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The magic and strangeness of British placenames

From Pendle Hill to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

British placenames are so good you can read the map for entertainment rather than navigation. Hardington Mande-ville, Bradford Peverell, Carlton Scroop — they sound like characters in a novel. In fact, P.G. Wodehouse often raided the atlas when writing: Lord Emsworth is named after a town in Hampshire, while a village in the same county gave Reginald Shipton–Bellinger his surname. There’s plenty of silliness out there — Great Snoring in Norfolk, Matching Tye in Essex, Fryup in Yorkshire. Some good old-fashioned smut, too: Lusty Glaze, Pant, Bell End and a couple of Twatts. Kent boasts a Thong — and it’s only a mile or so from Shorne.

But enough of your sniggers. Our placenames are educational, telling the history of who was where, when. ‘Pen’ (as in Penzance) denotes a Celtic settlement: it means ‘hill’ (as does the Old English ‘-dle’, so Pendle Hill in Lancashire means ‘Hill Hill Hill’). Then the Romans built their military camps or ‘castra’, so we got Colchester, Leicester, Doncaster and the like. Any name ending ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is probably Anglo-Saxon: the former meant ‘farm’, the latter ‘homestead’. There’s a Ham near Sandwich in Kent, so a road sign pointing to them both reads ‘Ham Sandwich’, and is constantly being nicked.


When the Vikings turned up, they used their own word for homestead: ‘by’. Hence Whitby, Derby, Ashby and so on. Then William the Conqueror gave land to his French mates, and Ashby got its de-la-Zouche, just as Leighton Buzzard owes it name to Theobald de Busar rather than birds of prey.

A ‘-ley’ ending denotes a meadow or clearing. The one settled by someone called Wemba became Wembley, meaning football fans are right to chant it as three syllables. In Essex a clearing settled by a man named Ugga became the modern village of Ugley: you can understand why the local WI branch changed their name from the Ugley Women’s Institute to the Women’s Institute of Ugley.

Pronunciations are notoriously tricky. Mousehole is ‘Mowzel’, Kirkcudbright is ‘Kirkoobree’ and Belvoir — home to Test Match Special’s Jonathan Agnew — is ‘Beaver’, which often makes Phil Tufnell snigger. Americans are famous for saying ‘Edinburrow’, but we shouldn’t forget the Canadian who pronounced Loughborough as ‘Looga–barooga’.

It’s no surprise that the British, a nation of crossword lovers and Scrabble addicts, should enjoy a little verbal analysis of their placenames. Ae, a village near Dumfries, holds the title of shortest name, while Bricklehampton in Worcestershire is the longest name not to repeat any of its letters (14 — more than half the alphabet). But the longest of all is of course Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrob-wllllantysiliogogogoch, though the Welsh village did cheat slightly, choosing the name in the 1860s as a publicity stunt. That didn’t stop Channel 4 weatherman Liam Dutton including it in a 2015 forecast. His successful pronunciation has clocked up nearly 15 million views on YouTube.


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