This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Fifty-one on 15th November, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
It’s no secret that D&D draws heavily on the histories of medieval Europe. Whether for it’s creatures pulled straight from Polish mythology, or its quazi-feudal system of monarchies and peerages based on the French and British systems, the stench of Henry the Eighth and all of his mates can be found everywhere. Look on any good map (or indeed on any bad one) and you’ll find a plethora of places with names like “Waterdeep” — named for its deep water in the harbor; or “Neverwinter” because the snow never settles there and so it’s never winter… We’ll give you two guesses why “Old Stonekeep” is named that. More often than not, places got their names because it’s easier to refer to a location by a defining landmark than to give step by step directions. Add in a little bit of human laziness and contracting words wherever possible and “George lives by the large birch tree” becomes “George lives by the large birch”, and eventually just “George lives in Largebirch”. Even the more fantasy-sounding names like “Gauntlgrym” or “Abeir-Toril” follow this pattern — Abeir-Toril just means “the cradle of life” in an archaic Forgotten-Realmsian language. But in the real world places can often end up with names that can seem indecipherable, thanks largely to shifts in language, wars, and certain “expansionist policies”. Ambitions of ancient empires aside, if you’re looking to add a little more depth to your worldbuilding, consider drawing on the real world for inspiration.
Before we can begin decoding some place names, we need a quick history lesson. In D&D, Common has remained consistent in its usage, spelling and pronunciation for millenia (at least until the plot calls for something “written in an ancient dialect”). English, on the other hand, hasn’t been so fortunate. The first thing to note is that spelling hasn’t always been standardized. A quick look at Britain’s love of the letter U in words like “colour” or “neighbour”; or simply the use of S over Z for words like “standardise” and “realise”… not to mention keeping the archaic -ST ending on words like “whilst”, “amongst”, and “amidst”; nor the double-L in words like “labelling” and “travelling”… And that’s not mentioning the backwards RE in words like “centre” and “metre”; and also the… sorry. After 250 episodes of British D&D News copy, we’ve noticed a few things.
The point being, languages evolve naturally over time even within their own family. Add in to this some borrowed words from a recently conquering nation who speak a different language entirely, plus widespread illiteracy, and suddenly you can end up with 3 names for the same place that all mean the exact same thing in their respective languages getting mashed into one. This is what linguists loosely call a “tautology” and it comes in many different flavors. Rather than separating out your “quadrilingual syntactic pleonasms” from your “multiple affirmation double possessives”, we’re just going to call them all “tautologies”. Logicians, you can just deal. The final piece of the naming puzzle comes from colonization. Here in the US we have a tonne of place names from “the old world” in English, Spanish, French and Italian, who named their new towns and villages after their original hometowns, because they were too distracted by the weather, the wildlife, and the sometimes irritable natives to bother being creative with names. So if you’re trying to decode a place name local to you and wonder why “Bristol” translates as “the meeting place by the bridge over the river” when you’re 500 miles inland without even a puddle in sight, that’s probably why. Oh, also, as the majority of our listeners are English, all three of us speak English, and one of us actually is English, we’ll largely be discussing place names with British origins, however the rules generally hold true for other languages too. So consider this a brief history of Britain as well.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s start with the Celts. Unfortunately due to Lennon’s countryman’s uncanny ability to suppress other cultures, the Celts didn’t leave a large linguistic mark on English place names, though a few hints can be seen. “Afan” means “river” in Welsh, which got turned into the English Avon, and so Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon literally means “Stratford upon the river”. The first part, Stratford, is an archaic misspelling of “strait ford” — strait as in the body of water, and ford as in “to cross that body of water” — and so the entire name can be translated as “The river crossing on the river”. Nice. “Combe” [coom], spelled C-O-M-B-E is also from the Celtic “cym” [coom], spelled C-Y-M and means “valley”, as seen in places such as Ilfracombe, Salcombe and Crowcombe. “Pen” is also another Celtic prefix, meaning “hill”, as seen in places such as Penge, Pendleton and Penrith.
