Sunday, 19 February 2012

'Mentioned in Domesday'

Many people take pride in the fact that their town or village is mentioned in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086. However, that is not necessarily a sign of exceptional  antiquity, and neither does the lack of a mention in Domesday mean that a place did not exist then. Many, if not most, English settlements had been established before 1066; many had been established centuries before. The earliest written records of English settlements date from the seventh century. Some of the settlements themselves might have originated, and been given their names, in the late fifth or sixth centuries.

Celtic, Latin, Anglo Saxon, Danish or Norwegian and Norman French have all contributed to the making of English place names.  Thames, Derwent and Avon are all of Celtic origin. Chester, caster and cester all derive from the Latin castra, meaning a military camp.

Ham, ton, ley, stead, wich and wold are a few of the elements used by the Anglo Saxons in naming their settlements. They had many words to describe hills, woods, valleys and farmland.    

In the regions settled by Vikings - the East Midlands and the north of England - many place names are of Scandinavian origin. There - and nowhere else - are the bys, the thorpes and the thwaites. A gate is a street, not an entry way, in areas where Danes settled. Old Norse words for features in the landscape such as beck, fell and gill are found in the north west.  

All place names have meanings, even if some of those meanings have been lost over time. They can tell us who the original settlers were, about the landscape or what the land was used for.  A writer creating a fictional town or village as a setting for a novel might want to check the origin and meaning of the name he or she invents for it. That way the writer can avoid making the mistake the BBC made. While they are quite right to use Wyvern as the name of a fictional county in the south west of England, they are hopelessly wrong in using Holby as the name of a fictional city there.

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