How to figure out what town names mean

Published 10:46 am Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Doesn’t it seem like many town names have a familiar ring to them? Many end in -ville, -wich, -burg, -ton and -ford, for starters. Is there rhyme or reason to these terms?

Of course there is. The word for place names is toponyms. The study of place names is toponymy.

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Have you read the book “Salt”? If you like nonfiction, you will enjoy this book. It mentions how today salt is mined deep underground and is abundant. Historically, however, salt near the surface was a prized commodity, especially in military strategy and in empire building. If you have to preserve food to feed an army or a navy, you need salt. Salted cod and pork was key for Western Europeans exploring the world.

Parma, Italy, is a place with salt mines in the nearby hills, and what is cheese but slightly salty curdled milk? Parma was in the middle of a great dairy area and still is, and it remains famous for making Parmesan cheese and, of course, cured Parma ham. You might have heard of Prosciutto di Parma.

But enough of Parma before I launch into the history of salt evaporation in Syracuse, N.Y. The book quickly points out that English towns ending in -wich, -wick, -wych and -wyke typically were where wells and brine springs occurred. But not all cities in England with that ending mean that. The suffix originally signified a dwelling or trading place, but it came to mean brine springs and eventually places with salt production, whether mined or evaporated.

The most well-known English towns associated with salt production are Northwich, Middlewich, Nantwich and Leftwich, all in the Cheshire region. If you think there once was salt production in the Kent city of Sandwich, you’d be correct. You’d also be correct if you believe the city was built on sand. The sandwiches we like to eat were named for the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who liked to eat food between two slices of bread.

A Germanic word for hill fort was burg. Eventually through much of Europe, including Old English, it came to mean walled city or fortified city, like Hamburg, Germany. They were safe places to reside. But berg spelled with an e came to mean hill or mountain. In South Africa, speakers of Afrikaans, a Dutch offshoot language, call mountains bergs. And we English speakers call a floating hill of ice an iceberg.

Eventually burg morphed into borough, boro, brough, bury and such, which also mean fortified structure but the suffix pretty much came to mean political subdivisions. Edinburgh in Scotland started out as a fort on a hill. And we’ve heard the song “Scarborough Fair,” right? The North Yorkshire city’s origin is shaky, but it did suffer Viking raids. Perhaps they needed to fortify a scarred city. English names often mean what they imply.

We all probably can guess what -ford implies. Ford in modern English still means to cross a river without a bridge. A town with the -ford suffix was where a river was broad and shallow so that people could cross. Oxford was a good place for a team of oxen to cross the Thames River.

The word village and the suffix -ville comes to English from the French. It comes from a Latin word that means farmstead. Villa meant country home or farmhouse. Somehow — don’t ask me — village came to mean a rural clustering of homes bigger than a hamlet, whatever size a hamlet is supposed to be. Long story short, the Normans conquer England and bring all kinds of Frenchy things into the language, including -ville.

Today, in Freeborn County, we get Glenville. Glen, by the way, is English and means narrow valley. So our city is a mix of English and French. It isn’t necessarily a narrow valley, like some Wisconsin farmer in a dale, or dell, but it is on the Shell Rock River, and so for Midwestern glens, it kind of has one, if you squint your eyes a bit.

By the way, if you think Hayward means guardian of hay, yeah, you’d be correct. A ward in Old English was district with guards.

We probably imagine that -ton is a shortened version of town, and it sometimes is, like how the South Carolina city of Charles Town became Charleston. But mostly town is a longer way of saying ton, which comes from the Old English word tun, which was pronounced like toon. It meant enclosed place. It wasn’t necessarily walled like a burg. The enclosures surrounded gardens or farms. Imagine an estate. Shipton meant sheep farm.

Town definitely doesn’t mean farm anymore, but it does have the connotation of small and rural, except when it comes to everybody’s favorite town: downtown.

I like toponymy. Don’t you?


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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