English place-names may be broken down into three categories:

Each group is examined in detail below. It should be noted that the terms "Celt" and "British" in the following text are employed interchangeably. References to "Anglo-Saxons" and "English" are similarly equivalent.


Names denoting English settlements

Cameron (1996) notes that the four main surviving elements of Old English (OE) settlement names are -ham, -ton, -wick and -worth, the last two of which can occur in simplex form. All were combined with OE personal names as exemplified by Masham (NR) Mæssa, Cayton (NR) Cæga, Heckmondwike (WR) Heahmund and Wadsworth (WR) Wada. In relation to the original forms of these elements, Cameron (1996) observes that:

Ham was employed in the sense of "homestead" and is believed to belong to an early period of settlement. Although a rarity in the west of the country, it is the commonest habitative element of the earliest recorded English place-names. It is compounded with, inter alia: appelatives, as demonstrated by Masham above; descriptions, as exemplified by Middleham (NR) "middle homestead"; references to vegetative features, as illustrated by Bentham "bent grass" and Farnham "ferns").

Tun, indicative of a "farmstead", is the commonest of the English place-name suffixes. The initial elements in compounds have been found to refer variously to: occupational groups, as illustrated by Smeaton (WR/NR) and Potterton (WR), respectively "smiths" and "potters"; geographical location, as in Norton, "north" and Heaton, "high"; soil type, as exemplified. Clayton (WR), "clay" and Sancton (ER), "sand"; and natural features, as in Murton (NR). "moor" or "marsh".

Wic, possessed a number of different meanings in place-names. As the first element in the OE compound Wicham, it indicates a connection with the smaller Roman settlements. As the second element of a compound, it might denote a trading centre as exemplified by Kepwick (NR)*. It appears that wic subsequently became employed in the sense of "dairy farm". For example, Bewick (WR) indicates a farm associated with "bees" whilst Hewick (WR) was located on "high" ground. It is interesting to note that wic apparently continued to be employed in the formation of place-names well into the period following the Norman conquest.

* The leading element here is also an example of how Old English, (in this case ceap, "trade", "market") was modified under Scandinavian influence. Further information on the impact of Norse pronunciation on English place-names is given in the section dealing with Scandinavian place-names.

Worð appears to have been used originally to mean an "enclosure" but fairly early on it took on the meaning of "enclosed settlement". This was especially the case where the first element was formed from a personal name. In fact 75% of worð place-names are compounded with personal names. For example, Badsworth (WR) refers to "Bæddi's enclosed settlement" whilst Wadsworth (WR) refers to that of "Wada". Furthermore, although a full-scale study of this element is still required, the following has been noted:


The ing type

In addition to the four mentioned above, another common element is the -ing type. In genealogical terms, this form was an Anglo-Saxon patronymic indicating "son of". However, when employed in its plural form (ingas) with a personal name, it took on a dynastic sense. This later appears to have developed into the meaning "dependents of", "people of". Place-names formed in such a manner were therefore not originally place-names but group names (i.e. ingas could be interpreted as "the people who lived at"), and only became place-names through association with a particular folk-group. The plural form, however, infrequently survives to the present-day. This is exemplified by Kilpin (NR), "the people / dependents of Cyppel", the etymology of which can only be identified from early spellings. In addition to the plural version, the genitive form (inga) was also employed in combination with other elements such as leah ("wood", "glade"), tun and ham, the last of which was the most common. For example:

Modern place-name ElementsMeaning
Headingley (WR) Headda + inga + leah "the wood of the people of Headda"
Knedlington (ER) Cneddel + inga + tun "the farmstead of the dependents of Cneddel (or Cnytel)"
Goodmanham (ER) Godmund+ (inga) + ham "the homestead of Godmund's people"

As can be seen from the final example, the central element inga does not always survive into the present day.


Names signifying British settlements

The English had three names which they applied to the Celts: Walh which may be translated as either "Welshman", or "serf"; Brettas "Britons"; and Cumbre, the name the British called themselves

Place-Names in walh-
Walh is derived from Latin Volcae, the name of a Celtic tribe, and was employed by Germanic speakers to refer to Latin and Celtic speakers. In relation to place-names, there is a lack of consensus with regard to the meaning of this element (plural walas, genitive singular wales, genitive plural wala) which in Old English can signify either "Welshman" or "serf".

Gelling (1988), citing Faull (1975), claims that the latter is more confident than herself concerning the significance of walh. Faull takes the view that in particular cases the meaning is "Welshman". For example, if the place-names Walton and Walcot were conceived in the early period of English speech encroachment the name might well designate a settlement of Welsh whereas a later coining might refer to a community of serfs. One view is that place-names referring to residents of a specific social category or to a particular landowner were of later origin, and that Walcot and Walton fall into this class. As such the likely reference is to serfs rather than Britons.

Faull (1977) notes that the compounding of walh with Anglo-Saxon tun, the latter signifying a settlement of minor importance, suggests that such British settlements were perceived as being comparatively insignificant.

Place-Names in Bret-

There are four occurrences of Bret- names in the West Riding (i.e. Monk Bretton, West Bretton, Birkby (originally Bretby) Hill, and Burton (formerly Bretton) Salmon) but none in the rest of the county. However, Thurlow (1979) claims that the structure of these names is indicative of later settlement by Britons accompanying the 10th century Norse invasions from the north-west rather than of survivng British communities.

Place-Names in Cumbre

Unlike Walh- and Bret- elements there is no problem of ambiguity (hyperlink) with this component. It has its origins in *Cumbre, the name the British employed for themselves º (Jackson, 1968-9; Smith, 1956, cited by Faull). It appears in the first part of Cumberworth (WR), the only such place-name of its type in the whole of the county, and Cumberland "the land of the Welsh".

º Gelling claims that it is an Old English borrowing from the Primitive Welsh version of modern Cymro, "Welshman"


Names denoting ownership of land by individual Britons

As well as referring to British nationality, this was also used as a personal name by the Anglo-Saxons , most probably to denote the child of a mixed English / British union (e.g. Walshford (WR)"ford of Walsh"). The hypocoristic or "pet name" form Walca is the source of both Walkington (ER) and Walkingham (ER).

Meaning "mule" and therefore someone of mixed parentage it appears in Molescroft (ER). Faull draws attention to the fact that this name was given to individuals of some status (Redin, 1919) which suggests that such an appellation was not considered to be pejorative. For example the brother of the West Saxon king Cædwalla bore this name.

Faull suggests that, in the case of Cumberworth mentioned above, the first element is in fact a personal name and that Cumberworth signifies "Cumbra's enclosure".



Cameron, K. (1996) English Place-Names, London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.

Faull M L (1975) The Semantic development of Old English, Leeds Studies in English, VIII 20-44.

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, Second Edition, Chichester: Phillimore.

Jackson, K. (1968-9) Addenda and corrigenda to EPNS vols XXV and XXVI, EPNS Journal, I (1968-9), 43-52.

Redin, M. (1919) Studies of Uncompounded Personal Names in Old English, (Uppsala, 1919)

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

Thurlow, W. (1979) Yorkshire Place-names, Clapham, North Yorkshire: Dalesman Pubishing.