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A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From (Hardback)

P&S History > British History P&S History > Social History World History

By John Moss
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 408
Illustrations: 9 black and white maps
ISBN: 9781526722843
Published: 18th May 2020



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The origin of the names of many English towns, hamlets and villages date as far back as Saxon times, when kings like Alfred the Great established fortified borough towns to defend against the Danes. A number of settlements were established and named by French Normans following the Conquest. Many are even older and are derived from Roman placenames. Some hark back to the Vikings who invaded our shores and established settlements in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Most began as simple descriptions of the location; some identified its founder, marked territorial limits, or gave tribal people a sense of their place in the grand scheme of things. Whatever their derivation, placenames are inextricably bound up in our history and they tell us a great deal about the place where we live.

I have always been interested in etymology and I have always been curious about how certain places et their names, so I found this to be a fascinating read. What I learned is that the history of English places names is connected to the history of England: Some names have a Celtic origin; others come from the time of the Romans; still more come from other cultures that settled there however briefly: there are Scandinavian names, Norse, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon!

NetGalley, Jeimy Gonzalez

Featured by

Halifax Antiquarian Society

Here is a splendid hard backed book of some 400 pages covering the origins of many towns, hamlets and villages dating as far back as Saxon times, when Alfred the Great established fortified borough towns to defend against the Danes, some established and named after French Normans, others derived from Romans and Vikings who invaded our lands. Most, we are advised, began as simple descriptions of the locations, some identified the founder, territorial areas or gave tribal people a sense of their own place. Whatever their derivation, place names are invariably bound up in our history and they tell us a great deal about the place where we live.

Cumbria FHS

"I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in how we named our towns, villages and countryside."

Medieval Settlement Research journal

Whether your interest is that of a historian, linguist or etymologist, or if you simply have a passion for all things English, you'll find much in this book to fascinate and inform.

Read the full review here


This book would be particularly interesting for those with an interest in locational etymology, not only for the fact that the history of each location provided alongside the groups of people that have been involved with their histories (for example, the Romans, Celts and Saxons among other groups) - as the breakdown of each name and how the evolution of language and culture has changed their names is surprisingly fascinating. It is all too easy to read through large chunks at once and not notice how much time has passed.

Personally, I really enjoyed this read. The nature of the book means there is no pressure to read this cover-to-cover at any sort of rushed pace, instead allowing just for a casual read whenever it takes your fancy, or if you’re particularly interested in a specific place. This is not to say you can’t, and I can easily see this being an irresistible page turner for some people.

Heather Nowlan, Family Tree Searchers

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a really well researched and interesting history of place names in England. I learned so much about the people, linguistics and geography that influenced names.
The beginning of the book gives a brief history of the Celts, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Norman words and phrases that made their way into place names. Some of the information I had heard before but the underlying theme of how this history affected the language and place names of England was given context.
When I got to the alphabetical names sorted by region I must admit that I did not read them all one by one but found names of places that I had been and found their origins, which was so interesting, Occasionally I will refer to this book when I read about a place or someone talks about it,
And when international travel starts again I will visit England and take this handy and interesting reference book along with me.

NetGalley, Rekha O'Sullivan

Review by Dr David M. Jones, OUGS Proceedings Editor

This book is not one for reading cover to cover, but rather one for the gentle pastime of ‘dipping into’. It is for before, during and after a journey or a walk, for those wanting to know the derivations and etymologies, and some interesting historical background to the names of places passed through or seen on the map. I consider the book’s price a modest outlay for so much gain.

Proceedings of the Open University Geological Society, vol. 7, 2021

It will appeal particularly to historians who want to know more about the places they are researching and visiting.

The Essex Family Historian

The book is a concise and readable reference document in which the author presents a personal selection of some 2000 place names... This is the sort of book you dip into to look for something specific and emerge hours later.

Bristol and Avon Family History Society

Review by Jim Stout

A good reference book for all family historians.

The book brings Towns and Cities to life.

The origins of the place name explained.

A well-defined Glossary.

Place names are by region making it easy to look up.

