The Origins of the Names of the Historic English Counties

england-flagToday I found out the origins of the names of England’s historic counties.

Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire is likely named after Beda, a Saxon chief who settled on River Great Ouse, which runs through the county. The settlement probably started as something like “Beda’s Ford” which was then shortened to Bedford.

Berkshire

When it was founded, Berkshire was Bearrocscir. Bearroc is thought to be a Celtic word meaning “hilly place,” while scir was an old word for shire. The name eventually evolved into the Berkshire we know today.

Buckinghamshire

The origin of the name of this county is somewhat up for debate, but it’s believed that Bucking is derived from the Saxon word buccen, which meant either “beech trees” or “deer.” The ham ending means “homestead.” So, it was a home of either beech trees or deer, depending on who you talk to.

Cambridgeshire

The Old English word for this area is Grontabricc, which meant “Bridge over the River Granta.” It is unknown what Granta means. Under Norman influence, the area soon became known as Cambridge. Cam is a Celtic word meaning “crooked.”

Cheshire

Not just referring to a grinning cat, this county name is short for “Chester shire.” Chester comes from the Old English cestre, which in turn is derived from the word legacaestir, meaning “City of Legions.” Chester was often used to denote a Roman town.

Cornwall

Cornwall has nothing to do with the vegetable discovered in America centuries later. It is taken from the Celtic tribe Cornowii, which literally meant “peninsula people.” It comes from the Celtic word kernou, which meant horn, referring to the “horn” of land on which these people lived. “Wall” comes from the Old English wahl which meant “stranger.” Cornwall therefore means “strangers from the peninsula.”

Cumberland

Cumberland started out as Cumbra land, which meant “land of the Cymry.” Cymry means “the Welsh,” and in turn comes from the ancient word combrox, which means “compatriot.” Interestingly, Cumberland (now part of Cumbria) is not on the Welsh border.

Derbyshire

There are a few different origin theories for Derby. First, that it came from the Danish Djura-by, which meant “deer settlement.” Second, that it came from the River Derwent, which runs through the county. The town became known as Derwent by, which meant “settlement near Derwent.” This was later shortened to Derby. Derwent means “a valley of oaks.”

Devon

This shire derives its name from the Old English word defena, which meant “territory of the Dumnonii.” The Dumnonii were an old Celtic tribe who ruled the area from the Iron Age to the era of the Saxons. Their name either meant “deep valley dwellers” or had something to do with the Celtic goddess of the deep, Domnu.

Dorset

The origin of Dorset is unclear. It’s believed to be derived from the tribe that lived there, the Durotriges. Most people believe that “Durotriges” comes from the Welsh word dwr, which meant “water”—therefore, the name meant “water dwellers.” However, it could also come from the Cornish word dur, which means “land.” Therefore, the Durotriges could be “land-dwellers” instead.

Durham

This place was originally Dunholm, made up of the Old English word dun (hill) and the Scandinavian holmr (city). Therefore, it meant “city on a hill.” The n got switched to an r in Norman times.

Essex

This is the shortened version of the Old English East-Seaxe, which meant “East Saxons.” The word has been around since around the 7th Century, when the East Saxons had a kingdom in the area.

Gloucestershire

This name developed from the Old English Gleawceaster, which was taken from the Celtic word Glevo, meaning “bright place.” The cester is from chester, just like Cheshire, which denotes an old Roman town.

Hampshire

Ham means “homestead.” It’s likely that the “p” was eventually tacked on (such as in Thompson). This county was originally South Hamptonshire, then Hamptonshire, and was eventually shortened to just Hampshire. (The “ton” in Hampton is also just a form of homestead.)

Herefordshire

In Anglo-Saxon, here meant “invading Vikings.” Ford, of course, meant a river crossing. Therefore, this word meant “a place where armies could cross.” It likely refers to an army crossing the River Wye.

Hertfordshire

This one comes from the Old English Herutford, which means “a ford frequented by harts.” A hart is a male deer usually over the age of five.

Huntingdonshire

In Old English, this was Huntandun. The dun part means “hill,” while huntan meant “huntsman.” So, Huntingdon means “hill of the huntsman.” It’s also possible that this name means “hill of Hunta,” with Hunta being the name of a person.

Kent

There are a couple of ideas about the place name Kent. First, that it is related to the Old English word cennan, “to tell or make known.” Second, that it is an ancient Celtic word that meant “coastal district.” As it is on the coast, the latter wouldn’t be out of place.

