What's in a Suffolk name?

What's in a name? In many cases much more than meets the eye. <br/><br/>David Mills looks at the origins and meanings of some Suffolk place-names

What’s in a name? In many cases much more than meets the eye. David Mills looks at the origins and meanings of some Suffolk place-names

It is certainly the case that many of Suffolk’s towns and villages have delightful, interesting and often curious names. Who can fail to be intrigued by names like Bricett, Cattawade, Copdock, Snape and Shimpling? Why Bildeston and Boulge, Eye and Iken, Rattlesden and Rishangles? How did Knodishall, Nedging Tye and Walberswick get their names?It is true that a few names like Easton and Norton are found in other counties, but most Suffolk place names are quite unique (there are no other Eykes or Lavenhams or Southwolds or Wetheringsetts outside Suffolk). All these names are ancient, taking us back to the Domesday Book of 1086 and to the even older Anglo-Saxon charters. Every name has an original meaning and significance and most can be explained from a study of the earliest available spellings. Some of course have changed a great deal since they were first coined over a thousand years ago, but they reveal fascinating information about the language, landscape and social history of the region.A few names, even very old ones, have apparently changed little through the centuries and may still convey something of their original meaning. Thus old names like Ashfield, Rushbrooke and Woodbridge are shown by their early spellings to be virtually self-explanatory. But such instant etymologies are often a delusion. The modern form of a name can never be assumed to convey its original meaning without early spellings to confirm it, and indeed many names prove to have quite unexpected meanings in the light of the evidence of early records. We find for instance that Crowfield is not named from the bird but from an Old English word croh meaning ‘nook or corner’, that Coney Weston has nothing to do with rabbits but is named from an Old Scandinavian word konungr ‘king’, that Woolpit has no connection with the local cloth trade but is named from ‘a pit for trapping wolves’, that Lakenheath is not named from a heath but derives from a dialect form of the word hyth ‘landing-place’, and that Herringfleet has nothing to do with fishing boats but is ‘creek or stream (Old English fleot) of Herela’s people’!By far the great majority of Suffolk town and village names are of Anglo-Saxon origin, that is they result from the invasions and settlement of Angles here from the 5th century onwards. In the so-called ‘folk-names’, the settlement is named from the group-name of the settlers themselves. Among these are Barking, Gipping and Shimpling (‘settlements of the family or followers of men called Berica, Gyppa and Scimpel’). vv In others, the name of a tribe or family of settlers is combined with another element, so that Bedingfield is ‘open land (feld) of Beda’s people’, Dallinghoo is ‘hill-spur (hoh) of Dalla’s people’, and Framlingham ‘homestead (ham) of Framela’s people’. These ancient names probably belong to the earlier part of the Anglo-Saxon period when tribal identities were still important.A great many place-names describe habitation sites, whether homesteads, farmsteads or enclosures, in terms of their ownership, topography or other association at the time the name was coined, usually at least a thousand years ago. Among these the most frequent final elements are Old English ham ‘homestead’ and tun ‘farmstead’ (each of them eventually coming to mean ‘manor, estate, village’). Thus Lavenham and Saxmundham are ‘homesteads of men called Lafa and Seaxmund’, Debenham is ‘homestead on the river called Deope (the deep one)’, Dalham is ‘valley homestead’, Blundeston and Sproughton are ‘farmsteads of men called Blunt and Sprow’, and Wissington is ‘farmstead of a woman called Wigswith’. 

“Many names prove to have quite unexpected meanings in the light of the evidence of early records”

