Place names in the Oxford English Dictionary

By Tania Styles, OED

Problems with place

As any Scrabble player knows, dictionaries of English tend not to include entries for names—of people, organizations, or places. For the lexicographer names in general, and place names in particular, pose all kinds of problems. To begin with, a place name cannot really be defined. A common noun denotes a class of items with a set of shared characteristics that can be outlined in a dictionary definition, but a place name works more as a label, a way of referring in speech or writing to a single, particular place.

On a practical note, there is the question of which names to cover. The names of countries, cities, and towns might be obvious candidates, but what about villages and hamlets, hills and rivers, or buildings, streets, and fields? Would we stick to the names of places in Britain, or would we want to cover names in all countries where English is spoken? We use the names of places in non-English speaking countries in English all the time: should we include them too? Then, of course, for a historical dictionary like the OED there is the task of tracing the origin and development of each name, a specialist endeavour involving detailed local knowledge, access to unpublished documents, and extensive fieldwork.

The value of place

Little wonder, then, that lexicographers of the English language since Dr Johnson and before have tended to balk at the idea of writing entries for place names. That is not to say, however, that they have been excluded from dictionaries altogether. As James Murray, the first editor of the OED, wrote:

In addition to, and behind, the common vocabulary … lies an infinite number of Proper or merely denotative names, outside the province of lexicography, yet touching it in thousands of points.

Place names arise from ordinary words, and can go on to make up or function as ordinary words. It is at these points of contact with the ‘common vocabulary’ that place names made their way into his first edition of the Dictionary, as they do in the latest.

Probably the most immediately obvious situation in which place names make contact with the vocabulary at large is when they come to be used as elements of words or phrases that require definition in their own right. The OED does have an entry for Oxford, not to cover the name of the city itself, but to accommodate compounds where the name qualifies another word: like Oxford University and Oxford Union, as well as Oxford bags (a style of wide-legged trousers popular among students in the 1920s), Oxford John (a spicy eighteenth-century stew made with stale mutton ‘collops’, ripe for recreation by Heston Blumenthal), Oxford marmalade (first made commercially in the 1870s by the Cooper family at 83 High Street), and Oxford comma (the kind I have just used).

Over time, the second element of compounds like this is often dropped, so that it is possible to talk of studying at Oxford (rather than at Oxford University), or spreading one’s toast with Cooper’s Oxford (rather than Oxford marmalade). This process gives rise to a large number of words where the name of a product’s place of origin comes to stand for the product itself. On the cheeseboard, for instance, we find our own Cheshire, Stilton, and Cheddar alongside Brie (France), Gruyère (Switzerland), Taleggio (Italy), Manchego (Spain), and Havarti (Denmark). Less transparent examples, often with a longer history or a more exotic origin, are common amongst terms for fabrics like denim (recorded in 1695 as serge denims, or ‘from Nîmes’ in southern France), damask (from Damascus), muslin (ultimately from Mosul, northern Iraq), and closer to home, worsted (from Worstead, the name of a village in Norfolk), and crimplene (perhaps from the name of the Crimple Valley near Harrogate, Yorkshire, where it was first manufactured by ICI).

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Language from place

It is less apparent to the modern eye, perhaps, that place names and the vocabulary at large also intersect by virtue of the way those names come into existence. The name of any town or city typically begins as a meaningful description of that settlement in the everyday language of the people who live there. Over time, one description gets ‘fixed’ as the set way to refer to the settlement, at which point it begins to lose its descriptive force and to function primarily as a label: a place name is born.

Tracing the ways in which the name has been spelled back through time to identify that original description is a monumental task at which, thankfully, the editors of English Place-Name Society have been busy since 1920. So we know that the name of Oxford is first recorded in the tenth century as Oxenaford, Old English for ‘ford of the oxen’. As it happens, plenty of early evidence exists for the history of the words ox and ford, so this early record of Oxenaford does not tell us anything new. However, while the OED’s evidence for the history of English words has always been drawn first and foremost from conventional written texts like novels, poems, and newspapers, there are times when the description underlying a particular name provides information that simply cannot be gleaned from other kinds of written source. Or, as you might say, place names reach the parts other sources cannot reach.

It probably comes as no surprise that place names have much to tell us about the history of words for landscape features, like hills and mountains. The words pike and peak for kinds of hill or mountain are probably most familiar from names like Scafell Pike and the Peak district: sure enough, both appear in place names long before they occur in more conventional texts, pushing their birth in the language back by several centuries.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the value of place names as a record of the ordinary, everyday vocabulary of the common working man through the ages. For instance, thanks to the name of Foxearth in Essex (recorded as Focsearde in the Domesday Book) we know that the Anglo-Saxons were calling a fox’s den an earth some four centuries before this sense turns up in literary sources. Field names, meanwhile, provide our earliest evidence for the use of words like mud and peat, as well as mucked (designating soil fertilized with manure) and midden (a dunghill). Names of this kind can be invaluable for the OED, since they often preserve exactly the kind of words that are least likely to be used in literature and formal prose, especially in early historical periods.

Beyond the realm of mud and muck, words for which place names provide important early records come from all sorts of subject areas:  examples include maze (first recorded in the name of a property in medieval Southwark with extensive landscaped gardens), milkhouse (a dairy), roper (a rope maker, attested in two London street names), and the tree names maple and blackthorn.

Of course, when a word appears in a place name, it typically comes with only one other word as context, and sometimes not even that, so it is often impossible to be as sure of its identity or sense as if it were used contextually in an English sentence. For this reason, this kind of place name evidence for the use of words is often treated in the etymology section of an OED entry, where any uncertainty can be adequately discussed.

Now—thanks to the OED Online’s new advanced search options, and its integration with the Historical Thesaurus—it is easier than ever to identify words in whose history place names have an important part to play, and to assess their significance within particular semantic fields.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. in addition to place names, you may also be interested in Peter McClure’s articles on the contribution of forenames and surnames to the development of English.
  2. elsewhere in the Aspects of English, you’ll find Bernadette Paton’s essay, Material World, which charts the origin of denim, damask, and many other words associated with textiles.

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