Lancashire

The River Lune runes through Lancashire and gives the city of Lancaster (and then the county of Lancashire) its name. In Old English, Lancaster was Loncastre. Lon referred to the River Lune, while castre meant “fort.” That means Lancashire refers to “the fort on the River Lune.”

Leicestershire

This county has partially unknown origins. The name is a shortened version of ligera ceister, which means “Roman town of the Ligore people.” Unfortunately, we don’t know what Ligore means.

Lincolnshire

Lincoln likely means “lake or pool,” and ultimately stems from an Old English word lindo. This was taken by the Romans who Latinized the word and named the area Lindum Colonia, which was ultimately shortened to Lincoln.

Middlesex

Much like Essex, this one means “land of the Middle Saxons,” who had a kingdom in the area. This included an early part of London.

Norfolk

Literally, “the north folk.” It comes from Nordfolc and refers to people who live in the north.

Northamptonshire

As you might have guessed from reading that “Hampshire” used to be South Hamptonshire, this has the same origin, namely-  Ham means “homestead.” And it’s likely that the “p” was eventually tacked on for the same reason we have a p in Thompson.  (The “ton” in Hampton is also just a form of homestead.)

Northumberland

This is the name of an old kingdom that lay north of the Humber River, thus “Northumber.” There are a few theories about the word Humber: first, that it’s derived from the Latin umbro, meaning “to cover in shadows.” Second, that it could come from an ancient word meaning “river.”

Nottinghamshire

Nottinghamshire has some snotty origins. It used to be known as Snotengaham, which meant “home of Snot’s people.” Snot was likely a man of Anglo-Saxon origins making his home in the area. (Not the best choice to name your child…)

Oxfordshire

This one isn’t too difficult to guess: it literally means “where the oxen cross the river.” It comes from the Old English Oxnaforda.

Rutland

Rutland might stem from Ruthland, or land belonging to the Ruth people of Essex. However, it’s also been written as Roteland, which makes that etymology unlikely. Another idea is that it comes from the Old English word hrythr, which means “cattle.” So, it was the land of the cattle.

Shropshire

This is a shortened form of Shrewsbury, which comes from Scrobbesbyrig, meaning “a fortified place in the scrub.” Anglo-French scribes changed it to Sarop to make it easier for them to pronounce, and eventually it evolved into Shropsbury and then Shrewsbury.

Somerset

The Celts had named the area “Gwald yr haf” which meant “land of summer.” When the Anglo-Saxons came along, they kept the meaning and called the area Somerset.

Staffordshire

In Old English, staed meant “riverbank,” and ford, as you already know, means “crossing.” Staf evolved from staed, so Stafford means “crossing by the riverbank.”

Suffolk

Along the lines of Norfolk, Suffolk simply means “south folk.”

Surrey

Surrey comes from suder, which means “south.” In this case, Surrey is south in relation to Middlesex.

Sussex

Yet another southerly directional name, this one is similar to Essex and Middlesex in that it means “South Saxons,” who had a kingdom in the area.

Warwickshire

Warwickshire evolved from Waerincwicumscir. Breaking it apart, you get “weir” and “wic.” A weir is a river dam, and wic meant “dwelling.” Therefore, it means “dwelling by the riverdam.”

Westmorland

This one is also pretty easy to figure out: it’s a slightly shortened version of “west moorland.”

Wiltshire

Wiltshire, previously known as Wiltonshire, is named after the River Wylye, a name which might mean “tricky.”

Worcestershire

Another Chester or “Roman town” name, the wor part of this name comes from Weogora, which is the name of a tribe that once lived there. Weogora possibly means “winding river.”

Yorkshire

York comes from the word Eboracum, which likely came from the Celtic word Eborkon, meaning “yew tree.”

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  • Yer Pal

    Holy crap! How many counties are they squeezing out of that tiny little country?
    – CANADA

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Yer Pal: Little in some respects, but I imagine it’s because when these counties were formed, travel on land was walking, by horse, or in a cart pulled by horse or oxen. So the smaller counties would seem to make a little more sense there. Still a ton though!

  • Terry Walsh

    “There are a couple of ideas about the place name Kent. First, that it is related to the Old English word cennan, “to tell or make known.” Second, that it is an ancient Celtic word that meant “coastal district.” As it is on the coast, the latter wouldn’t be out of place.”

    The former explanation above is wrong. Julius Caesar called the area Cantium; case proven.