – city, town, village, fortifications) or the people or tribe living in the area, often combining two or three descriptive terms in one name. These names were then influenced and modified at various historical periods through language shift driven by socio-economic and political changes. These sometimes introduced new linguistic influences, such as French from the Norman Conquest.

Which languages are covered?

In thie section of the site, we explain the origins of place names in Scotland or Wales influenced by or directly attributable to the following languages:

A word of caution: some modern names can deceptively cloak the true origins and meanings because these place names may have been modified quite dramatically over the centuries. Always try to look for the oldest usage of any place name for a more accurate interpretation of its original meaning.


These guides, first published in 2003, build on a number of previous Ordnance Survey booklets and pamphlets about place names, the first of which was published in the early Twentieth Century.

We have benefited from the skill and expertise of various experts in reviewing the previous material and preparing these guides. In the case of the Welsh section they are Professor Hywel Wyn Owen and Gruffudd Prys of the University of Wales in Bangor. For the Gaelic, Scots and Scandinavian sections they are Dr Anke-Beate Stahl, Dr Simon Taylor, Peadar Morgan and the Gaelic Names Liaison Committee.

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