Place names from humble origins to the present day.

The first place I looked up was where I live.

References taken from the Doomsday book and Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Some of the placenames will bring a smile to your face.

Great to use as part of a quiz.

Roots Family History Service

The book is unquestionably readable and well-researched.

Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group

If you want to find out about the hamlet, village, town or city where you live or where you came from this is the book for you. Whether you are seeking information from a historical perspective or tracing your genealogical background this will be a valuable resource and reference aid to dip into before setting out on your journey of discovery. It has used local and contemporary records, some are on line and some descriptions have come from the ‘Doomsday Book’. Take a look at this book and you will see how useful it could be to you.

East Yorkshire Family History Society

I had never really considered where our place names have come from or which historical events affected how places were known but this book gives explanations to how locations were identified. It is well researched and covers a vast number of cities, towns, villages and hamlets and is divided into geographical location. It was fascinating to learn about the place names I am familiar with but I would also use this book when travelling throughout the country to learn more about particular locations and their history.

NetGalley, Jen Lynch

The Word Nerd in me absolutely loved this little gem of a book... I feel the author chose a great selection of place names to represent a wide variety of etymologic evolution. We are also given enough background that you could probably figure out some place names you are interested in that were not covered in the book.

I also enjoyed the absolutely ridiculous-bordering-on-downright-rude names that the author mentioned and got quite a good chuckle from them. I should have jotted a few down but was giggling so much I didn't even think about it. Yes, sometimes I have the maturity of a twelve year old.

All in all a fun little gem.

NetGalley, Sarah Mueller

The book is divided into areas which in turn include the counties, plus a section dedicated to the London area, the islands and one dedicated to new and unusual names.

The book, like Moss' precedent, is very useful in understanding the origin of English place names. Each place has its own history that reflects in the name and that characterizes it. This book will always be consulted by the historian and the toponymy enthusiast and not only!

Read the full Italian review here

On The Old Barbed Wire

John Moss’s book is one of the those that you never have to read cover to cover, but can pick it up at will and learn something new each time about place name origins, old words, and quite how our land has ended up in the ownership that it has!

Highly recommended, enjoy the lessons it brings!

For the Love of Books

As featured on Lost Cousins

Lost Cousins

A lot of different places introduced in the book. You get a brief introduction/history of the place before moving onto the next place. You get a map of the area as well. Good if you like knowing the meaning of a place.

NetGalley, Alexandra Roth

This is the type of book everyone would like to have in their own personal library, or maybe if you’re a bit weird like me. This book basically does what it says on the cover, it must have the name of every village or town in England in the book and with each name comes a small paragraph that explains how the place got its name and the reasons for it. At the beginning of the book there is a section that looks at the origins of where and how names come about such as looking at the Danes and Normans and how the words would be pronounced, and there is a nice little glossary too. Each chapter focuses on a different area which makes it all the easier to read up or find the place your after. While this is a reference book, it is an excellent read and very informative and certainly a book that will happily stay on my bookshelf for many years. Can I request a book on welsh place names too, please.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

I am an Anglophile and love to visit the UK. This book would be great fun as we drive around when visiting my friend. She has another book like this one that goes into the origins of place names. I do like this one as the text seems clearer and more straight forward. It was a treat to go through and pick out places I have been and things I have seen. I appreciated the section at the beginning that went into the history of England and therefore the evolution of the language. It was a timely reminder of the influences.

NetGalley, Susan Johnston

I think that this would be a go to book for anyone wanting to garner information about the origin of place names. It was highly interesting to read the section regarding the origin of the general prefixes and suffixes that many place names have.

NetGalley, Anna Elliott

This book covers a lot of ground in a relatively small number of pages and for my interest level, it got it just right. For me, it was not a book to be read cover to cover but to dip into as time and interest required. Whilst that may sound a little slipshod, it is not as I took a deliberate dip to check out the places that I already know and will, when COVID-19 lets us roam again, dip in each time I visit a place new to me.

Along with the explanations of individual place names there is a lot of background information on how, in general, names came about and why they came about. All in all a nice book to keep in the car.