After the Celts came the Romans who largely took the Celtic names and combined them with Latin. Lincoln comes from the Celtic word “lindo” meaning “pool”, and the Latin word “colonia” meaning “colony”. A rather fitting name for their colony by the pool. However it wasn’t until the Roman legions withdrew that the native English took the word “castrum”, which in Latin meant “castle”, to denote any place the Romans built a military fortification. Over time this has morphed into three suffixes and a word: “chester”, “cester” [sess-ter], “caster”, and “castle”. Now, remember how we were saying the Brits pronounce words weird? This comes in to play on all these place names too. The Brits do this weird thing where they pronounce the first syllable and last syllable in their entirety, and then collapse the middle. So while it may look like lay-sess-ter it’s actually
… Less-ter [Leicester]
And it’s not glau-sess-ter it’s…
And it’s not war-sess-ter it’s…
… Wuss-ter [Worcester]… It’s pretty easy actually
Except when it’s not! Manchester, Cirencester and Winchester are all pronounced as written.
Next, the Anglo Saxons! Out with the Romans, in with the Germans, and it’s here that we find the biggest contributor to English place names. In fact, the name “England” itself is derrived from “Angle-land” — the land of the Angles — and the language they spoke was Anglisc. Anyway, they came over and divided the country into easy-to-manage regions named in honour of their Saxon homeland and it’s here we get the suffix “sex”. Middlesex, Wessex, Sussex and Essex are literally “Middle Saxon”, “West Saxon”, “South Saxon” and “East Saxon”. There’s no “Norsax” because the Scots were an unruly bunch and just said “no”. At least we think that’s what they said, we can’t understand them at the best of times. Anyhow, the Saxons were also fond of naming places after people — something the Vikings also did later — and so we get what we Brits call “Birmingham” and you Americans call burmingHAM (as in Birmingham, Alabama; and I’m terribly sorry for that). Birmingham was a small village (as in a “hamlet”) founded by a man named Beorma. Beorma-ham. In fact, if your place name ends with “ham”, “ly” (which is L-Y, sometimes L-E-Y), or “ton”, it’s name very likely comes from this period, and in most cases is named after someone. For reference, “ham” means village, “ly” means a wooded area, and “ton” is a farm or field. Another famous example would be Washington aka “Wassa’s farm”, which would later be adopted as a surname, and some 1,000 years later a new country would name it’s capital after a man named George, a decendant of the farmer Wassa. Sometimes these suffixes would get combined so a “hampton” is a “village farm”, and so Wolverhampton was named for Wulfruna, giving us “Wulfruna’s Village Farm” — Wulfra, ham, ton. South Hampton, “the southern village farm” and so on. If there were no good people to be found, then naming the place after the animals there was also common. Swinton, aka “swine ton”, aka “pig farm”, Gateshead is “the goats headland”, and any place with “wic” or “which” in the name usually refers to a dairy. And like any good invaders, the Saxons brought their religion with them. Their “ministers” as they called them, would gather in communities, giving us the suffix “minster”, and with it Westminster (the ministers of the west), Axminster (the ministers on the river Ax) and so on.
Speaking of invaders, it wasn’t long before a group of brave men with historically inaccurate horned helmets arrived from Denmark and landed on the shores of Lindisfarne, where they saved the priceless relics from a fire that mysteriously broke out and all the ministers suddenly died of Axewound. This caused the Anglo Saxons to start building a lot of fortifications to fight the invaders, known in their tongue as “burhs” to ward off the Viking threat. From this we get “borough”, “burgh” [bruh], “burgh” [berg], and “bury” (or “bury” [bree]). Edinburgh [eddin-bruh] is “the fortification of Eidyn [edd-een]”, Scarborough [scar-burruh] is “Skarthi’s fortification”, and Thornbury [thorn-bree] comes from “tor burh” — the “fortification of the hill”. The term “burgh” [berg] is still used in modern English to describe a fortification, such as when the British captured Fort Duquesne [dew-KAYN] in 1754 during the French and Indian War, they renamed it “Pittsburgh” in honor of their Prime Minister, William Pitt. But back to the Vikings, they introduced their own word for village — “by” [bee] — and continued the tradition of naming places after people. Grimsby is “Grimm’s Village”, Battersby is “the village of the battle” and both Rugby and Rigby are “Hroca’s Village”. The Danes also introduced their word for “hill”, which is “how”…
So “tor” is Old English for “hill.”
