English place names were invented by J.R.R. Tolkein for use in bedtime stories for his children, or so I was taught in history class at school. It turns out that I had, in fact, slept through school and dreamed most of my education. The study of place names is called Toponomy, or Toponomastics, or Geoff to his friends.

The University of Nottingham has a newfangled gizmo you can use to look up the root meaning of English place-names, and here is a glossary of place-name elements in the Domesday book, listed by major historical groups.


This name sounds nice: a Full Well is surely better than an empty one, right? Sure, but it depends what the well is full of. Fulwell actually comes from fūl (Old English) + wella (Anglian), meaning foul stream/spring. Now, the charitable explanation is that the water was just muddy or cloudy with silt, or maybe smelt of methane from rotting plants, but I think we can all guess the other explanation…

Maybe the foul well in question is diesel? Maybe. Photo by Alex McGregor


Is this the true home of ancient silk production? No, that’s China, even I know that, don’t be silly. This area used to be owned by a chap called Sigelac, and the suffix -worth indicates a walled, fenced, or hedged enclosure.

This comfy footpath doesn’t go anywhere, which is a shame because they did ever such a nice job with the lampposts. Photo by Peter Robinson.


Obviously this town used to be a Sea Pig fishing village. Sea pigs are definitely real, but apparently their ham is on the bland side, because Seaham just means “Village by the Sea”, a ham being a village or estate, which is where the word hamlet (little village) comes from. Apparently, that’s also the root of the name Hamlet in Shakespeare, and what you do with that information is entirely up to you.

Seaham War Memorial. Photo by Mick Garratt


No offence to the noble people of Tunstall, some of my best friends are Tunstallites (Tunstallish? Tunstallian? Tunstalli? I’m not sure, I’ve never met one), but this is probably the least imaginative name in the land. A tūn-stall is simply a farm in Old English. It’s like calling your cat “Cat”, or your dad “Dad”. Couldn’t they have come up with something a bit more descriptive, I don’t know, something like “Tunstall 2: The Final Farm” or “Bond, Tunstall Bond”?

Photo by Malc McDonald

Let us know in the comments below if you know any odd place names.

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  1. Growing up in Ryhope I remember seeing an old map which showed the name Riop. Maybe something to do with a stream called the Hope?


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