Place Names


It has long been observed that the words for places tend to survive a long time; even when much of the lexicon of a language has otherwise changed or been replaced. Even when one group of people conquers another, the old names tend to stick.

Consider some of the more common suffixes in English place names:

  • -field — open land (Springfield, Sheffield, Wakefield)
  • -ford — water crossing (Hartford, Medford, Oxford)
  • -ham — farm, settlement (Birmingham, Waltham, Nottingham)
  • -ton —  enclosure, homestead (Weston, Brighton, Hampton)
  • -gate — road  (Colgate, Holgate)
  • -bury — fortified enclosure (Waterbury, Middlebury, Sudbury)
  • -beck — stream (Rheinbeck, Troutbeck)
  • -bridge — (Cambridge, Stockbridge)
  • -port — harbor (Bridgeport, Newport)

The semantics of the endings all refer to salient natural geographical features (harbor, stream, water crossing point, open land) or to important, large man-made constructions (road, bridge, fortress). These names go back to a time when society was far more agrarian than now, settlements were separated by undeveloped land and were much less built up than today. A salient geographical feature (or important structure) was an obvious choice for naming a community, it would serve as a clear reference or ID for itself within the context of the surrounding environment and nearby settlements. Today, most people don’t even think of ‘oxen’ and a ‘water crossing point’ when they hear the name ‘Oxford’ — unless they stop and reflect on it in a sudden etymological moment of inspiration. 🙂  Was the town of Medford, MA originally named for a water crossing point mid-way between two other important such crossings? I don’t know.

As one looks at more such names, a kind of folk namespace suggests itself, one that is quite reasonable for the times and circumstances in which such naming conventions arose. (We could also discuss a set of prefixes in place names which similarly adhere to the salient geographical feature logic of the suffixes, e.g., stan (stony) Stanlow, Stanmore). Today, the salient or famous landmarks of towns and cities are more likely to be artifacts that have come into existence since the time of the naming of the location — e.g., a university or sports arena located there — than the original field or hill that gave the settlement its original name.

The notions of place and location are extended metaphorically in language usage to the virtual space of the Internet. We ‘visit’, ‘go to’ and ‘hang out’ at websites (although we speak of sites as being ‘down’ (inaccessible) which departs from the place/location metaphor.) Yet, the naming conventions for locales on the Internet usually don’t refer to salient geographical features — why should they?  Folk namespace conventions for early sites (locales) on the Internet utilized an initial ‘e’ (later ‘i’) in their ‘place names’. Being ‘electronic’ or part of the ‘Internet’  was perceived as a significant feature for identification, kind of playing the role of ‘digital landmark’ for a ‘digital site’. More recently, concepts related to communication and information-sharing are showing up in the names of social media sites/places.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • CrowdsourceThis
  • StumbleUpon
  • Digg

Will the ‘place names’ in cyberspace show the same tenacity as the place names of the geographical world around us? Other factors are at work; there is a commercial aspect to maintaining a site on the Internet and names are available and purchasable, or already purchased and unavailable. The naming of physical towns probably occurred largely without such constraints, or need for them in the days of traveling on foot. (However, New Bedford, MA was so-named because there was already an incorporated town of Bedford, MA, so a distinguishing marker (new) needed to be appended to the name.) And, there is now ‘place name churn’ due to the convention of naming important performance/sports locales after their sponsors — for the term of sponsorship. The old Boston Garden has changed names several times under this plan, but locals still refer to it as ‘the Garden’.

What do you think? Will Facebook be around in fifty years and still be referred to as ‘Facebook’?

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3 Responses to Place Names

  1. bbear says:

    I’m not so sure that “[E]ven when one group of people conquers another, the old names tend to stick.” This post immediately made me think of a list tucked into my atlas, of some place names I’d run across in older books, which I couldn’t locate because they’d been changed.

    Among them are

    Üskup → Skopje [now the capital of former Yugoslav Macedonia]
    Adrianople → Edirne [Turkey]
    San Stefano → Ayastefanos, now Yeşilköy [Turkey]
    Pera → Beyoğlu [the ‘European’ district of Istanbul]
    eastern Rumelia → southern Bulgaria [after 1878]
    Dorpat → Tartu [Estonia]
    Reval → Tallinn [Estonia]

    There are many others, of course, notably in the Middle East. And after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Leningrad reverted to its former name, St. Petersburg, and Stalingrad became Volvograd, notwithstanding both having extremely important connections with the history of the Second World War…

    I think we in the English-speaking countries have been insulated from alien occupation for so long we may be over-confident of the durability of our institutions, place names included. Though here and there in the American West one can still find ghost towns, whose names haven’t changed but simply disappeared along with their populations…

    As for man, his days are like grass,
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
    the wind blows over it and it is gone,
    and its place remembers it no more.

    Psalm 103

  2. achouston says:

    Hi BBear,

    Interesting list that you present here – I certainly didn’t know of many of these pairs – either name. 🙂 For Leningrad and Stalingrad, the fact that they are reverting to their earlier, older names may support the tendency to preserve place names, analogous to the way that Cape Canaveral has reverted from ‘Cape Kennedy’. I’ve been told (and don’t know whether it’s true or not) that locals, Indians, who live in Mumbai still refer to their city as ‘Bombay’. You are wise, though, to point out the very different circumstances in histories (and conquests) for various parts of the world.

    • bbear says:

      Thanks. You’re one of a vanishingly small minority that thinks I’m wise, and I appreciate it 😉 …

      The Wikipedia entry for Mumbai includes an amazingly thorough toponymy that addresses the Bombay/Mumbai thing. It also notes that “the oldest known names for the city are Kakamuchee and Galajunkja; these are sometimes still used,” which would seem to offer strong support for your point . . . and maybe a little for mine too, depending on what sometimes means…

      As you say, Leningrad to St. Petersburg is a reversion to a former name. However, the change in 1961 from Stalingrad to Volgograd (which I erroneously rendered as ‘volvograd’) is not. The city’s old name (1589-1925) was Tsaritsyn. It was founded at the confluence of the Tsaritsa and Volga Rivers, and so for a long time it was named for one and is now named for the other…

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