Other important habitative elements include Old English burh ‘stronghold, fortified place’ (as in Blythburgh ‘stronghold on the river Blyth (the gentle or pleasant stream)’, stede ‘settlement site’ (as in Polstead ‘settlement by the pools’), stow ‘assembly place, holy place’ (as in Felixstowe ‘holy place associated with St Felix, the first Bishop of East Anglia’), and worth ‘enclosed farmstead’ (as in Chelsworth ‘enclosure of the freeman, or of a man called Ceorl’).The place-names of Suffolk reflect every aspect of its scenery and landscape, seen through the eyes of its earlier inhabitants. The importance of rivers, streams and pools for early settlement is shown in names like Holbrook (‘hollow brook’), Sudbourne (‘southern stream’), Semer (‘marsh pool’), and Elmswell (‘spring or stream where elm-trees grow’). The places that take their names from fords, like Chillesford (‘gravel ford’) and Stratford (‘ford on a Roman road’), show the early importance of river crossings for communications and trade. Cattawade on the river Stour is ‘ford or crossing place frequented by wildcats’. Old English eg ‘island’ (often referring to a patch of higher dry ground in an otherwise marshy area) gives name to Eye and Bungay (‘island settlement of Buna’s people’), and the related word eg-land with similar meaning gives name to Nayland.Other topographical features are well represented. Hills or relatively higher ground are referred to in names containing Old English beorg ‘hill or mound’ (as in Finborough ‘woodpecker hill’), dun ‘hill, down’ (as in Brandon ‘broom-covered hill’), and hoh ‘hill-spur’ (as in Wixoe ‘hill-spur of man called Widuc’). Valleys or hollows are referred to in names containing Old English denu ‘valley’ (as in Frostenden ‘valley frequented by frogs’) and halh ‘nook, hollow’ (as in Spexhall ‘green woodpecker’s nook’).Not surprisingly, in a county once heavily forested, many old place-names refer to woodland. The important Old English element leah ‘wood or woodland clearing’ occurs in names like Hinderclay and Eleigh (‘woodland estates of men called Hildric and Illa’): in the latter the distinguishing affixes Brent ‘burnt’ and Monks (alluding to possession by the monks of  Canterbury) first appear in the early 14th century. Other woodland terms include Old English holt (in Occold ‘oak wood’), graf (in Palgrave ‘grove where poles are got’), and hyrst (in Hartest ‘wooded hill frequented by harts or stags’). More open stretches of land, perhaps already cleared at an earlier date, gave rise to the many settlement names containing the Old English word feld ‘open land without trees (originally used for pasture)’. Examples include Mickfield (‘large tract of open land’) and Waldingfield (‘open land of the woodland people’). Many other names provide information about the agricultural economy of earlier times, for instance names like Raydon and Reydon (both ‘hill where rye is grown’), Benacre (‘arable land where beans are grown’), Swilland (‘swine pasture’), and Wetherden (‘valley where wether-sheep are kept’).The natural history of Suffolk is also well represented among its place-names. Well over 20 different species of tree and plant are evidenced, in names like Alderton (‘farmstead where alders grow’, Copdock (‘pollarded oak-tree’) and Kersey (‘island where cress grows’). Some of the several names referring to wild animals and birds have already been noted, but even insects make an appearance a thousand years ago in Braiseworth and Great Bricett (‘enclosure and fold infested with gadflies’) and in Stuston (probably ‘farmstead infested with gnats’).There is good evidence among the names of a multi-cultural society over a millennium ago. Flempton is ‘farmstead of the Flemings (natives of Flanders)’, Freston and Friston are ‘farmsteads of the Frisian or Frisians (from Friesland)’, Saxham is ‘homestead of the Saxons’, and Walton is ‘farmstead of the Britons’.In addition to these, most interestingly, around 30 place-names remind us that Suffolk was once part of the Danelaw, that great swathe of eastern and northern England under the rule of Danish Vikings for several decades in the years after 865. Some names are pure Danish, others are hybrids, all suggesting that after the attacks ceased the Viking warriors settled to become farmers. Solidly Scandinavian names include Eyke (‘place at the oak-tree’), Risby (‘brushwood farmstead’), Thwaite (‘clearing’), and of course Lowestoft (‘Hlothver’s homestead’). Hybrid names include Bildeston, Drinkstone, Kettlebaston and Thrandeston (‘farmsteads of men called Bildr, Drengr, Ketilbjorn and Thrandr’, all no doubt descendants of Viking warriors).To conclude on a happy note, Suffolk is blessed with three names that seem to confirm that our distant ancestors knew how to have a good time. Playford means ‘ford where play or sport takes place’, and the two names Glemham and Glemsford from the Old English word gleam indicate that these places too were ‘the homestead and the ford noted for their revelry and games’. All these names are well over a thousand years old. Happy place-name hunting!

David Mills, since April this year a resident of Monks Eleigh, is Emeritus Reader in Medieval English, University of London, and a member of the Council of the English Place-Name Society. He has made a life-long study of the origins and meanings of English place-names, and his books include (besides this general Dictionary of British Place-Names), much more detailed surveys of the place-names of Dorset, the Isle of Wight, and Greater London.

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