Great British Place Names Made of Smaller Bits

I was driving recently and saw a sign for a place whose name was built up of two things joined together.  That got me wondering about other places I’ve seen whose names were like that.  So I found some data, downloaded it, played around with it, and this is the result.

There’s no great point to this – it’s just playing with some data.  Also, I apologise in advance that this is for just Great Britain and not Northern Ireland.  This is just because the geographical data I found is GB data.  This post has some analysis, and there’s also a static version of an interactive map.  Clicking on the map will take you to the interactive version.

The naming of parts (of the country)

The names can have meaning and be interesting, and reflect the history of people, what’s been important to them, what language they spoke, who was ruling where etc.

There are Old English names that relate to geography – the River Great Ouse means ‘River Great River’ and Braedun Hill means ‘Hill Hill Hill’.  There are names for places the Romans established a town or city – Lancaster, Cirencester etc.  There are French names – Theydon Bois, and Viking names – Whitby.  On top of that, there are also names in Scottish, Welsh and Cornish.

You might be wondering about the heading of this section.  It comes from the poem of the same name.  I first learned it from the TV series Endeavour – Morse’s boss served in the Army in World War 2 and he recites this at one point.

Examples

To help you understand the kinds of place name I’m interested in for this article, here’s a list of joining words and phrases, and an example for each one.

Word or PhraseExample
by theHigh Newton-by-the-Sea
de laAshby de la Launde
en leAlsop en le Dale
in theBarton in the Beans
next theHolme next the Sea
on theAmersham on the Hill
acAbergwaun ac Wdig
anAchdh an Inbh
andBasset (Wheal Basset and Grylls)
atCourt-at-Street
atteHavering-atte-Bower
byAshby by Partney
cumBootle cum Linacre
deCatherine de Barnes Heath
gydaBausley gyda Chrugion
inAshton-in-Makerfield
juxtaNorton juxta Twycross
leAdwick le Street
nearLlanfihangel near Rogiet
naAch na Cloiche
nanBaile nan Cailleach
nextBurgh next Aylsham
ofAyres of Selivoe
onAbingdon-on-Thames
overLee-over-Sands
subStratford sub Castle
superMichaelston-super-Ely
underAshton-under-Lyne
uponAshton upon Mersey
withAllington (West Allington with East Allington)
withoutBridge and Bridge without

If, like me before I started this, you were unaware of some of these or don’t know what they mean, here are what for me were the more obscure ones:

  • Ac = Welsh for ‘and’
  • Atte = Middle English for ‘at the’
  • Cum = Latin for ‘with’ (as in ‘cum laude’ = ‘with praise / distinction’ on a University degree grade)
  • Gyda = Welsh for ‘with’
  • Juxta = Latin for ‘near to’ (as in ‘juxtapose’ = ‘put near to’)
  • Nan / na / an = Scottish for ‘the’.  ‘an’ is also Cornish for ‘the’.

Note for things like ‘by’ I’m excluding places that include ‘by the’ as they’re already counted in the list for ‘by the’ places. But when a name includes both e.g. ‘and’ and ‘by the’ then it’s counted as having both of them.

If I had spent more time on this, I possibly would have added a bit of flexibility, so that e.g. o’ the and o’ th’ would be included in the numbers for of the – this would have added in places like Bottom o’ the’ Brow and Bottom o’ th’ Moor.  Fortunately, my favourite name that I found through randomly looking through the data – Bottom-of-the-Oven – is already included.  Some other nice places I found through random looking: Land of Nod, Labour-in-Vain, and St. Cuthbert Without.

The data

I found a decent-looking list of names at the Office of National Statistics, and thought I could rely on its quality given who was hosting it.

The data has many different kinds of place, from villages to counties.  I had to arbitrarily pick which kinds of place I’d analyse, which was hampered by not properly understanding the meaning of each kind of place. (Built-Up Area Sub Division?)

I started by picking what looked like the two categories that looked most like they would include villages and towns – LOC and COM.  This looked good until I did a sanity check for Wells-next-the-Sea and Grange-over-Sands and found they were missing.  It turns out they were PAR rather than LOC or COM.

So I added in PAR places, as long as they didn’t duplicate a LOC or COM of the same name in a similar part of the world.  I defined “similar part of the world” to mean in the same 1km grid square (I presume on OS maps) or with the same longitude and latitude to 0 decimal places.  These criteria are a bit weird, but anything more sensible would be too fiddly for me to be bothered.

I tried adding a few other kinds of place (BUA and BUASD) but the data is even messier for those and I gave up as I felt I had enough data.

You can download the data and the code I wrote to process it from GitHub.

As ever, the data was messy because life is messy.  This meant that early on the code creates a ‘clean’ version of the name where hyphens are converted into spaces.  This makes later code simpler so that it can look for just e.g. “ in the ” and not “-in-the-” as well.

