“What’s in a name. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. Shakespeare uses this line in Romeo and Juliet to argue that names are irrelevant. Well, I hate to disagree with the Bard of Avon, but names can tell us a great deal, especially when it comes to place names.

The Celts arrived in Britain approximately 3000 years ago and many places in Wales and Cornwall, which is the part of England where they resisted the longest, have names of Celtic origin and include words like aber (mouth of river), tre (farm) glen (narrow valley), coombe (deep valley), pen (hill). But Britain has been invaded many times since. First came the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons from Germany and Holland, the Vikings from Scandinavia and the Normans from France. So many place names changed over the years.

For example, maybe you have visited a city that is one of the oldest cities in Britain and has had several names over the centuries. The Celts called it Efrawg, then the Romans came and they changed the name to Eboracum, then the Anglo-Saxons changed it to Eoforwic, before the Vikings invaded the city and changed the name again to Jorvic. After that, the Normans came along and changed the name to Yourke. This gradually changed over the years so that in modern English the spelling is York. Now, even if you have never been to York, you must have eaten York ham or maybe you think you have. As you know, in Spain any kind of cooked ham is called Jamón York, but did you know that York ham is, in fact, a very special type of ham that comes from the county of Yorkshire (not the city of York). It is a cured ham, but, unlike jamón serrano, it is eaten cooked and is considered to be one of the best hams in Britain.

Interestingly, there are lots of English place names ending in –ham: Birmingham, Nottingham, Oldham, Rotherham etc. Ham, in this context, has nothing to do with the ham we eat. It is simply the Anglo-Saxon word for village (we still use the word hamlet meaning small village). ‘Ing’ means people, so Birmingham is the place of the people of Birm, which comes from the name of a tribal leader called Beorma. You also see a lot of places with the ending –ton: Preston, Luton, Boston etc. Ton comes from ‘tun’, the old English word for farm. Other British cities have the ending –wich, which is an Anglo-Saxon word for home. It has also come to mean port, so most of these places are on the coast or, like Ipswich or Norwich, on important rivers. In the North and East of England many place names have their origin in old Norse from the Viking period. Place names ending in –by meaning farm or village have this origin. So, in the North and East of England we can find names like Selby, Derby, Whitby and Grimsby.

Shakespeare himself was from Stratford-upon-Avon. A ford is a crossing point on a river, so Stratford-upon-Avon literally means the street that crosses The River Avon. By the way, Avon is simply the Celtic word for river.

But my favourite British place name has to be the Welsh village, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, meaning St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of the church of Tysilio by the red cave.

Jon Ostler

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