Hunts place-names – Language

Welcome back to part 2 of my little series on a sample of the place-names from the historic county of Huntingdonshire. I’ll look at what they were originally named, and whether this can tell us anything about the area.

See part 1, on places originally named after people, here.

(Plug: Ask me your village/town name in the comments or on social media and I’ll look it up and tell you stuff about it! Places all over Britain welcome.)

Today I’ll show you how a few of the village/town names aren’t as English as you might have thought!

I’ll be putting these in roughly chronological order, so let’s discuss those categories first. If you know it all and want to skip to the names, feel free to click here!.


This is thought to have been a language spoken in Britain before the Celts arrived. So we’re talking probably hm, before about 700BC? 800BC? For comparison, this is roughly the period when the Greeks developed their alphabet (and by developed I mean nicked it off the Phoenicians, who got it from the Egyptians, and no-one’s quite sure where Sumerian fits in … ok so I like the history of the alphabet too, sue me). Anyway, the point I was going for is that names which use anything categorised as Pre-Celtic are really, really old. They are generally river names, which is the case in Huntingdonshire.


This is the language thought to have been spoken in Britain when the Romans invaded. (Romans were in Britain from 43 to 410.)

Old English/Anglo-Saxon

This was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. The earliest record of them in Britain (in a position of power) was 441. I don’t think there is any evidence names anywhere in the country from that long ago, though. The question of when Old English ended is thorny but for simplicity’s sake I’ll go with traditional general views and say the twelfth century (1100 – 1199)

Old Norse/Scandinavian

This was spoken by the Vikings! gets shot by every single lecturer ever Ok, this was spoken by the settlers and also the raiders who came to live in Britain between the late 8th and 10th centuries. Fun fact, the settlers on the east coast of England were largely Danish, unlike those in Ireland and the North West (and Scottish Isles) who were largely Norwegians.

Middle English

Again to generalise drastically, this is thought of as what Old English developed into in England after the huge Latin and Romance influence from the Norman invasion of 1066. It’s the phase when, adjusting for spelling, you can generally read it without having to learn it word for word like you do Old English. Assume a rough start date of the twelfth century, and various netbooks are telling me the end date is 1475 – 1500. This basically corresponds with the printing press revolution, which standardised spelling properly.


Some of you might, if you’re paying attention, be scowling right now and asking why Latin is this far forwards in my list when the Romans were here for, like, 400 years. That is a valid concern and the Romans did definitely name places in Britain in Latin. However, the Anglo-Saxons got rid of I think pretty much all of them. There certainly aren’t any in my sampled names in Huntingdonshire! So the Latin in place-names largely comes from the same era as the French – it’s those pesky Normans again!

Most of my sampled names are Old English, but there is at least one example of everything above. Let’s go!


The name of the village COLNE comes from the name of a nearby stream. It’s so old that we don’t know its meaning, as we don’t with many Pre-Celtic words.


The “Hail” in HAIL WESTON is a name meaning “dirty water” and was a previous name for the River Kym. (People started calling the river Kym after nearby Kimbolton.)

Old English

I’ve picked EARITH to represent the Anglo-Saxons, just because the translation makes me giggle. It’s made up of ear, which means muddy, and hyth, which means landing place. Obviously enough poor Anglo-Saxons got covered when they tried to get out of the River Ouse that it got named for it. Does anyone know if Earth is still muddy???

Old Norse

There isn’t a massive amount of evidence for Norse settlement in Huntingonshire. We know it happened, but there’s not a massive amount left for us to see. There are a couple of interesting place-names in that respect, but for now I’ll just talk about COPPINGFORD. The earliest form we’ve got for it is from the Domesday book, which is Copemaneforde. This is the Old Norse word for merchants: kaupmanna, plus of course the recognisable ford. But the reason that this is great is because the -nna ending on that word is a bit of Old Norse grammar which means belonging to (like the possessive apostrophe, or if you know German or Latin it’s the genitive case.)

That means that we can be pretty sure that Coppingford was named by Old Norse speakers. Whether they were the first to settle there, whether they just traded there a lot, or whether the name just replaced another unknown one, we don’t know, but I do think that’s pretty cool.

Concrete evidence of Norse presence in Huntingdonshire!

Middle English

WOODHURST is another favourite of mine. First recorded as Wdeherst in 1209 – no that’s not a typo, or if it is it’s about 800 years old and definitely not my fault. It’s made of two elements: Middle English wode and Old English hyrst. But here comes the daft bit. Wide means wood. Hyrst means wooded hill. So, Wood Wooded Hill. What??

Easy and also interesting explanation: originally this must have been called Hyrst. When people stopped understanding Old English, they just added a distinguishing word onto it. So there you go; a name springing from a misunderstanding!

(Other points raised: was there another Hyrst/Hurst around that Middle English speaking people wanted to distinguish it from? And was that area of woodland particularly important or rare, given that both names mention it?)


The only Latin lying around in my corpus comes in the form of distinguishing adjectives as happened to LITTLE PAXTON and GREAT PAXTON. Originally this was made up of the Old English name Paecc and that Old English tun suffix. Now, I don’t know why two settlements reasonably far away from each other have the same time, nor which one came first. Or maybe at one point they were the same place ad the middle section has disappeared? I don’t know, does anyone?

Anyway, so, by the 13th century, we see in the records that these two places are Magna Paxton and Parva Paxton. The fact that today they are called Great and Little suggests that all the scribe was doing there was translating those already existing words straight into Latin. He wasn’t even doing a great translation job, since my dad who loves Latin rather a lot assures me that adjectives should come after their nouns.


And finally, French!

The only usage of French in my sample (and I think probably the most common usage in Cambridgeshire overall) is in what’s known as “manorial suffixes”, which basically just means that when the French came in and were given stole lots of land, they added their family or land name at the end to identify the land as theirs.

Easy examples: OFFORD DARCY and OFFORD CLUNY. Darcy comes from a French family, and Cluny comes from a well-known French Abbey.


Thanks for reading! Please let me know if you’re enjoying this new idea. 🙂

Hunts place-names – Language

5 thoughts on “Hunts place-names – Language

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