London Place Names.

The page is pretty self-explanatory: “The origin of London’s place names (districts and boroughs).” Some are less exciting than others (St Pancras: “named after a saint”; Shepherds Bush: “Shepherd’s bushes”), but it’s fun to peruse: who knew that Cockfosters meant “estate of the chief forester”? (If anyone sent me this link, let me know; I’m afraid the provenance of the tab is long forgotten.)


  1. Did they misspell Charing Cross? Also, I always heard Charing was from “Dear Queen” in French. They’ve got something else listed. What’s going on there?

  2. Did they misspell Charing Cross?

    Yes, yes they did.

    Also, I always heard Charing was from “Dear Queen” in French.

    Now, that sounds like a classic folk etymology.

  3. Barnes: place by a barn
    Heathrow: row of houses by a heath

    Really, I expect better than that.

  4. Pseudonym says

    I was disappointed not to see Mornington Crescent on the list, although that’s technically not a place name.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The example of Highbury (“high fort”) reminds me of when I got lost driving in Bavaria a couple of months ago (as one does if one want to avoid the Autobahn). I stopped at a petrol station for help, and the lady there was indeed helpful, except that she referred to the place I wanted to go next to as “Water Fort”: it took me a moment to realize that she meant Wasserburg. It wouldn’t occur to me to translate the meaning of a place name into another language when giving directions! I might refer jocularly to Aigues Mortes as “Dead waters” in a conversation with someone I knew, but not to a starnger. (I’m pretty sure that the lady in the petrol station was just trying to helpful.)

    I agree that St Pancras (“named after a saint”) is unexciting as a name, but it’s a very appropriate name, as of all the stations I know it’s the one that llooks most like a cathedral. I passed through it a couple of days ago to catch the Eurostar to Paris, and seen from the distance it doesn’t look at all like a station. Our main station in Marseilles is also named after a saint (St Charles), but it doesn’t look like a cathedral. The main station in Lyon is better: Part Dieu: “a bit of God”. The airport of Lyon is St Éxupéry, but it is named not after a saint but after the author of The Little Prince (who was a pilot).

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Is the opportunity to edit a post within 15 minutes no longer functional: I wanted to correct “starnger” to “stranger”, but I wasn’t given the chance.

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Hmm. This time it did, not only to correct the second post (which I didn’t want to do, except perhaps to delete it entirely), but I also had 12 minutes to correct the one I wanted to correct. Probably it’s a quirk of my computer rather than of your system.

  8. January First-of-May says

    I was disappointed not to see Mornington Crescent on the list, although that’s technically not a place name.

    I was disappointed not to see Pimlico on the list (I wondered what would they make of its etymology).

  9. marie-lucie says

    Charing (Cross) from Dear Queen in French

    Definitely folk etymology from people who don’t know anything about how places are named.

    Charing ends in the Germanic suffix -ing denoting a group of people, cognate with German -ung as in die Niebelungen.

    Even if Dear Queen was a possible place name, it would have been Chére Royne in Middle French, which (if borrowed into Middle English) would be more likely to end up as something like Cheroyn or possibly Cherren. Charing at the time (before the Great Vowel Shift) would still have had the old a which could not have been confused with the é (later è) of chére.

  10. Mornington/Baile Uí Mhornáin is in fact a place name, and the crescent on which the station adjoins was named after the grandson of that Richard Wesley who was created Baron of Mornington in 1746.

  11. @January First-of-May: In one of John Bellairs’ horror novels for children (The Eyes of the Killer Robot, written after the books had become extremely formulaic, although always still with a few interesting ideas), one of the villains uses “Dr. Pimlico” as an alias. One of the characters discusses the fact that, apart form being the name of a district of London, he has no idea what kind of name it is.

  12. In before JC: Trask on Pimlico

  13. marie-lucie says

    Lars, thanks for that link. Definitely worth reading!

