Funny British Place Names: Curious Toponymy

Secoli di invasioni hanno contribuito alla creazione di toponimi bizzarri, alcuni molto simpatici, altri un po’ meno... Scopriamo come la lingua dei conquistatori ha dato origine a questi strani nomi di paesi britannici.

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There is no shortage of strange place names in the UK. Some seem unpronounceable and this is often for historical reasons. The British Isles have been invaded many times. Some of the earliest names come from the Celts, but the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French all arrived and contributed something to the language. These foreign words and names have been adapted and anglicised over the years, with the result that many place names have odd silent letters in the middle of them. Apart from linguistic oddities, however, there are many names that are strange in their own right. Here are some of the funniest ones.

Names to make you smile

You might think the inhabitants of Great and Little Snoring in Norfolk all suffer nocturnal respiratory problems. However, most place names in Norfolk and Suffolk were originally given by the Anglo-Saxons and Snoring could come from the word ‘snear’, meaning ‘swift’ or ‘bright’. It could also be a corruption of the name De Snoryng, an ancient family of local landowners.

The town of Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire is not the home of a primate that enjoys wet terrain. Although the ‘marsh’ part of the name does come from the typical state of the land in the area due to the high water table, ‘Gibbon’ is a corruption of the family name ‘Gibwen’ — the local landowners in the 12th century.

New Invention, in Shropshire, means precisely what it says. This village was the place where something new was invented, although nobody really remembers what it was. Most local historians accept the popular idea that a local farrier or blacksmith invented a way of fitting horseshoes on backwards in times of war in order to confuse the enemy.

The name of Crackpot, a village in North Yorkshire, usually makes visitors laugh, as ‘crackpot’ means mad or crazy. In fact the name comes from the Old English ‘kraka’ meaning ‘crow’, and the Viking word ‘pot’, meaning ‘hole in the ground’. It could easily be a reference to the fascinating stalactite cave nearby. 

disgusting Names

There are also a number of place names that, while sounding funny, also seem rude too! Dorset, in the south-west of England, is the county that seems to have the most rude names. For example, Puddletown near Dorchester is a name that usually raises a smile, particularly when visitors learn that it lies on the river Piddle, with ‘piddle’ being a colloquial term for ‘urine’. In fact the town used to be called Piddletown but the name was changed in the 1950s because of the rude associations with the word. It’s not as bad as it seems, however. In Old English ‘piddle’ just meant ‘marsh’.

Dorset residents certainly appear to have a sense of humour, as Scratchy Bottom is another famous Dorset location. But don’t worry, the locals don’t all suffer from anal irritations. ‘Bottom’ in any name usually refers to a valley, and Scratchy Bottom derives from a hollow in the chalk terrain. So ‘scratchy’ in this case only refers to the roughness of the chalk rock. 

Some names really are as bad as they seem and one of them is Shitterton, also in Dorset. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon English ‘scitere’ and ‘tun’ and literally means ‘farm by the stream used as a sewer’. So although local residents prefer to pronounce it ‘Sitterton’, there’s no escaping the real connotations. 

Further west, in Cornwall, we have another rude name. Brown Willy is the name of a famous hill that hikers love to visit. (In Britain, ‘willy’ is childish slang for male genitalia.) At 420m above sea level, the summit is the highest point of Cornwall as a whole, so it is possible that it was originally called by the far more elegant Cornish name of Bronn Ewhella (meaning ‘highest hill’). Some historians have also suggested Bronn Wennili, which translates as the rather beautiful ‘hill of swallows’. In 2012 a campaign was launched to have the name changed back to a more attractive Cornish version. Cornish residents objected to the idea, however, and the Daily Telegraph supported them in an editorial. With typical British humour the newspaper called for campaigners to keep their ‘hands off Brown Willy’.

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