Reviews – A Fascination with the History of Place-Names and their Origins

A Fascination with the

History of Place-Names and their Origins

Every city, town, village and settlement have names. We no doubt take these names as a natural way of things. Most of us don’t normally concern ourselves with where the names originated from. Hastings, Walton, Montana, New York, Los Angeles are common, even days and months like Thursday or July have their origins that have some significance in world history. Some individuals like myself are often fascinated with such issues. Maybe a bit too much for I’m finding myself constantly in search of historic or cultural subjects that takes ages to research. Some may call me a bit ‘Nutty’ but to me it’s fascinating.

When I was a young lad the school took us on a day trip to Hastings. As a young lad of Cypriot origin the name sounded strange but interesting. Though my English at that stage in my life was probably not as good as children who were born and grew up in the UK, the one advantage I had above most in my class was my fascination. I became immensely interested in British history before and during the Roman period. Anglo Saxon, Viking and the Norman invasion and conquest of England in 1066. The battle of Hastings was the last time Britain was invaded successfully. I found myself copying, painting and researching the Bayeux tapestry depicting the battle constantly.


Hastings itself was a small town named after the Saxon family of Haesta. Most towns in the UK ending with ‘ING’ for example Hastings simply means the ‘the people of Haesta’. Reading ‘the people of Raeda.’ if ‘HAM’ is added, for example Birmingham this then means ‘the farm of Birma’s people.’ Wokingham means ‘the farm of Wocca’s people,’ while Woking would be ”the people of Wocca” and so on. Walton on the other hand may have meant a ”Wall or wood town.’ Even well known names like Essex (East Saxons), Wessex (West Saxons) are sadly unknown to many younger generations. These days we use the name ‘Borough’ to indicate an extended administrative area. It originates from the fact that a ‘Burh’ was a fortified town which normally controlled the outlying farms and villages. The make up of the early Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings was warlike but their Gods, myths and warrior traditions have left a lasting impact on British society. Thursday is named after the Norse God of thunder and lightning.”Thor,” Wednesday after the Saxon god of war ”Woden.” Even the months of the year are named after leaders of the past….. 

Many know that July and August are named after Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare) and August after Augustus Caesar (Gaius Octavius) in fact Famagusta the famous Cypriot town is named after Augustus. It simply means Fama-Agusto (The famous Augustus). Its original name of Arsinoe was changed due to the fact that it reminded Agustus of Cleopatra’s sister ‘Arsinoe’ whom he detested and murdered in cold blood. December was considered to be the 10th month therefore it was named Dicember (Dice in Latin is ten). This was due to the fact that the Romans had 10 months in a year, therefore November derives from the number nine (Novembris mensis/ninth month) in Latin. March was the first month named after the god of Mars ”Martius mensis/month of Mars’.’


Famagusta was originally called Arsinoe

In France the capital city is named due to fact that it was the homeland of the Celtic ‘Parisii’ tribe. In addition there was a Parisi tribe that lived in the area of Yorkshire in Britain. There may be a link between the ancient tribes but it’s not 100% certain. Chalbici tribe now Chablais (Not to be confused with Chablis) on the north coast of Lake Geneva. Iberia in Spain is simply a shortened version of ”Celti-Beria,” due to the Celts and Iberians who lived there before the Roman conquest of Hispania in 206 BC in the second Punic war against Hannibal and the Carthaginians. The name Iberia became the term many Romans used to describe the ‘Iberian Peninsular,’ which is still in use today. Iskenderun in Turkey derives from the Arabic/Turkish name for Alexander/Iskender.

The America’s named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who navigated and proved that the continents of North and South America had nothing to do with Asia. The name West Indies stuck however. This was originally believed to be India discovered from the West by Christopher Columbus. Mexico city is a name collectively given to the more than 60 tribes that inhabited the area before the Spanish conquest of what is today known as Latin America. Among a few of these indigenous tribes were the Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Totonec and Toltecs to name but a few. Most of the Spanish who settled in these lands between 1492 to the early 1800’s were from the area of Spain controlled by the Crown of Castillo, therefore most Latin Americans speak the Castilian form of Spanish (except for Brazil which speaks Portuguese). It’s estimated that no less than 18 million Spanish settled in these ‘New Lands.’ This continued with a further 3-4 million after the mid 1850’s.

miwok-indians-of-yosemite-park-california-2A sad by-product of this was that out of the estimated 20 million indigenous people of Mexico in the 15-16 century only about 1-2 million survived. This is also true of the area now known as the USA. States like Indiana, Idaho, Dakota to name a few are names of the original Indians who lived there. The Appalachian mountains are named after the Apalachee who lived in the area. Ottawa in Canada is another name of Indian tribes. Quebec (Kebec) simply means ”where the river narrows,” in the language of the Algonquins who lived there. The famous city of Los Angeles simply means ”City of the angels.” Montana is a Spanish word for mountains simply because of the region’s mountainous terrain. The famous Grand Teton mountains were named by the French trappers due to the massive 3 peaks that dominate this area, the original name simply means the 3 breasts (Le Trois Tetons) The highest of the three is literally Grand Teton ”the big tit.”


Yosemite National Park, California and its mountains

Many place names in the USA also have Spanish names like El Dorado (city of gold). Las Vegas (the meadows). Rio Grande (the great river) New Mexico is the English name of Nuevo Mexico. Then there are some disputed names like Laredo. Some claim it’s Basque in origin meaning ”Beautiful Pastures,” while others claim it means ‘Gull’ in the Latin language. An interesting place is Yosemite National Park in California. The name originates from the Miwok Indians who lived there. Yos-se-miti literally means ”Central Miwok.” had the park been more south it may have acquired the name Yoh-he-miti (Southern Miwok).

One of the most interesting places I have ever travelled to was no doubt the Islands of Hawaii. These are a group of Volcanic islands that rose from the sea less than 5 million years ago. The oldest is the tiny island of Niihau which is only 4.9 million years old. Kauai which means the ”Garden Isle,” is one of the most beautiful and has been used for making films like King Kong. Though only 562 square miles it has an amazing diversity and flora that few in the Hawaiian island chain can match. Waimea Canyon is an incredible place with waterfalls and scenery second to none..


Waimea canyon on the island of Kauai and Waimea falls on the island of Oahu Hawaii

The main island is Oahu which means the gathering place and is home to world famous Honolulu literally ”sheltered harbour.” this island rose from the sea no more than 3.7 million years ago. When I first visited these islands in 1985 I was astonished to learn that hardly any flies, snakes or rodents existed on these islands. What there were Europeans brought in their ships in the 18-19th centuries. Sadly the indigenous population was almost decimated by diseases, like smallpox, Cholera and chicken pox which was unknown to these people. With no protection their population was decimated from an estimated 250.000 in 1778 to about 37-38.000 by 1900.

One thing that amazed me was the amazing similarities of the words in the Hawaiin language. This is down to the fact that only 12 letters exist in their alphabet, therefore even diverse names like Kamehameha, (name of the great king who united the Islands known as the great) Kapiolani, (a former queen) Hawaii, Waimea, Kailua have similar letters. Sadly today only a tiny number of original Hawaiians survive. These live untouched on the tiny island of Niihau also nicknamed as the ”Forbidden Island” due to the fact that no one other than the indigenous people are allowed there.

It’s clear from the small sample of place names above that everything has a meaning, much of which seems to have been lost with the passage of time. But one thing is certain, we know enough of our past to uncover the massively rich heritage of human history. What we do know is fascinating to say the least. Amen to that.

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