    I read it years ago (and reread it not so long ago). It was published in a linguistics journal, but it is not your usual technical linguistics article, and you don’t have to be a linguist to understand and enjoy it.

  14. Who says a street name is not a placename? Is this a ruling of the International Federation of Toponymists? The Irish Placenames Database allows you to include streetnames in your search.

  15. Charing ends in the Germanic suffix -ing denoting a group of people

    Indeed, Charing Cross is unquestionably named after the former hamlet of Charing on the same site. After that, opinions differ: one view is that the hamlet was indeed named for the people of Ceorra, whoever he may have been. But the majority view is that it is from the English noun char < OE cierr ‘turn’ (common Germanic but no known PIE root), referring to a bend in the river at this point. There is a village of Charing in Kent which has the same two possible etymologies, in this case after a bend in the old Canterbury-London road.

    This char is now obsolete except in the sense ‘turn of work, bit of casual labor’, and this in turn is mostly used in compounds charman, -woman, -lady and in its originally North American variant chore.

  16. So how did the name get transferred to Pimlico the modern district? WP quotes an account from the 1898 edition of Brewer that a ‘Pimlico Path’ lead to the alehouse over the (undeveloped) fields, but it seems unlikely that a path would be named for so distant a destination as Hoxton (8km), especially since the destination is on the other side of London City (as it was then).

    But the entry in a later edition of Brewer’s dictionary sheds more light, though the mention of the Pimlico Path has been removed:

    At one time a district of public gardens much frequented on holidays. It received its name from Ben Pimlico, famous in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for his nut-brown ale, who had a tavern at Hoxton and, later, one in the neighbourhood of Chelsea.

    Have at thee, then, my merrie boyes, and beg for old Ben Pimlico’s nut-brown ale — Newes from Hogsdon (1598)

    Pimlico is indeed on the way from the City of London past Westminster to Chelsea, and plausibly the first place on the journey where you needed to pick a path over open land.

    Which goes to show, one edition of a dictionary is never enough, you need all the editions to make sure they aren’t hiding anything important.

  17. Which goes to show, one edition of a dictionary is never enough, you need all the editions to make sure they aren’t hiding anything important.

    So true! I tried to explain that to my wife when she wondered why I kept all those old editions of Merriam-Webster…

  18. Old Ordnance Survey maps actually show and name the row of houses on Hounslow Heath that was the original Heath Row.

  19. marie-lucie says

    LH: This reminds me of a number of times several years ago when a French word was discussed, I would look it up in my Petit Robert to verify the meaning, date, etc, while others also quoted the Petit Robert, but we disagreed! After much frustration it occurred to me to check the date on mine – it was 1968, while others had more recent editions. (I did not buy a new Petit Robert: looking at LH’s list of resources in the right column I discovered the TLFI, which is online).

  20. Heh. I have three editions of the Petit Larousse: 1924 (with this gorgeous cover), 1971 (cover), and 1993 (cover; it still feels “new” to me!).

  21. David Marjanović says


    Nibelungen; the /i/ is long, because it’s in a stressed open syllable, but it’s spelled etymologically. This is rare enough to trip native speakers up.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Thanks David, I thought the word looked a little odd, but also that Nibelungen was even odder (to my distant recollections).

  23. marie-lucie says

    LH: Le Petit Larousse …

    I think somewhere in my family there was (probably still is) a 1924 edition, but also an older one (with a smaller figure) which might have been bought by my father’s grandfather.

    You can’t understand the cover of the 1971 edition without being familiar with those of the earlier editions where the female figure is called La Semeuse ‘the sowing woman’, because the motto of the dictionary is je sème à tout vent ‘I sow according to any wind’ – normally the wind blows the (dandelion) seeds away but here the figure is the one sowing the words, symbols of knowledge. (I think that this allegory is older than the dictionary).