The only other notable feature is towards the end, where it tries to collect the data for a given place.  This would mean trying to process the data a row at a time, looking at all its columns, which R seems to not like doing.  (It can do it, but it’s slow.  This is similar to using cursors in SQL.)  So it creates a copy of the data but transposes rows and columns.  The data for a given place is now together in one column, which it can process easily.  Fortunately the transposing is quick, so the overall process is quick too.

Summary

This graph shows the total by joining word or phrase.

A bar graph showing how often joining words like 'and' appear in GB place names

You can see that by far the most common is ‘and’, followed by ‘with’.  There is one word that crops up only once – ‘atte’.  Here are all the words that appear at most 5 times.

WordPlaces
acAbergwaun ac Wdig
Pen-yr-heol, Trecenydd ac Eneu’r-glyn
atteHavering-atte-Bower
deCatherine de Barnes Heath
Cotes de Val
Dent de Lion
Fleur-de-Lis
Grange de Lings
de laAshby de la Launde
Fisherton de la Mere
Ashby-de-la-Zouch
Layer-de-la-Haye
Ashby de la Launde and Bloxholm
en leAlsop en le Dale
Brampton en le Morthen
Laughton-en-le-Morthen
Chapel-en-le-Frith
Stretton en le Field
gydaBausley gyda Chrugion
Ffordun gyda Tre’r-llai a Threlystan
Gwernaffield gyda Pantymwyn
Llanfihangel Cwm Du gyda Bwlch a Chathedin
juxtaNorton juxta Twycross
Aston juxta Mondrum
nearLlanfihangel near Rogiet
Kingston near Lewes
Walcot near Folkingham
nextBurgh next Aylsham
Toft next Newton
next theHolme next the Sea
Wells-next-the-Sea
overLee-over-Sands
Grange-over-Sands
subStratford sub Castle
Norton sub Hamdon
Stoke sub Hamdon
superMichaelston-super-Ely
St Bride’s-super-Ely
St. George’s-super-Ely
Weston-super-Mare

There are opposing pairs in the list: over / under, sub / super, with / without.  There are many more ‘over’ than ‘under’, more ‘super’ than ‘sub’ and many more ‘with’ than ‘without’.  However, in this context ‘without’ probably means outside (as in the hymn There is a green hill far away without a city wall), so in this context ‘without’ is probably the opposite of ‘within’.  (There are no ‘within’ places.)

Details of three kinds of name

I noticed that the names that include ‘by the’ are all actually ‘by the Sea’.

I looked at ‘on the’ and ‘in the’ places, and these are shown in the following graphs.

Bar chart showing how often different values of Y show up for GB place names that are of the form 'X on the Y'

‘Hill’ is by far the most popular place to be on, followed by ‘Wold’ / ‘Wolds’.

Bar chart showing how often different values of Y show up for GB place names that are of the form 'X in the Y'

This is generally less common than ‘on the’, and has no clear spikes.  It includes one of my favourite GB place names – Barton in the Beans – which is the only X in the Beans, which is nice.

Map

This is a static version of map.  If you click on it you will be taken to an interactive version.  If I had more time I would have changed it so that you could zoom and pan the main part of the map while the controls stayed still, but without that I hope that zooming in the whole screen will do. If you hover an element in the key it will highlight places shaded that colour.

A static view of an interactive map showing GB place names made of smaller bits.  Clicking on this map will take you to the interactive version.

3 thoughts on “Great British Place Names Made of Smaller Bits

  1. As my friend Gareth pointed out, I have excluded a lot of Welsh stuff from this, because I have looked only at separate words rather than parts of words, as is common in Welsh place names. For instance ‘llan’ meaning ‘the church of’, ‘aber’ meaning ‘the mouth of’ (to do with rivers) etc.

    This is just one way in which the data is messy (look at whole words or parts of words), because it’s do with humans, and humans are messy. This is interesting and also hard work.

    Like

  2. Another bit of Gold here Bob

    I Live near the town of Benfleet, also known as Baemfleot/Beamfleot in the popular Tv show “The last kingdom” (there seems to be argument about æ translating to English).

    Fascinated by this, having heard viking bones, ships etc have been excavated nearby; I took to wikipedia to check it out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Benfleet

    There are nice things for the survivors of all the invasions we were inflicted with early in our history. Hopefully they do not return, an we can continue to view place names at a distance.

    Like

  3. Kind of you to say, Lewis. I’m a big fan of the Uthred books (that includes The Last Kingdom) – excellent that you live near Baemfleot. I also liked the King Raven series by Stephen Lawless for similar reasons – action and characters, but also an interesting time where identity, country, language etc. are all jumbled up.

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