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The etymology or meaning of place names both in Britain and other countries became a matter of considerable public interest in the latter part of the 19th century. The English Place-Name Society was established with the support of the Royal Academy to facilitate the study of place names in England.

Most English place names have been in existence since the Norman conquest and many are recorded far earlier. In England we are fortunate in having a large number of documents dating back as far as the end of the 7th century which contain the contemporary forms of place name throughout the country.

Interpreting Modern Place-Names

Great care should be excerised in attempting to interpret the original meaning of modern place names as it is impossible to guess the forms the names took in earlier times. To arrive at the origins of a place name, it should be studied from its earliest available form to the present day, not vice versa. This requires some understanding of the language of the period concerned and of the sound changes which have occured to the present day.

A case which readily illustrates this problem may be found in "Purewell", an area of Christchurch in Dorset. At first glance, and bearing in mind that modern, clean water supplies only started to become available in the closing decades of the 19th century, it might be supposed that the name refers to the location of a well of "pure" water. Tracing the name from its ancient origins, however, shows us that its original form derives from "Pirewolle" - a well by a pear tree or trees.  

Place names consist of, or are compounded of, ordinary everyday words of the time and personal names. Place names broadly follow the same lines of cevelopment (with certain peculiar tendencies) as personal names.

To interpret any place name, it is necessary to have;-

  • all the available forms of the name (dated) from the earliest available records, arranged in chronological order
  • a knowledge of the topography of the place and its immediate surroundings
  • in many cases, a knowledge of similar names elsewhere and their early forms

    Some place names are easy to interpret. They consist of two elements, the second being descriptive such as (in their modern forms) -bury (a fortified place), -field (homestead), -ham (homestead), -hill, -ley (a clearing), -port (town), -ton (farm), -wick or -wich (dwelling place), etc.

    The first element of the name usually consists of either a personal name,e.g. Badby, Old English Baddanby, "Badda's farm"; Blisworth, 12th century Blithesworth, "Blithe's enclosure"; Brighton in Sussex, Old English Brihthelmestun, "Brihthelm's farm or estate"; or of a noun or adjective which qualifies or limits the second element, e.g. Barton, Old English beretun, "barley farm"; Caldicott, Old English coldecota, "cold cottage"; Calverley, Old English Calfra Leah, "calve's field or clearing"; Higham, Old English heah ham, "high homestead"; Preston, Old English Preosttun, "Priest's farm"; and, Radcliffe, Old English readclif, "red cliff".

    It should be noticed that the Old English forms of the names in the above examples are very different in appearance from their modern counterparts and it would be impossible to interpret the names without some understanding of the language.  

    Some of the modern forms, such as "Purewell" already mentioned above, can be misleading. Other examples of potentially misleading modern place names are Heathencote in Northamptonshire, which is shown by its early forms to have no connection with heathens but means "Heahmund's cottage" (Heahmund being a popular Old English personal name); an earlier form of Luckless Cottage in Devon is "Luveclives" derived from the personal name de Luveclife (the OE form "Leofanclif" meaning "Leofa's hillside"); and, Sheepstor also in Devon (unlike Shapwick in Dorset) has no connection with sheep, its original Old English form of "scyttelstor" meaning "tor shaped like a bolt".

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    Signposts to the Past
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    Phillimore and Co., Chichester, 1988

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