We just completely updated our website. Let us know if you are encountering any issues.

How to do archaeology with place names

bigthink.com • July 12, 2020

Giving a location a name is a possessive act. It transforms an 'anywhere', a random space, into a 'somewhere', a certain place. A place with meaning, not just for the name-givers, also for later generations. Because place names are sticky. They can survive for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. And even if today's toponym, worn with use, sounds different and lost its original meaning, it still remains a 'vector of trans-generational communication'.

In isolation, each toponym is like an archaeological dig – hiding multiple layers beneath a well-trodden exterior. In context, surprising toponymical patterns emerge. As in these maps by Helen McKenzie. She's disassembled British place names to examine the frequency of some of their most common constituents. They reveal deep history hiding in plain sight, on countless road signs across the UK.

Take -by (or -bie). It's one of the most common suffixes in place names throughout England, but also Scotland and Wales. Familiar examples include Grimsby and Whitby, on the North Sea coast; Derby inland, Formby on the Irish Sea coast and Lockerbie in Scotland.

There are hundreds of other examples, and they are among the most lasting relics of Scandinavian influence in Britain. By in Old Norse signified a farmstead or village. In modern Scandinavian languages, a 'by' still means village or city. In English, the word has also given rise to the terms 'by-election' and 'by-laws' – although pronounced differently than the suffix.

Leave a Reply