    Le Petit Larousse is still the one dictionary of choice for students of French (as first or additional language), as it covers both language and culture, with lots of illustrations. So there you find well-known people, royal dynasties, works of art, cities, etc along with pictures of things, animals, etc., and comments. Le Petit Robert deals only with language, with dates of attestation, etymologies, and such, so the two complement each other well. The TLFI is for a higher level of language study.

  24. Their explanation of “Whetstones” managed to be more confusing than the name itself: “place of wet stones (for sharpening)”. Whet and wet are different words in etymology, meaning, and, for many of us, pronunciation, that sentence didn’t clarify things at all.

  25. marie-lucie says

    But you need to “wet” the stones in order to “whet” the knife or whatever.

  26. marie-lucie says


    By utter serendipity (I think), I just reread the Arpitania thread, in which the Pimlico mystery is fully explained. Great detective work! The thread is not very long, and it is not hard to find the Pimlico sections.

  27. There are wet whetstones and dry whetstones, for that matter.

  28. That notion seems vaguely Rumsfeldian.

  29. By utter serendipity (I think) — well, I did link to JC’s comment in that thread with Trask’s etymology, and found something else to comment on so it popped up in the commented on list. But as John wrote, [that] tale fails to account for the transference of Pimlico from Hoxton to Westminster — two editions of the Rev. Brewer were needed for that 🙂

  30. …La Semeuse ‘the sowing woman’, because the motto of the dictionary is je sème à tout vent ‘I sow according to any wind’ – normally the wind blows the (dandelion) seeds away but here the figure is the one sowing the words, symbols of knowledge.

    No doubt. Virtually every Russian knows “Сейте разумное, доброе, вечное” (Sow the sensible, kind, eternal), written in 1867. Interestingly, I always understood доброе in this phrase to be kind, but a quick search shows that it is usually translated as good. The Russian word easily covers both meanings, just like in English good can mean kind. Why did I settle on a more specific meaning? It’s a mystery.

  31. whet/wet — does sound resemblance count here? (Very different origins, PIE *kwed- vs *wodr-/*uden-, and not merging in other Germanic languages. Danish has hvæsse/våd, for instance).

    In German voll voll, for instance, it is the ‘same’ word in two different semantic roles, though you could argue about one being a zero-derived adverb.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Does Dutch have a cognate of wet? German doesn’t.

    a zero-derived adverb

    Bingo: the first is a zero-derived adverb, the other is an undeclined predicative adjective :-þ

  33. OED again:

    Three distinct types are represented here: (1) the α-forms, originating in Old English wǽt adjective = Old Frisian wêt (West Frisian wiet, dialect weet; North Frisian wiat, wīt), Old Norse vátr (Icelandic votur, Norwegian vaat; Swedish våt, Danish vaad), a word not found outside of the Anglo-Frisian and Scandinavian groups; (2) the β-forms resulting from the adoption of the Old Scandinavian *wāt- (Old Norse vátr), giving the common northern Middle English wate, wait, and the rare midland wote; (3) the γ-forms, properly the past participle of the verb, which finally supplant the others except in dialect. The Scottish wat may either be a variant of this or of the earlier wate.

    So the answer is no.

  34. So the Danish cognate of wet is (obsolete) vædt. Always check two dictionaries 🙂

    I’d like to have access to the OED, but 215 pounds plus tax per year for online is a large part of my book budget. What is a good print edition to get used? (Not the easiest to find, but for three months of that I can get a 1973 microfiche edition, less than an hour away by train even).

  35. Check first if it’s available through your local public library. That’s how I get access.

  36. Nope, but the university library has online access — I can get a card that lets me borrow books, but I think I need to be a student or employee to get online access from home. Need to go there and check.

  37. has various scans of the first edition of the OED, though many have pages or volumes missing. This links to a possibly complete set.

  38. James Kabala says

    The (former) cross at Charing Cross was one of several erected to mark the route of the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I. While the “Dear Queen” etymology is indeed wrong, whoever invented the legend had a specific story in mind.

  39. Interesting, I didn’t know that!

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