NetGalley, Jon Jonnson

Acton Trussell, Long Duckmanton, Bradfield Combust – yes, many are the places in England that have peculiar names to distinguish them (and that's before we get to the meme-friendly rude names). This book admits there are far too many places in all for it to cover, but it does make a very good fist of explaining why the more significant are so titled, and gives handy background to our history as regards to who came over and when and what place-names they chose to suit themselves. Thus, with the knowledge within, you can work out what pretty much any place name might have meant. Observations from a strong browse range from the general – it's surprising how many places were named in their Latin version, even in the middle ages – to the specific – isn't it fun to think of waterways called "River River" and heights called "Hill Hill"? Both feature.

NetGalley, John Lloyd

Super interesting book, especially for people interested in words and history. Loved it, lots of fun!

NetGalley, Ruth Parker

What an interesting book and ideal for dipping into when you hear about/visit a new place as understanding the history of the name will help you understand the place itself.

NetGalley, Tracey McHardy

What did I get myself into?
We do not usually sit and think of the meaning of place names. We do not attribute much meaning to them, we just remember the feeling and memories those places left on us. However, you have got to admit that English place names are uniquely strange and curious and my blood runs faster when I get myself into linguistic discoveries as a linguist, language enthusiast and translator whose biggest dream is to become a polyglot.
Well, this is what I got myself into: A very detailed, well-researched reference book that offers interesting etymological facts.
Apparently English place names take their roots from Celtic people, Romans, Anglo-saxon and Scandinavian culture and Norse and Welsh languages, not to forget early christian settlements and later the religious impact, the effect of monarchy and aristocrats even females, the ladies of the land, though they did not have rights of ownership, left their footprints, too. This is a linguistic feast for language lovers and etymology enthusiast.
We travel on a map of Britain to places and settlements and analyze the etymological backgrounds of the names. The plain place names, which meant nothing before now have a character, a history and meaning History and linguistics. The places become more tangible with modern-day interpretations of archaic languages and it was quite fascinating to learn that most names come from nature - trees, plants, rivers and seas.
Learning Liverpool meant muddy pool, Manchester - breast-shaped hill (!!), Oxford - the river where the oxen cross and Gotham, which is derived from the words “Goat” and “Hamm” - an enclosure -, thus mean “an enclosure where the goats are kept,” were some of the most interesting facts of the book. Well suck it Batman!
A profound and informative book for the professionals and enthusiasts.

NetGalley, Gizem Uzan

This was just a really fun read. I learned some things about the history of English place names and some stuff about the roots of the English language. There are also some really ridiculous town and village names out there in England. It's a long book, but I would like it on my shelf because there's so much information in it.

NetGalley, Caidyn Young

Very well-researched and highly informative, A History of English Place Names delivers exactly what its title promises, and does so with a great focus on detail. If history, names, or English geography facts are your thing, then A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From is definitely a book for you.

NetGalley, Ioanna Tatari

An interesting book about the origins of places and towns of England... you can tell a lot of research was done and done well.

NetGalley, Sandra Berryman

An amazing researched resource in one handy volume! If you're at all curious about English place names and where they came from, you'll learn something here. I found it fascinating, though more to browse through than to read cover-to-cover. I had always wondered where the name Hockering came from (my ancestors were from there). Apparently, it comes from a word meaning "rounded hill". The word nerd in me is pleased!

NetGalley, Erin Childs

John Moss explores the origins of English town names, from the Viking era through to the Middle Ages

Family Tree online, 18th February 2020

Click here to listen

Talk Radio Europe interview with John Moss and presenter Dave Hodgson

About John Moss

John Moss studied Fine Arts and English in Wolverhampton and Manchester Art Schools, before taking early retirement after teaching and lecturing in Art & Design. He founded a Graphic Design company in 1997. Retired at last, he began writing: a science fiction trilogy in 2013. His first two non-fiction books were Great British Family Names and A History of English Placenames, both written for Pen and Sword: this will be the third history book in the series.

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