What's in an 'English' Place-name?

old map compass icon English Place-names or rather place-names in the English language, are usually constructed from two or more elements. One element might be an old personal name (eg Balham, (Baela's Homestead), while the others might refer to a local geographic feature or to an early function of the place (eg Chipping Norton, Market North Town). Place-names are often used in archaeology and history as clues to locate sites of archaeological and historic interest and are also helpful in understanding the development of the English Language.

Regarding place-name genealogy and family history studies, approximately 30% of modern British surnames / family names are derived from place-names. These are known as toponymic / topographic surnames and may, in some cases, refer to a family's place of origin.

Use the search form above to if your surname matches to a British Place-name. It may help see where your ancestors might have come from.

Archaeologically Significant Place-names

roman britain old-map 1724 herman moll william stukely.jpg Did you know that a place's name can often be an archaeological indicator of its ancient history? For example, most of us are familiar with the word Chester in a place names such as Manchester, Cirencester, Alcester and many others.

In most cases this word is derived from the Roman word 'castra' meaning a defended military settlement. So, if your looking for a places associated with Roman Britain, then as a start, enter Chester in the Place-name element 1 box and search our ARCHI UK database for all the places in Britain which have this word in the name and the archaeology in and around these places.

Once you master the 'hidden meaning' behind place and field names, you will soon be seeing particular place-names as bright neon sign posts to the past.

Get involved in a bit of investigative archaeology and use this search form to find archaeologically significant place-names. The maps and aerial photography generated will help you see the local geography. Following the links to ARCHI will show you the local archaeology too.

Surnames / Family Names

old map fleur de lis icon Did you know that approximately 30% of modern English surnames are derived from place-names? Surnames which refer to a place-name often show geographic bias. So, you may find more Gledhills in the North of England, than in the South. Use the search form above to if your surname matches to a British Place-name. It may help see where your ancestors might have come from.

The rise in the use of toponymic surnames in Europe since the 13th Century is thought to have been due to a trend in the nobility to link their places of origin to their feudal holdings and hence provide a marker of their status. The other main reason was the migration into the city of people from the countryside, which vastly increased the size of urban populations. People needed more than just their given name to avoid the inevitable confusion which would arise in larger communities if many people shared the same forename / given name.

Place-names and the Development of the English Language

Old Compass Icon This is summed up in the opening chapter of Professor Jonathan Culpeper's book History of English

Regarding the development of the English Language, the most important factor in the development of English has been the arrival of successive waves of settlers and invaders speaking different languages. The history of place-names in Britain is closely connected to the presence of various languages at various points in time.

Types of Search Available

Old Red Compass Icon The search form takes wildcards for more powerful searches which are detailed below. Try them and see what you come up with.

Literal place-name search

Here you search for exact matches of a place-name.

Performing a search with the word "bury" would find all place-names of that name only containing the word "bury", but not Oldbury etc.

Root place-name search

Here you search for matches of a place-name plus place-names starting with that word.

For example, Performing an element search with "stow*", would find, in addition to all "stow" place-names, other place-names starting with the word "stow", such as Stowmarket, but NOT not Walthamstow.

Terminal place-name search

Here one searches for all place-names ending with the element.

Performing an element search with "stow*", would find, in addition to all "stow" place-names, other names containing the word "stow" at the end of the name such as Walthamstow, but NOT not Stowmarket.

Element place-name search

Here one searches for all place-names where the search term is in the middle of the place's name.

Performing an element search with "*bur*", would find, in addition to finding all place-names of the name "burg", other names containing the element such as Edinburgh.

Boolean place-name search

Using this method one can search for place-names which include or exclude certain elements or place-names.

Performing an element search with "*burgh*" in the Search Element 1 Box 1 and something like "little" in Search Element Box 2.

Sterminal place-name search

Here one would enter the character or characters which are at the begining of a place-name together with a character or characters which are at the end of the place-name.

[This search not yet implemented]

Eg *by* as in Grimsby
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Archeologically Significant Place-Name Search Tips

brough* / braugh*: The place-name elements 'brough / braugh' has beem associated with the locations of Roman towns (eg Brough, East Yorkshire; Braughing, East Hertfordshire).

castle*: The place-name element castle can refer to the presence of a Roman Fort (eg Castleshaw, West Yorkshire).

*by: Often, at the end of a place-name, this place-name element refers to a place within the territory ruled by the Vikings in Early England.

bury: Derived from a Burgh which was a fortified enclosure.

stow: This often refers to a very early meeting place, often of religious importance at that time.

chipping: Derived from the Old English céping, "a market, a market-place”. This word is also associated with céapan (to buy) and céap (to deal).

stan: This place-name element is often a commemoration of Roman occupation. For example, Stanstead probably refers to a stone (Roman) villa or settlement.

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Did you know?

Many English villages, hamlets and farmsteads names go back to Anglo-Saxon times. The Anglo-Saxon map of London below (created by Matt Brown of The Londonist), shows many names that are still part of modern London today.

Anglo-Saxon Map of London with place-names

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