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Interesting Etymologies 11 : Place names

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

In this episode we take a look at the etymology of the names of places.

Like so many of the topics explored in this programme, the field of interest is virtually infinite (Ed - Well, Global Charly) so Charly is going to isolate some examples and dig down.

Personal Names

Charly starts by reminding us that our names have meanings, and many people do not know what their name means. Philip for example means "lover of horses", Christopher is someone who carries Christ, Charles just means a man or husband, Sara (Sarah) comes from a word for Princess, Elizabeth from Hebrew means "My God is in abundance" and Merrick means "biggest knuckle in the fist" or "longest finger in the hand!"

Common English suffixes

Charly first explores the meaning of Oxford, which unsurprisingly means the place where the oxen (cattle) crossed the river. Ox being cattle and Ford being a river crossing. Ford, Castle and Church are all very common suffixes in English place names that have obvious meaning, -ton is also very common, a contracted form of "town". Although, this is not always the case. Buxton is formed from Buck Stones.

We discover how Charly's passion for etymology began in this episode as he recounts his teacher explaining that Hoar frost meant grey frost and the district he lived in was called Harwood derived from Hoar.


Another common suffix is Cester/Chester which indicates a Roman army camp site. Manchester derives from an army camp of an Anglo Saxon named Mamm. The original word meaning "breast" or "breast like hill" but the modern word derives from the Latinisation (Mamucium or Mancunio) of the original name. We see how the word camp becomes "field" in French and forms the root of our word "Champion".


Wales is known as Cymru in the original language of Wales, which means "fellow people" or "tribe", but the title in English, "Wales" has a curious backstory. Originating in the Germanic tribes attacking the Celtic tribes, one known as the Volkai which took the meaning "foreigners".

The word then under goes a transition from a "V" to a "W".

Swedish dated to 400 to 650AD "Walha-kurne" or "foreign-corn" or other Old Germanic variations "Walask", "Walahisk", "Walhisk" all to mean "strange" or "foreign".

Then the "W" becomes "G", which might be more recognisable to Spanish or Scouse speakers. Waffles are called Gofres in Spanish for example. From here "Walhisk becomes "Galeis", "Galois", "Gualeis" or "Gaul". Gallois is the modern day French for Welsh, Gales is the same in Spanish. From here we have "Walloons" for the people of Belgium and the Polish word for Italy is Włochy.

Editor's note: Charly moves to the word "Slav" at this point, click on Slav to continue with the show notes, but here in the article we are going to take a slight diversion onto Anglo Saxon/Old English and Welsh with the following extract from the excellent Old English language Portal Website and the further information they have on Wales!

The Germanic tribes that invaded England in the fifth century also brought the word walha. They used it to refer to the local Romanized Celtic population. But the encounter between British Celts and Anglo-Saxons was not a peaceful one: The invaders quickly displaced, murdered or enslaved the Celtic-speaking peoples. Gildas, a sixth century British cleric, writes about his fellow Celtic countrymen:

"Some […] were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered to them. […] Others remained still in their country, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas." (Gildas' On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, 25)

Even though the attackers were the newcomers to the land, they called the ancestral population the wealas, 'strangers.' The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records,

473 A.D. þa wealas flugon þa Englan swa fyr.

'473 A.D. the Welsh fled from the English like fire.'

607 A.D. And her Æþelfried lædde ferde to Legaceastre & þær ofsloh unrim Wealana. & swa wearþ gefylld Augustinus witegunge þe he cwæð, "gif Wealas nellaþ sibbe wið us, hie sculon æt Seaxena handa forweorþan."

'607 A.D. And this year Ethelfrith led a troop to Chester and there murdered a huge number of Welsh people and thus was fulfilled Augustine’s prophecy when he said, “if the Welsh don’t wish peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons."'

More clearly than in other languages, walha took on the meaning not just of foreigner but of 'the other' in Old English; it became a term for an inferior race, worthy of enslavement. Without mercy or shame, the Anglo-Saxon invaders gradually forced the Welsh from the rich, arable plains of the East to the rough, barren mountains in the West. And these are still the regions where the English Celtic-speaking minorities live to this day, Wales '(the land of the) foreigners' and Cornwall, with Corn- referring to the original tribal name of the inhabitants and -wall from Old English 'foreigner.' Welsh comes from the corresponding adjective, welisc, wælisc 'foreign.'

Subsequently, the Old English word Welsh even allowed for its interpretation as 'slave.' For example, the Old English rendition of the Old Testament directly translates Latin seruus with wealh.

Old English: Se Ebreiscea wealh, þe ðu hider brohtest, eode in to me þæt he me bysmrude

Latin: Ingressus est ad me seruus Hebræus, quem adduxisti, ut illuderet mihi.

Modern English: 'The Hebrew slave, whom you brought hither, came in to me to ridicule me.' (Genesis 39:17)

Another reference to Welsh as a slave comes from Riddle number twelve of the Exeter book. It asks for the name of a thing that first moves around on green meadows, but, once dead, is turned into thongs, shoes or wine flasks, which are then served and cleaned by Welsh slave girls. What could that be? Well, most scholars believe the answer to the riddle should be "leather."

The word wealh is also used in a racially discriminatory sense in the Laws of King Ine of Wessex from the late seventh century. The law assigns - even to free wealas - a lower social rank than to an Englishman, as the compensation paid for killing them was lower for the former than for the latter.

But the Anglo-Saxons also coined much more innocent expressions from the word wealh. For example, the compound walhhnutu - Modern English walnut - is first documented c. 1050. The nut is "foreign" because it was originally native to France and Italy.

With the use of Welsh in old English to mean slave, it should come as no surprise that we now look at the word "Slav".

Charly explores some examples of words that have come from Welsh into English in episode 16.


Slav is from "slovo" and literally means "people of the word" but via the Romans who got their slaves from the region, we get the word "slave". Slav and Slave are similar in almost every European language (not to be confused with Polish "unwilling" or Russian "work").


The Spanish like to claim the name comes from the Romans christening the land "Hispania" but the Carthaginians had named the region Ispania or I-Shaphan which meant Land or Coast of the Hyraxes. This is an animal that is common in the middle east and it is believed the Carthaginians, being unfamiliar with rabbits as a species, used the word Hyrax instead.

Iberia is believed to come from the name of the river Ebro which flows through Zaragoza, which itself has an interesting etymology. The original settlement was called Salduie before Caesar Augusto, the Roman Emperor founded a Roman settlement on the site. The Romans referred to the city as Caesaraugusta and this transmuted to Saraqusṭa during the Arabic period of rule, showing the path to the current name.

Bahamas - Bajas Mares (Spanish for Low Seas)

Honduras - From Spanish Hondos - depths.

There are a wealth of place names and countries named after the person who founded them or discovered them and some have a murky and disputed heritage. But that is for another day!

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here


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