Mapping the frequency of common toponyms opens window on Britain's 'deep history'.
- A place name is more than a name – it's a historical record of the name-givers.
- By examining some of the most common toponyms, Britain's 'deep history' is revealed.
- See where Danes, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons stamped their name on the land.
Washington DC is a place named after a person who was named after a place. This is Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington, in the northern English town of Washington.
Image: Public domain
Giving a location a name is a possessive act. It transforms an 'anywhere', a random space, into a 'somewhere', a certain place. A place with meaning, not just for the name-givers, also for later generations. Because place names are sticky. They can survive for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. And even if today's toponym, worn with use, sounds different and lost its original meaning, it still remains a 'vector of trans-generational communication'.
In isolation, each toponym is like an archaeological dig – hiding multiple layers beneath a well-trodden exterior. In context, surprising toponymical patterns emerge. As in these maps by Helen McKenzie. She's disassembled British place names to examine the frequency of some of their most common constituents. They reveal deep history hiding in plain sight, on countless road signs across the UK.
Denmark's footprint in England
The toponymic suffix -by is most prevalent in the area around the Humber.
Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission
Take -by (or -bie). It's one of the most common suffixes in place names throughout England, but also Scotland and Wales. Familiar examples include Grimsby and Whitby, on the North Sea coast; Derby inland, Formby on the Irish Sea coast and Lockerbie in Scotland.
There are hundreds of other examples, and they are among the most lasting relics of Scandinavian influence in Britain. By in Old Norse signified a farmstead or village. In modern Scandinavian languages, a 'by' still means village or city. In English, the word has also given rise to the terms 'by-election' and 'by-laws' – although pronounced differently than the suffix.
As the map shows, the suffix is most prevalent in the area around the Humber, and northern England in general. This is the core of what was once known as the Danelaw, a large swathe of northern and eastern England that was under Danish rule for about 80 years, until the expulsion of Eric Bloodaxe (*) from Northumbria in the year 954.
But 'by' also occurs in Wales, as far south as Cornwall and as high north as central Scotland – a testament to the scale of Scandinavian involvement in Britain.
The valleys of Wales, and beyond
The green, green valleys of south Wales.
Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission
The anglicised version is 'coombe', which gives an indication of how to pronounce what looks like three consonants in a row. As the Welsh word for 'valley', it stands to reason that this toponym is most prevalent in the valley-rich south of Wales. Examples include Cwmbran, Cwmafan and Cwmfelinfach.
As for the comparative antiquity of British languages, Welsh is the much older rival of English. The post-Roman, pre-English inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic antecedent of Welsh. They were pushed west by the invading Anglo-Saxons. A telling – but disputed – piece of toponymic evidence is the Welsh word for England, Lloegr, which some say means 'lost lands'.
Better evidence are the many Celtic-influenced place names throughout England, including such well-known toponyms as Dover or Manchester. Focusing on Cwm and its anglicised variant, we find pockets throughout southern, central and northern England, as well as in Scotland.
Tons of -tuns all over Britain
The area of central England around Merseyside has the heaviest concentration of -tons and -tuns in Britain.
Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission
'Tun' is an old English word for enclosure that is cognate with Dutch 'tuin' ('garden') and German 'Zaun' ('fence') – for more on that, see #615 – and by way of 'ton' gave rise to 'town'. Perhaps the world's most famous example is Washington: the U.S. capital's name derives from the country's first president, whose name comes from the eponymous town in northern England. Its name, in turn, probably originated as Hwæsingatūn, the estate (tūn) of the descendants (inga) of Hwæsa – an old English first name that means "wheat sheaf".
The Anglo-Saxons planted countless tuns/tons throughout England, with the second-highest concentration in the northeast, around Washington. The highest concentration, though, is centered on the part of central England towards Merseyside (Liverpool and environs), with Bolton, Everton, Preston and Warrington some of the best known examples.
But really, there are tuns and tons all over Britain, with distant areas of Scotland and Wales the only exceptions. Note the concentration in southwest Wales: southern Pembrokeshire, once known as Little-England-beyond-Wales.
Maps reproduced with kind permission of Helen McKenzie. For a few more maps on toponymy and a lot more on other subjects (including emploment density in Hackney and otter sightings in the UK), check out Ms McKenzie's Instagram, at helen.makes.maps.
Strange Maps #1037
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(*) Update 1/4/21: Eric Bloodaxe was not Danish; in fact, he was the second king of Norway. (many thanks to Erlend Hov for pointing out the distinction). However, Anglo-Saxon sources often didn't make that distinction, calling all northmen 'Danes'.
A study by UK archaeologists finds that longbows caused horrific injuries similar to modern gunshot wounds.
- UK archaeologists discover medieval longbows caused injuries similar to modern gunshot wounds.
- The damage was caused by the arrows spinning clockwise.
- No longbows from medieval times survived until our times.
Battle of Agincourt.
The angle of entry into a cranium found during the excavation at a medieval Dominican friary in Exeter, England.
Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter
Air pollution is up to five times over the EU limit in these Central London hotspots.
- Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
- More than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution, a recent study estimates.
- This map visualizes the worst places to breathe in Central London.
The Great Smog of 1952<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f46451eae3ab144163711d928db6fd6c"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hN4GhEqtUJ0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating. </p><p>All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theater and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly. According to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners. <br></p>
Invisible, but still deadly<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5MjcyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTg2NDkyMH0.j4fzur-8R0PjMSPTyh7tyl852YuI40_5BGzgYR2yMjY/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C34%2C0%2C34&height=700" id="9adb8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dde2be03417dc8c63460e61557305a57" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images
ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ
Image: Transport for London<p>Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:</p><ul><li>Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.</li><li>Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.</li><li>Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.</li><li>Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.</li><li>Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.</li><li>The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards. </li><li>By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London. </li><li>By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.</li></ul>
Central London's worst places for breathing<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5MjE5Mi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDUzNTM4MH0.m_JC00WFc9noFCOEsq_17FHZRiVNy89wmC7-0_tOjNg/img.png?width=980" id="47c0e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b22c53d58d02d17c72c2b0ae5a98507a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot
Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street
Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0<p>So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.</p><p>Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.</p><p>Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution. </p><p>The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.</p><p>However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.<br></p>
As bad as Delhi, worse than New York<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5Mjc3Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTY3Njc1Nn0.5Lkip6lqa0U9Jw-GeBG7oFRK39-lsEeu7lJW4vWBtm8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C333%2C0%2C333&height=700" id="bff5d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41889886fd0168642e27846d320bba7e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.
Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images<p>By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid. <br></p><p>The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. </p><ul><li>Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.</li><li>Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over. <span></span></li></ul>
Google joins fight against air pollution<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5MjI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0OTUxMjY4NH0.jiDoSwWnU2rL0bx4kUOJdPeFaluOKQHIzvZnt9ZQuiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="0cfc5" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb8316a55c370278b98205ad107982d9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Elephant & Castle, London.
Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0<p>Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London</p><p>Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.</p><p>It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark. </p><p>Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.<br></p>
A recent study shows that migrant workers in the U.K. are three times less likely to be absent from work than their native counterparts.