The names of places in Britain carry historical information. Your hometown ends in -wich or -chester — clearly a Roman place; -ham, or -ton — cherchez les Anglo-Saxons. If it’s -by or -thorpe — keep your head down, the Vikings are coming. Knowing that West Chester, Pennsylvania was obviously a fortified site in Roman times provides you with valuable insights into migration patterns. Or not, of course.

When I was there, Cambridge University Press would publish books for The English Place-Name Society. These were always, to me, potentially fascinating if ultimately unreadable books. They were pale blue hardbacks, clearly destined for library shelves.

Now that everything can be found online at all levels of seriousness, the Society, based at the University of Nottingham, has taken over responsibility for their publications.

They tell us on their website “Before the Second World War, the Survey was largely limited to coverage of ‘major’ place-names, the names of towns, villages, larger rivers, forests, etc. From the 1950s onwards rich collections of minor names, field-names and street-names have also been included. (Major names are also nowadays given a very much fuller treatment than in the early years.) This detailed material provides an excellent resource for local investigators, social, urban and agricultural historians of the medieval and early modern periods, linguists, geographers and archaeologists. The growing scale of coverage, however, has inevitably slowed down the country-wide progress of the Survey, and counties are nowadays covered by multiple volumes. This accounts for the current partial coverage of some counties.”

For people interested there’s a map at their website, showing how they are getting on with regard to achieving total coverage. Their first volume was published in 1925. It looks like at least 150 years to get to the point where they want to start at the beginning again with Buckinghamshire.

For people looking for a brief survey of an immense topic here’s a post from Thijs Porck, a Dutch linguist, presenting a toponymy of English place-names. Maybe it’s because I was born 60 miles away, I find the dislocation of Carlisle on the first map at Professor Porck’s post a bit off-putting, but for all I know the town which looks like it’s located by that dot, Morecambe, may well illustrate the same point. (It probably doesn’t.) Actually most of the labelled dots are a bit off.

Here are three of Professor Porck’s heat maps.

There is of course in the natural order of things a Scottish Place-Name Society, Comann Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba. Unlike their Sassenach colleagues they do not appear to have a shire by shire book program, but do publish a journal.