A History of English Place Names
The subject of English placenames is a complicated one. There are many factors involved, not the least of which is the waves of conquest England suffered during the period in which most of her placenames were formed. The result is that English placenames come from a variety of languages: possibly preBritish, British, Latin, Old English, Old Norse of two varieties and Norman French. Each of these languages has contributed placenames and influenced the form of existing placenames. This makes a rich and complicated subject with much fine detail.
A basic fact of English placename research is that looks can be deceiving. The modern form of a name may clearly indicate its meaning, such as Ashwood (Staffordshire) which means ash wood (Ekwall p. 16). More often, the modern form of a name is deceptive, such as Rockbeare (Devon) which has nothing to do with rocks or bears, but means "grove frequented by rooks". Yet another problem is that placenames which have the same modern form may have completely different meanings and origins. For example the placename Oulton may mean "old farmstead," "Outhulf's farmstead," "Wulfa's farmstead" or "Ali's farmstead". Only the early forms of the particular place will show the original meaning. Another problem with looking at modern forms is that some words that were distinct in Old English appear identical in modern English. The Old English ham which means variously "homestead, village, manor, estate" and hamm which means "enclosure, land hemmed by water or marsh or higher ground, land in a riverbend, rivermeadow, promontory" both appear as ham in modern names. Obviously, whether a name element was originally ham or hamm would make a major difference in meaning. At the same time the river names Axe, Exe, Esk and Usk are all derived from the British word isca meaning "water". Any element in use over centuries is likely to change meaning or have local shades of meaning that at a distance of ten centuries or more we may have difficulty ascertaining.
To combat this sort of confusion, scholars of English placenames collect as many early forms of a name as possible and analyze them in the light of their knowledge of language and dialect, grammar, pronunciation, topography, sound shifts and other relevant factors. Although the generally available dictionaries on the subject may cite anywhere from one to a dozen dated forms for each entry, placename scholars may actually assemble a few dozen to a few thousand examples of early spellings of a name before coming to any conclusions.
Considered structurally, there are two types of English placenames – simplex names from a single element and compounds composed of two, or occasionally three elements. Simplex names were usually local names applied to a single prominent feature of the landscape, typically a hill, valley or remains of a prehistoric or Roman fort. Other simplex names exist because they were an outlying farm or dependency of a nearby village or farmstead. In this case, the local people had no need to identify the place more clearly. Compound names are composed of an adjectival element and a habitative or topographic element. These compound names make up the majority of placenames in England.
Considered functionally there are three types of English placenames. The first type is folk names, which is the name of a folk or people which became the name of their settlement. Essex means "(territory of) the East Saxons". These names are generally quite old. The second type of placename is a habitative name, which may be simplex or compound. Wick (Avon) is an example of a simplex habitative name meaning "the dwelling, the specialized farm or trading settlement". A compound habitative name is Crosby (Cumbria) "village where there are crosses". Habitative names contain some element which indicates human settlement. Topographical names may also be simplex, such as Wawne (Humberside) "quaking bog or quagmire" or compound, such as Ottershaw (Surrey), which means "small wood frequented by otters". They describe some feature of the landscape. Often topographic names later came to be applied to a nearby settlement.
The earliest placenames in England are a small number that may be preCeltic in origin, including the river names Colne, Humber, Itchen, Ouse and Wey. These are believed to have been in use before the Celtic inhabitants arrived in the fourth century B.C.E. and some may date back to the Neolithic era. They survived because of their adoption by the Britons and subsequently by the AngloSaxons. …
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