"…the ambiguous linguistic origin of many names in the north and east of England does need to be borne in mind when the historical significance of Scandinavian place-names in England is under consideration." (Gelling, 1988: 216)


Gelling's observation above does not however mean that etymological uncertainties arise solely from Scandinavian influences. Similar difficulties occur in relation to place-names of both English and Celtic origin. It is the latter which are examined first. Subsequently, having considered place-names of English and Scandinavian origin, possible solutions to the difficulties and problems of ambiguity are discussed.


Celtic Place-Names

The earliest place- and river-names for which etymologies can be suggested are those of Celtic or British origin. There are, however, some names which, with our present of knowledge, appear to be neither Celtic, nor Anglo-Saxon, nor Scandinavian, and so may well be earlier. Unfortunately, we know little of the language or languages of such people.

In addition, it is occasionally impossible to provide a meaning for a name which is definitely Celtic because of incomplete knowledge of the Brythonic languages (e.g. Alne (NR) and the river Tame (NWR)). Furthermore, even where it is possible to suggest a meaning this can be done only in broad terms. Thus, for example, Calder (WR) may mean "rapid stream", the root of Esk (NR) may signify "water" or " river", and Dove (NWR), based on the Celtic adjective for "black", may mean "the black one".

Following the research of the late Professor Kenneth Jackson, some names previously considered to be of Celtic origin are now thought to be of pre-Celtic origin (e.g. river names such as Hodder (WR), Humber (ER), Ouse (NER) and Ure (NR)).

Other names seem to derive from roots found in various parts of Europe e.g. Don (WR) apparently contains the same root as the rivers Don and Danube in Eastern Europe.

Another source of difficulty arising in relation to Celtic place-names is highlighted by Strang (1970). She draws attention to the indiscriminate manner in which the English adopted Celtic words into their own language. Such borrowings could frequently become distorted owing to the phonological differences between the two languages. In effect, sound substitutions could occur. For example, unlike Celtic, the Anglo-Saxon language had no medial /g/ and accordingly substituted /c/. Hence Celtic egles* "church" became Old English ecles (the first element in, for example, Eccleshall (WR)).

* Gelling (1988) asserts that this borrowing was in fact from the Primitive Welsh (the precursor of Modern Welsh) eglwys.


English Place-Names

In relation to place-names referring to British settlements, difficulties arise in distinguishing Old English Brettas from Old Norse Bretar (Smith, 1956, cited by Faull, 1977)

Faull claims Bret- names from the Old English element (e.g. Monk Bretton, West Bretton, Burton (originally Bretton) Salmon) are most likely to refer to indigenous Britons. In the case of the Scandinavian form the issue is more problematic.

The term Bretar may have been used to refer to groups of Irish coming into the country with the Norwegians. However, Faull takes the view that the term is unlikely to have been employed for the Goidelic Celts who were generally referred to as Scottas. She considers that, in all probability, Bretar either refers to British settlements established by later in-comers from areas such as Cumbria, or is a Scandinavianisation of the pre-existing Brettas.

Concerning names in walh, it is not always certain that places such as a modern Walcot or Walton have their basis in walh. They could equally have there derivations linked to Old English wald "forest", węlle "spring", or weal "wall". The assumption is that, in terms of Middle English, the majority spellings with Wale- (in contrast to Wal(l)-) are a reference to "Briton" or "serf".


Scandinavian Place-Names

Gelling (1988) observes that, because the Norwegians and Danes spoke different dialects of Old Norse, there are differences between the place-name vocabulary of these two cultures. For example, žorp (modern -thorpe) is a Danish word and did not exist in the Norwegian dialect. The origin of place-names containing this element is therefore comparatively easy to identify. However, as can be seen from table 1, there were also lexical similarities that can be a source of ambiguity in place-name research. (OE =Old English; ON = Old Norse)

Table 1

Old Danish
Old Norwegian
temporary shelter,
Examples of modern place-names

Balkholme (ER)
"the island belonging to Balki" (Cameron, 1988)


"at the shelters"
(derived from the dative plural of buš, i.e.bušum)
(Cameron, 1988).

Cattrig Force (WR)
"the cat-ridge waterfall"
(OE catt + ON hryggr + fors)
(Metcalfe, 1992).
Skyreholme (WR)
"bright water-meadow"
( skirr "bright" + holmr)
(Metcalfe, 1992)
Boothroyd (WR)
"clearing with a booth"
(Thurlow, 1979)
Fossdale (NR)
"the waterfall valley"
( fors + dalr)
(Metcalfe, 1992).


Similarly, as noted by Loyn (1962), because language at this time was in such an early phase of evolution, it is not always easy to identify whether the modern form of a place-name has its origins in OE or ON (Table 2).

Table 2

Old Norse
Old English
enclosure, farmstead, village, manor
dale, valley
Modern place-names
Claxton (NR)
"Klak's* farmstead"
Farndale (NR)
"fern valley"
Windhill (WR)
"windy hill"

*Old Danish personal name

With such problems of ambiguity, how is it possible to view the proposed origins of a place-name with any confidence?

A common view is that successful place-name research is dependent on a number of different academic disciplines, that information from other fields of study is particularly important where ambiguities exist. In the process of determining the origins of a particular site it is therefore considered to be crucial that all other available factors are taken into account. Thurlow (1979) suggests, for example, that study of a site's topographical features may provide clues to the place-name's origins. A relevant example is cited by Morris (1982).

Referring to Gelling's (1978) investigations into early place-names in Essex and Berkshire he draws attention to her findings regarding the ing element. She discovered that -ing frequently referred to a feature of topography or vegetation rather than to the existence of a folk-group. Thus, Dickering (ER), which was originally believed to refer to the followers of an individual named Diker (i.e. from Dikeringas), is now considered to be a descriptive compound. That is to say, the original Old English form was a combination of dic (ditch, dike) and hring (ring), and denoted a circular earthwork. This interpretation is supported by the fact that there is an ancient circular ditch in the vicinity.

A further example, also provided by Morris (1982), employing both historical and archaeological evidence, relates to the origins of three villages in the North Riding of Yorkshire, namely: Easby, Melsonby and Kirby Hill. The elements of these place-names all suggest that the sites are of Scandinavian origin. However, in each case, the local village church contains a stone cross which is clearly of Anglian origin, and which shows no evidence of Scandinavian influence. Moreover, archaeological investigation has uncovered traces of pre-Viking churches on these sites. Such evidence suggests that the original settlements were English.



Cameron, K. (1988) English Place-Names, Fourth Edition, London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.

Faull, M L (1977) British Survival in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. In Lloyd Laing (Ed) (1977) Studies in Celtic survival, British Archaeological Report 37

Gelling, M. (1988) Signposts to the Past, Chichester: Phillimore

Loyn, H. R. (1962) Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd.

Metcalfe, P. (1992) Place-Names of the Yorkshire Dales, Otley, West Yorkshire: Smith Settle.

Morris, R.W. (1982) Yorkshire through Place Names, North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles Inc.

Smith, A.H. (1956) English Place-Names Elements, (EPNS, vols, 25,26, Cambridge, 1956)

Strang, B M H (1970) A History of English, London: Methuen.

Thurlow, W. (1979) Yorkshire Place-Names, Clapham, North Yorkshire: The Dalesman Publishing Co.Ltd.