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Ways To Name Britain

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by Bastion Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
Published May 31st 2013
Who Are You Named After?
kingston, crown court, coronation stone
Kingston's Coronation Stone

When I was studying English Language for my A-levels, I learnt all about the history of where certain words come from. Books like Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue: The English Language were very entertaining and informative.

Since then, my interest in the origin of names has increased, and I have often been intrigued by some of the strange names of towns, counties, and people. English is a Germanic language with its roots stemming from the Anglo-Saxons. After the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, it hybridised with French, and because Latin was the language of the church, many words have formed from there as well.

Place Names

There are three main ways that places in Britain got their name, and these include landscape, ownership, farming practices, and the ever changing ways of spelling.

wimbledon common
Wimbledon Common

One of the easiest places to figure out is Oxford. A 'ford' used to mean a river that could be waded through, and in the past farmers used to take their Oxen over the water. Merton merges two Old English words 'mere', meaning pond or lake, and 'tun', used to describe an enclosure or a village. There are many towns that end in 'ton' because they were once small villages that have grown into towns. For example, Kingston was a village, where seven Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned using a coronation stone. Another popular name ending is 'don', which comes from the Old English 'dun' for hill, such as with Wimbledon, whose steep hill to the village common will get many walkers' calves aching.

There are many places named after famous figures in history, most notably royalty. The first that springs to mind is Victoria in London, named after Queen Victoria. Then there is Fort William in Scotland, after William of Orange. Saints are also memorialised in the same fashion: St Albans, St. Andrews, St. Davids, etc.

The English language is ever changing, and often causes problems when it comes to spelling. In the good old days of phonetics, words used to be spelt how they sound - the silent 'k' in knife and knight used to be pronounced. Aside from the purpose of just confusing school children, it has also left us with some obscure names. For example, words like 'holt', 'wudu', 'wald', and 'wold' all used to mean woodland, so we have several places ending or starting with similar spellings: Cotswold, Saffron Walden, Haltwhistle, etc.


black smith, wikimedia commons,
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by Wasapl

At one time, people did not have second names; communities were so small that it was unnecessary. But as villages expanded, and identification became more difficult, people started to take on a family name, and by1400 surnames were common place. There were four main ways of deriving a surname, and this was either by occupation, place of origin, description, or patrimony.

One of the most common English surnames is Smith, and this is because we have so many ancestors who were blacksmiths. Other common occupational names include Carpenter, Baker, and Fisher.

People who came from abroad might have been given a Surname to indicate where they came from, such as 'French'. Other ways to get a surname was by certain characteristics you might have, for example, 'Small', 'Black', 'Strong'.

Finally, there is the way I got my surname, 'Harrison'. Many names are patronymic, and it often meant that surnames changed with each generation. One of my ancestors must have been called Harry, and then 'son' was added for the surname of his son. Other examples include Williams, Peterson, Johnson, etc.

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Why? It's interesting to find out where names originate
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