England Comparison of Introduced Place Names (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Comparison of Introduced Names

There is a distinct difference in the effects left by the ‘Conqueror-administrator’ tongues (Latin and Norman French) compared with the ‘Invader-Settler’ languages of those who settled and became farmers (Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon). The Romans were the only ones who largely went home again, although a few probably stayed behind, and the genetic influence of the Roman soldiers had no doubt been embedded in the nation. The influence of the new aristocracy on place names seems to be limited and more evident in towns, forts and roads.

Speakers of Norman-French had effects on bureaucratic terminology but not on local place names because they were not farmers and labourers out in the countryside. Latin was the only written language until the mid-5th century. It became the language of the church until at least the mid-16th century and later amongst Roman Catholics, and of the law until 1733, thus had a considerable linguistic effect, especially in the towns. It had less effect upon the average people, who were largely rural, as it was learnt in school not acquired naturally. England did not develop a Romance language from the Vulgar Latin as happened on the Continent with French, Spanish and Italian. A difference between the two groups of conquerors is that the sounds of Latin were much closer to the Celtic than were the sounds of Norman French to late Old English

Large numbers of entirely new place names were created by the Anglo-Saxons over the whole of England, and the Norse in NW and eastern parts because they occupied and farmed the land. Local presence of people speaking Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon tongues influenced the pronunciation and spelling of English words as well, thus the names of old English settlements were drastically altered by Scandinavian pronunciation. The Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon influences on field-names and place names in their respective areas of settlement are huge, whilst that of Norman French and Latin are tiny by comparison.

Gelling states ‘the appearance of a large number of place-names in a new language is evidence of a large-scale settlement by the speakers of the new language... rather than to the power and prestige of a small aristocracy.’ They are not necessarily new settlements, but re-named older ones, as it is now recognized that there has been considerable continuity of settlements from pre-English times. One can usually recognize the oldest settlements in an area by their being on the most desirable sites for farming and building of dwellings, for example those villages built on islands of sand and gravel surrounded by clay soil. Studies proceed on correlating place names with the geological and soil survey maps.

A Gallimaufry of Place Names

Field Names

Fields, enclosed areas of arable and pasture land, were largely created in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The land had previously been used for similar purposes, however, and many of them preserve the ancient names of the unenclosed land. Field names derive mainly from very commonplace and uninteresting elements but some connote distinctive local historical or topographical features, and the peasants’ ironic humour often shines through the centuries. Reaney (1960) has a most interesting chapter on field names, and the eponymous Field’s 1993 text should be consulted for etymological details. There is a wide variety of name derivations including:

  • ŸCommon names that refer to the shape, size position, function and character of the field, for example Hoppit a small enclosure, and Nackerty a field with many corners.
  • ŸModern names whose derivation is known to be 20th century.
  • ŸAncient habitation shown when there is a reference to the finding of grave goods.
  • ŸHistorical ownership in names like King’s Hole, or Abbots Mill, or personal names of past owners or tenants.
  • ŸHistorical features such as long gone buildings, fords, wells, village crosses, roads and mills.
  • ŸNames indicating geological or soil conditions.
  • ŸIndications of the crops or livestock occupying the land.
  • ŸSuperstitions and legends when dwarfs, goblins, changelings, witches, giants and dragons are part of the name.
  • ŸNicknames such as Hundred Acre or Many Days Work for tiny half-acre fields, or Hungry Hill and Starve Crow for infertile land. However, they are not all as they seem nowadays, thus the many ‘lousy’ fields probably denote the presence of pigsties.
  • ŸReferences to old customs such as sites of ducking stools, maypoles and ancient manorial customs.
  • ŸNature of land enclosed such as that taken from marsh, moor or woodland.
  • ŸDisputed land is often named thus.
  • ŸReligious association, particularly lands endowed to provide money for bread at mass, or repair of bells and ropes.
  • ŸStructure and state of bridges.
  • ŸReference to outlandish or far-away places such as Moscow or Canada perhaps because the field was on the parish boundary, or Botany Bay where hard labour was needed.

Field names thus share many common origins with place names, and some have in turn given their names to clusters of houses which later developed into larger settlements.

It should be emphasized that one cannot presume an origin from a modern field name, but should find the earliest spellings and consult appropriate dictionaries. As an example, Reaney quotes three fields called by names suggesting a connection with Christmas, the meanings of which are quite disparate, as shown below.

‘Christmas’ Field Names

Name Meaning
Christmasland in Thurleston, Suffolk Named for the custom of the tenant to pay a cock & 3 hens to his lord at Christmas, noted in 1292
Christmasyards Wood in Trimley St. Mary, Suffolk Derived from name of owner in 1327, John Cristemasse
Christmas Hill in Bishops Itchington, Warwickshire Corruption of Cristemelhull (1246) ‘the hill on which stood a cross.’

The elements of field names are basically the same as for place names and commonly from Old English. French and Latin field names are extremely rare, but Scandinavian ones are numerous since these people stayed and settled on the land. The family historian will encounter these names in wills and deeds that describe property in detail, and recourse to the relevant tithe map and apportionment of 1836-1850, Valuation Office Survey (1910-1915), or National Farm Survey (1941-1943) will provide details of the land and its use (Foot).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.