And “Pen” is Celtic for “hill.”
And “How” is Danish for “hill.”
… So that place in North England, Torpenhow Hill…
Yeah, it means “hill hill hill hill.”
Anyhow, after the Vikings were convinced to only take half of England, the Saxons decided to further divide the country down into something akin to modern-day counties, which they called “shires”. Each shire took the name of the largest settlement in the region, and so the county that contained Gloucester was Gloucestershire, Northampton became the county town of Northamptonshire, Worcester for Worcestershire and so on.
When the Normans arrived in 1066 they were quite happy to use the names of the existing places in their existing languages… Just so long as the peasants knew who it now belonged to. The burh that Ree built? It can still be called Risboroguh [rees-bruh], but it belongs to the prince now, so it’s Princes Risborough. The woodlands that you call the Lynn [lee-in], meaning “tree place”? That’s now the King’s Lynn [king’s lee-in]. The queen now owns this fort, so it’s Queensborogh [Queens-bruh]. If nobody of noteworthy status wanted to take ownership of the place, it would often just be called whatever it already was, with “ville” tacked on the end, the Norman French word for “village”. This gives us places like Pentonville — the Celtic “pen” that became a Saxon “ton” then became a Norman “ville”; or Shelbyville, though Shelby already meant “Shel’s village”.
When the Norman’s founded new places, they followed in the tradition of naming the place after a town’s founder: Colville was founded by someone called Col, and Louisville was named in honor of Louis. Occasionally they were also named after prominent figures, such as the other Louisville in Kentucky being named in honor of King Louis XVI. From there things stayed pretty much stable, until the Normans renamed themselves the English, who took control of the British Isles and became the British, who then traveled across the seas and initially carried on the tradition of naming them after people (though they tried to make them sound pseudo-Latin for that extra classiness). Georgia was named after King George, Carolina for King Charles, Maryland for Queen Herietta Maria, and Virginia… Because who doesn’t want to name an entire state after the queen’s lack of sexual activity? Not to be outdone, the French and Spanish also did similar, though usually opted for descriptions of the area, because if they named everything after their king’s sexual status there would be 500 towns called Fornicationville. Florida comes from the Spanish word for “flowers”, Vermont is French for “Green Mountain”, and Montana is Spanish for “mountain”. After a while, it became much easier to just steal both the words and the land used by the locals and turn them into the closest English, French or Spanish equivalent. Places such as Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Texas can all be traced back to Native American names. Usually a variant of the word “friends”, ironically.
These are just a few examples of the various ways towns, cities and even entire regions get named and we couldn’t even cover half of the variations of English place names, let alone every other language, though usually they all follow similar patterns. The area is either named after the most prominent feature of an area, or after a person of note followed by the local language’s term for “village”, “farm”, or “castle”.
So if you’re inventing a village or a town for your campaign and you’re having trouble coming up with a name (especially in those times when you’re idly describing the scenery and a player suddenly goes “wait, you said there was a farmer in the field? I want to go ask him what the nearest town is” and suddenly you need answers) just remember that being literal is perfectly fine and very historically accurate. If the characters walk into a town called “Cornhampton,” and it’s a farming village growing a bunch of corn, both I and my countrymen would simply nod and go “yeah, that tracks.” Ditto with the city of Lakeford that’s located on the shore of a big body of water and runs a ferry service. I’ll leave you to guess what the people of Berryfield usually end up doing with their time given that premise.
Though if you truly get desperate, just think of 4 words for “hill” and mash them all together.