Etymological landscapes

Many place names survive from the early middle ages and from even earlier. The spelling may have changed but the roots are still identifiable.

In a lot of cases the names of settlements include a personal name, presumably the most important person – mostly male, but sometimes female*. Other place names describe the location using the visible landscape topography and identifiable natural environment features, and also indicate the worth of the land being described i.e. whether it is fertile or not, whether it has been cleared for agriculture. People and personal names have changed but where a settlement or location is named after its topography or a nearby habitat it can still be possible to see why today where these features still exist a thousand years later.

Old Celtic/British
These kind of place names are rare on the eastern side of England because this is where the Anglo-Saxon and Viking forays and then annexations began, securing their footholds and establishing new settlements before entrenching. So it is more often features, in particular rivers, rather than settlements that have an Old British name.

North York Moors examples:
Glais(dale) – small stream, or grey/blue/green
River Esk – water
River Derwent – river where oaks are common
River Dove – black, dark
River Rye – hill, ascent

Upper reaches of the River Rye. Copyright NYMNPA.

Roman
The Roman Empire in the British Isles reached the North York Moors and beyond. Roman features like forts and roads which were few and far between are described in subsequent Old English place names elsewhere, but not so much in the North York Moors.

Old English (Anglo-Saxon, Anglian)
North York Moors examples:
Personal names such as Beage* (Byland), Broc (Broxa), Ecga (Egton), Helm (Helmsley), Poca (Pockley).
Ampleforth – a ford where sorrel grows
Cawthorn – a cold place with hawthorn trees
Goathland – good land (surrounded by the barren moorland)
Hackness – a hook shaped headland around which a river flows
Lealholm – small island where willows grow
River Riccal, tributary of the River Rye – calf of the River Rye or little Rye
Ruswarp – silted land where brushwood grows

River Esk at Lealholm. COPYRIGHT CHRIS CEASER.

Norse (Viking, Scandinavian)
North York Moors examples:
Personal names such as Asulfr (Aislaby), Bolti (Boltby), Rudda* (Rudland), Thymill (Thimbleby), Uggi (Ugthorpe).
Ellerbeck – a stream next to alder trees or woodland
Fangdale – valley with a river for fishing
Hesketh – a race course
Laskill – the location of a hut, possibly with abundant lichen
Lythe – a hillside, a slope
Sleights – a level field
Upsall – a high homestead or hall

The basic rule of thumb is that if a settlement name ends in –by (farmstead, village) it is from the Norse, and if it ends in –ton or –ham (enclosure, farmstead, village, manor, estate) it is from the Old English. Another frequent Old English place name ending is –ley or –ly meaning a clearing and then later, when more established, a pasture.

Sometimes there is no question about the origin of a place name, for example Danby is very clearly connected to the Vikings – it means a settlement of Danes. But there were often Norse settlements alongside Anglo-Saxon settlements as the populations fluctuated, adjusted and integrated over time. Many places names were hybridized, adapted and amalgamated e.g.
Kirby Knowle – village with a church (Norse), below a knoll/small round hill (Old English)
Ingleby Greenhow – village on a hill (Norse) which is green and belongs to the Angles/English (Old English)
Scugdale – valley with Goblins (Scandinavianized Old English)

There are common words still used in the north of England such as beck (Norse) for a stream, rig or rigg (Norse) for a ridge, mire (Norse) for a bog, and dale (Old English) for a valley. Moor is an Old English word for an unproductive marsh or barren upland area.

Old French (Norman) – unlike the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who came with populations that were then settled and absorbed, the Norman invasion was more of a baronial take over so Norman names mainly occur around seats of power demarcating property and patronage.

North York Moors examples:
Rievaulx – valley of the River Rye, is close by Helmsley Castle which belonged to the De Roos family.
Grosmont – big hill, an off shoot monastery named after the mother house at Grosmont in France.

Where settlements now include ‘le’ in their names, this is sometimes a modern addition and doesn’t necessarily indicate a Norman/French connection.

Rievaulx Abbey and Village. Copyright NYMNPA.

Then there are newer, more obvious names with recognisable descriptive (Middle and then Modern English) words and connotations like Black Moor, Cold Moor, Littlebeck, Sandsend, Church Houses, Low Mill. Sometimes however what seems obvious is not necessarily so. The name Rosedale probably isn’t to do with roses at all, it’s more likely to be about horses (hross is the Old Norse word for horse). Robin Hood is a generic name for a thief, so Robin Hood’s Bay might be more to do with its excellent location for smuggling, rather than a connection to THE Robin Hood.

Roof tops at Robin Hood's Bay. COPYRIGHT MIKE KIPLING.

With thanks to the Concise Oxford  Dictionary of English Place-Names

One thought on “Etymological landscapes

  1. Pingback: The roots of place names… | Old School Garden

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