From Ham to Sandwich: 40 Odd British Place Names (And What They Really Mean…)

Peter O'Connor a.k.a. anemoneprojectors, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Peter O'Connor a.k.a. anemoneprojectors, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Peter O'Connor a.k.a. anemoneprojectors, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s easy to forget that all proper nouns, including first names, surnames, and place names, are all just words in their own right, and as such have their own histories and etymologies behind them. But as the language develops and older words fall out of use, words can end up drifting closer to more familiar words until they eventually become identical—and that happens more often than not with place names.

As Old English became Middle English and eventually modern English, the ancient word elements used to form place names in Old English became obsolete, and as a result some of the names themselves drifted towards other pre-existing and more familiar words in the language. A tour of Britain ultimately could take in the likes of Badger, Droop, Lost, Nasty, Ogle, and Thong—and here’s why.

1. The village of ARROW near Stratford is named for the river Arrow that flows through it, which in turn might take its name from a long-lost Celtic word meaning something like “swift” or “fast-flowing water.”

2. The tiny village of BADGER in Shropshire probably derives from an ancient Anglo-Saxon first name, Baecg, plus ofer, an old English word for a flat-topped promontory.

3. BEER on the coast of Devon in southwest England has nothing to do with liquor: it’s a derivative of an Old English word bearu, meaning “grove.”

4. BOX, just a few miles outside of Bath, takes its name from Buxus, the Latin word for the boxwood tree. (Bath itself is named after the city’s famous Roman baths.)

5. Nothing to do with rabbits, unfortunately: BUNNY in Nottinghamshire is a compound of the Old English words bune and eg, and literally means “reed-covered island.”

6. CARGO in Cumbria, just south of the Scottish border, has a name derived from carreg, a Celtic word meaning “rock,” and haugr, a Scandinavian word meaning “hill.”

7. COTTON in Suffolk takes its name from an Old English word meaning “small houses.” Cottage and dovecot are derived from the same root.

8. Among the strangest of English place names, CRACKPOT in North Yorkshire takes its name from an ancient Scandinavian word for crow, krákr, whereas…

9. … the village of CROW in Hampshire likely derives from one of two ancient Celtic words, crie or crou, meaning “weir” or “sty” respectively.

10. The unfortunately-named hamlet of DROOP in Dorset takes its name from an Old English word, þrop, for an outlying village or farmstead.

11. EAGLE in Lincolnshire literally means something like “oak-tree wood” or “oak-tree clearing,” and derives from a combination two Old English word roots.

12. There are a handful of villages in Essex in southeast England named EASTER, which despite appearances probably take their name from an Old English word, eowestre, meaning “sheep-fold.”

13. Likewise, there are towns and villages all over England called EYE, including examples in Suffolk, Herefordshire, and Cambridgeshire. All of them take their name from the Old English word eg, which, as well as meaning “island,” was also used to refer to a relatively well drained area of land in an otherwise marshy or boggy landscape. The words island and isle, incidentally, also derive from Old English eg.

14. The Derbyshire village of FLAGG in the Peak District probably takes its name from a Scandinavian word for a place where turf could be cut.

15. The village of HAM in Gloucestershire—as well as the “ham” found at the end of countless place names like Birmingham and Nottingham—is derived from a widely-used Old English word, hamm, for a town or farmstead, or else an enclosure or otherwise isolated or enclosed area of land, like a hill or an area of land surrounded by a river bend.

16. An Old English first name, Haegel, is at the root of the name of the Lincolnshire village of HEALING.

17. Probably nothing to do with being high, the Wiltshire village of HIGHWAY actually takes its name from being a road for hay.

18. Like “ham,” HOPE is another common element in ancient English place names—as well as the name of villages in Derbyshire, North Yorkshire and Herefordshire—and derives from an Old English word, hop, meaning “valley” or “enclosed plot of land.”

19. The Isle of Wight off the south coast of England is home to “Seven Wonders”—namely seven local places (Lake, Ryde, Cowes, Freshwater, Newport, Newtown, Winkle Street, and The Needles) whose names seem to contradict their meaning: you can’t thread The Needles, there are no winkles on Winkle Street, you can’t bottle the Newport, drink the Freshwater or milk the Cowes, you walk in Ryde, and there’s no lake in LAKE. Instead, the village of Lake takes its name, somewhat confusingly, from an Old English word, lacu, meaning “stream.”

20. LOOSE in Kent takes its name from an Old English word for a pig-sty, hlōse.

21. The Aberdeenshire village of LOST is so small it’s probably impossible to get lost in it. It takes its name from a corruption of a Scots Gaelic word, taigh-òsda, meaning “inn” or “hotel.”

22. MAKER on the coast of Cornwall takes its name from an old Cornish word, magoer, meaning “wall” or “ruin.”

23. One of the smallest islands in the Inner Hebrides, the Scottish island of MUCK derives from a Gaelic word, muc, meaning “pig.”

24. NASTY in Hertfordshire isn’t as nasty as it sounds: it derives from a compound of the Old English words ēast and hæg, and literally means “eastern enclosure.”

25. OGLE in Northumberland derives from Ocga, an Anglo-Saxon first name, and hyll or hill.

26. The village of OLD in Northamptonshire was originally called “Walda,” then later “Wolde,” and took its name from wald, an Old English word for a woodland.

27. PLUSH in Dorset comes from an Old English word, plysc, meaning “pool.”

28. REDDISH near Manchester probably has nothing to do with color and instead combines the old English words hreod and dic, meaning “ditch by the reed beds.”

29. The “sand” of SANDWICH in Kent is precisely that, but the “wich” comes from the Old English word wic, meaning “trading place,” “dwelling,” or “farm.” Put together, it probably originally referring to a coastal market town.

30. SEND in nearby Surrey derives from the Old English word for sand, sende

31. … while SETTLE in West Yorkshire comes from an Old English word, setl, meaning “high dwelling place.”

32. and 33. Both SHEET in Hampshire and SHUTE in Devon derive from sciete, an Old English word for a corner or bend of land.

34. Another fairly unfortunately named village, THONG in Kent derives from the Old English word thwang, meaning “a narrow stretch of land.”

35. TIPTOE in Hampshire takes its name from an old family name, Typetot, that has been recorded in the area since the 13th century at least.

36. TONGUE in the Scottish Highlands actually means “tongue,” in the sense of a projecting tongue of land. In that sense, it derives from an ancient Scandinavian word, tunga.

37. UPHILL in Somerset isn’t actually uphill, but rather “above the stream”—it would have once combined the Old English words uppan, meaning “higher” or “upon,” and pyll, meaning “tidal creek.”

38. WHALE in Cumbria is 40 miles from the coast, and unsurprisingly has nothing to do with marine mammals. Instead, it derives from hváll, a Scandinavian word for a rounded hill.

39. Likewise WOOL in Dorset has nothing to do with sheep, but comes from an Old English word for a spring, wiell.

40. And no one really knows why YELLING in Cambridgeshire is so called, but one theory is that it is named after someone who had the Anglo-Saxon first name Giella.