What’s in a (Historical Place) Name?

Previously I blogged about my efforts in coming up with fictional surnames for the characters in my historical fiction WIP.

These names had to be Anglo-Norman in origin, and involved me increasing my French vocabulary, researching Norman toponymy, and a ton of trial and error to create nice-looking names.

My goal was to have names that, rather than random Frenchified gibberish, actually translated into something in English.

But achieving this task didn’t mark the end of my naming woes for this novel.

My novel is set in England during the early 13th century.  Parts of it take place in real world locations, but other parts occur in small, fictional locales such as manors or castles.  In addition, many of my fictional Anglo-Norman characters are attached to fictional English holdings.

This meant that I had to come up with fictional English place names.

My methods for addressing this need weren’t quite the same as in coming up with the surnames.

In some ways, this task was considerably easier, largely because I didn’t have to work with a foreign language since English is my mother tongue.

So too am I part of the English Commonwealth (I’m Canadian), and have visited England three times.  For all these reasons, I came to this naming task with some pre-existing knowledge.

Yet in a way, I did still have to learn a new language, for place names in medieval England were formed from Old and Middle English.  These earlier forms of English comprise linguistic influences resulting from historic Celtic, Saxon, Norse, Roman, and Norman invasions.

As with my fictional Anglo-Norman surnames, my fictional English place names were mainly based on geographical features, and were informed by a bit of study into the field of toponymy.

The most valuable resource I employed was the book English Place-Names Explained, which discussed in depth the different naming conventions that were used throughout history, as well as how the spelling and pronunciation of English place names has changed/degraded over the centuries.

It also contained a handy list of common prefixes and suffixes used in place names.  I found another such list on Wikipedia, and also found it helpful to take existing English places and cannibalize parts of their names.

The best (named) place on Earth

For my fictional place names, I was less concerned about not creating obvious compounds of [adjective + noun] = [place name] the way I was when creating the surnames.

For the surnames, I did employ a fair bit of modern French.  However, in working with Old and Middle English for the place names, the meaning of various place name elements is less likely to be known offhand by modern English speakers (e.g. the average French speaker will know what mont or bois means, but the average English speaker might not know what ey or ings means).

With the place names, my biggest concern was to not use a name that already existed somewhere in England.  Which was hella hard given how old a country England is.

I swear that after agonizing over the most appealing combination of prefix and suffix, and agonizing over my preferred spelling since some prefixes and suffixes offered variations, seven times out of ten I had to throw the names out, for what I’d come up with were actual places.

English place names may have been easier to produce technique-wise, but I had to generate significantly more of them in order to find ones I could actually use.

I would literally force myself to produce lists of possible names—every possible combination of prefix and suffix I could think of.  Eventually I finished the job, but it was a lot of work and a lot of waste in the process.

Never doubt that I haven’t sufficiently suffered for my Art.

An unexpected side effect of all this work—of staring at all those place name elements for so long—is that I now often recognize them out in the world.

Due to colonialism, English names feature prominently in North America.  They are literally everywhere: towns and cities, businesses, schools, consumer goods, people’s names, and most notably street names.  To the point that I now find myself absently breaking down and translating the components of street names while walking and driving.

Have you ever had to come up with a fictional place name?

(Image source #1 and #2)

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a (Historical Place) Name?

  1. You did well not to replicate an English place name Janna, though I’m surprised you wanted to avoid that. As you say, England is rich in names with their roots from many sources. That research must have been fascinating.

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    • England has such a long history, I wanted to avoid any confusion or preconceptions that would come from using existing names for places to which I wanted to attribute a wholly fictional history. I took my cue in this from Ken Follett in his Pillars of the Earth series, for as much as I wanted to write about medieval English history, the “fiction” part of “historical fiction” is important to be as well.

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  2. I found I needed imaginary place names for my twelfth century series, Out of Time. I played around with various local place names, splitting the syllables up and mixing them. I came up with Sparnstow, Oakley and Thorneywell. It took me hours of playing around. Sparnstow became so real to me that, when I needed to have some idea of how long it would take to travel from there to actual places, my husband did loads of research and we found a place where my fictitious Sparnstow might have been lcated had it been a real place. We went to explore and explained to anyone we met that we were searching for the whereabouts of a fictitious village. I feel fairly sure they thought I was completely bonkers.

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    • Sparnstow is a great name and I love that you went on a tour to try to find where it would be. This is totally something I would do too! (Not sure I would have told anyone who was there about it, though, for the very reason you mentioned.)

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