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Origins of English place names

Updated on August 26, 2011

English place names are a peculiar thing indeed. Over two millennium of immigration from continental Europe has seen a marked impact on the geography of the English countryside. England has been linguistically shaped by the Norman Conquest, Viking settlement, Anglo-Saxon invasion and Roman occupation. Many of the tribal place names have been lost to us and the native tongue of the occupier now describes what the land back then was. With every successive new immigration we had a different way to describe the land.

Map of England

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A markerLondon -
Westminster, London, UK
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England's capital city

B markerBirmingham -
Birmingham, UK
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Modern England's second city

C markerManchester -
Manchester, UK
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D markerLeeds -
Leeds, UK
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E markerNewcastle -
Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
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Roman Occupation
Roman Occupation

The Vikings were responsible for naming a lot of our towns and villages. The area that incorporates Yorkshire, East Anglia, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire show heavy Viking settlement in their place names this is due to the Danelaw. The Danelaw was the area of England that the Danish Vikings claimed from the Anglo-Saxons and settled. Place names ending in -by , such as Selby, Grimsby, Derby or Whitby are places Vikings first settled. These (-by) endings effectively mean a village or settlement, Der-by means Deer town or town near deer. In Yorkshire alone there are over 200 (-by) place names. The (-by) has passed into common usage in the English language as 'by-law' which means the local law of the town or village.

Place names ending in -thorpe , such as Scunthorpe.. These places usually refer to farms but can also refer as secondary settlement, where the settlements were on the margins or on poor lands. So Scunthorpe is Scun's farm or Scun's land. Then there are place names as a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Viking words for example Caws-ton (Kalf's town) or Grimton (Grim's town).

There are several arguments connected with these place names. Some historians have argued that the Viking invasions involved very large numbers of people because there are so many Viking place names. Other experts have argued that once the Viking language became the main language of the region, place names would naturally be named using Viking words. Another factor is that few large Viking settlements were on entirely new sites: many Viking settlements continued on the traditional Anglo-Saxon sites.

5 biggest English cities place name origins

  • London- Derived from its Roman name Londinium.

  • Birmingham - means sons of Breme

  • Manchester -The name Manchester originates from the Roman name Mamucium, the name of the Roman fort and settlement.

  • Leeds - A corruption of the anglo-saxon name " Leodis ".

  • Newcastle - Origins from the Norman Conquest when a new castle was built on its site, before then was known as Monkchester.


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    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      A very interesting article.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      There were two sets of invaders from Scandinavia. The West Norse (Norwegians) settled chiefly in Westmoreland and Cumberland (now Cumbria) - for a long time territory in dispute between the Scots and English - as well as on the coast between Scarborough and the Tyne. As well as Whitby there are several more settlements as far as Marske and Redcar, and there is Sunderland, 'low land' below the Durham plateau. The Danes mostly settled in the low-lying areas of North Yorkshire, the earlier settlers (Aengle/Anglians) being on higher ground. Examples are twin villages like Hutton Rudby near Stokesley as well as Eston on elevated land between Normanby and Lackenby on the way from Marton via Ormesby to Lazenby and Redcar. The Danes extended to the Tees, whereas the West Norse extended after 1069, the 'Harrying of the North' from Cumbria into North Yorkshire to fill the void. They settled the Dales to the west of the Swale, Ure and Wharfe with villages such as Kettlewell,Leyburn and Muker. On the Moors we have Danby in the well of Eskdale with Egton on the high ground near the Moor road to Whitby from Guisborough. The Ketil who gave his name to the well in Wharfedale may or may not have known the Ketil who gave his name to the point, the 'Ness'(or nose) in Kettleness near Runswick Bay. The Thorgils 'Skarthi' ('Squinty')who left his mark with Scarborough was West Norse, but it didn't stop Harald Sigurdsson, 'Hardraada', 'blooding' his newer underlings on the sacking of the town after using Greek Fire on their homes by way of nesting birds in September, 1066. Most of the Norsemen who settled the 'Five Boroughs' were Danes, you're right, and they included Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln. Fascinating, this business of place-names, innit eh?