The UK is filled with interesting place names. From Llandudno to Westward Ho! and even Giggleswick, there are common parts of these place names that lead you back in time and down a fascinating linguistical road.
These intriguing place names have been formed from beautiful local languages, landscapes, and history. Each place name therefore tells the story of its origins, as well as the origins of the first people to settle there.
Common suffixes include "ton" (enclosure, estate, homestead), "llan" (church, churchyard, village with church, parish), "ar" (high, hight), "by" (settlement, village), "cwm" (valley) and "aber" (mouth (of a river), confluence, a meeting of waters).
These elements are found within or appended to names of local landmarks such as rivers to make a meaningful place name such as Aberystwyth, "the mouth of the River Ystwyth".
We’ve shuffled through and decoded every place and common place name element in the UK and picked out the most common and fascinating place name patterns below.
If you’re curious about what the name of your hometown means, you may well find the answer here.
Jump to see the most popular place name elements in the UK, England, Scotland and Wales, or keep reading to see some of the most popular mapped, as well as the stories behind them.
UK - ton
With a wide variety of meanings including enclosure, estate, homestead, and farm, it’s no surprise that "ton" is the most popular place name element in the UK. "Ton" comes from the Old English spoken by the Anglo Saxons, who first arrived in Britain during the 6th century and established the foundations of the English language as we know it. A large number of places featuring "ton" can be seen on the map in the Midlands and the Welsh Borders, where Mercia, one of the largest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, once was.
- Meaning: enclosure, estate, homestead
- Origin: Old English
- “Ton” is the most popular place name element in the UK
- As seen in: Northampton, Bolton, Luton
UK - ley
Deriving also from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons, places featuring "ley" are widespread across several of the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that came before England existed. Meaning a woodland clearing, there are once again large clusters in the West Midlands, where several large woodlands still stand today, including the National Forest, which covers 200 square miles.
- Meaning: from leah, a woodland clearing
- Origin: Old English
- As seen in: Barnsley, Henley, Chorley
UK - pen
Wales is famed for its hills, mountains, and rugged coastline so it’s no surprise that "pen", meaning top of a hill or end of a headland, is found in so many place names here. It’s also found in places throughout West Cornwall, and even parts of Cumbria, as the languages once spoken there, Cornish and Cumbric, shared a common ancestor language with Welsh.
- Meaning: head (headland or hill), top, far end of, end of
- Origin: Cumbric, Cornish, Welsh
- As seen in: Penarth, Penzance, Penrith
Wales - llan
Christianity swept over Wales from the 5th century onwards, when the first saints, including St David, settled in Wales, having a huge influence over the surrounding areas. There are larger clusters of places featuring "llan" in areas where several monasteries were established, such as Monmouthshire and Anglesey, and many of these still stand today.
- Meaning: church, churchyard, village with church, parish
- Origin: Cumbric, Cornish, Pictish, Welsh
- “Llan” is Wales’ top place name element
- As seen in: Llandudno, Llanelli, Llangollen
Wales - tre
Meaning settlement, "tre" can be found in place names in a few key pockets of Wales. The first is in Glamorgan, a former Welsh kingdom which was much contested with the English. There is also a high concentration of places beginning with "tre" in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, which was once one of the highest populated areas in Wales, due to its importance in the Christian community throughout the medieval period.
- Meaning: settlement
- Origin: Cumbric, Cornish, Pictish, Welsh
- As seen in: Treherbert, Trecwn, Treffgarne
Wales - cwm
It’s no surprise that places beginning with "cwm" are found mostly in the South Wales valleys, which stretch across from Carmarthenshire in the west to Monmouthshire in the east. There are over 20 populated valleys in this area, including the Rhondda, Taff, and Rhymney Valleys, with plenty of places around these valleys named after them in Welsh.
- Meaning: valley
- Origin: Welsh, Cumbric
- As seen in: Cwmbran, Cwmdu, Cwmwysg
England - ham
Meaning farm or homestead, "ham" is featured in hundreds of place names across England and is derived from the Old English of the Anglo Saxons. Places ended with "ham" are especially concentrated in Norfolk and Suffolk, where the Angles invaded and settled. It’s from these people that the term for the region, East Anglia, is derived as well.
- Meaning: farm, homestead, [settlement]
- Origin: Old English
- As seen in: Nottingham, Durham, Wymondham
England - by
Deriving from the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings, it’s very clear to see where the Vikings invaded and settled when you see where place names ending in "by" show up in Britain. The clusters line up with the area the Vikings ruled, known as the Danelaw, which was founded in the 9th century and lasted around two centuries.
- Meaning: settlement, village
- Origin: Old Norse
- As seen in: Grimsby, Whitby, Derby
England - thorp
Also derived from Old Norse, place names featuring "thorp" or "thorpe" also reflect the boundaries of the Danelaw but are less common than places ending in "by". At its height, the Danelaw covered a huge swathe of England, stretching from Norfolk through to the East Midlands, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and then over to Cumbria in the west.
- Meaning: secondary settlement
- Origin: Old Norse
- As seen in: Scunthorpe, Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe
Scotland - ar
Meaning height in English, "ar" can be found in places such as Ardgay, and fits the pattern of place names reflecting the location’s geography, with places featuring "ar" in the name being found throughout the Scottish Highlands. Scottish and Irish Gaelic are closely related, and so you’ll also find "ar" in Irish place names too, such as in the town of Armagh in Northern Ireland.
- Meaning: high, height
- Origin: Irish, Scots Gaelic
- As seen in: Arbroath, Ardgay, Ardrossan
Scotland - bal
Derived from Scottish Gaelic, place names featuring "bal" are most concentrated around areas which are still highly populous today, including around Glasgow and Dundee. Meaning a farm or homestead, place names featuring "bal" show where many Scots decided to live off the land. It also means mouth (of a river) and this is why, particularly in the Scottish islands, place names featuring "bal" can also be found near the coast.
- Meaning: farm, homestead or mouth, approach
- Origin: Scots Gaelic, Irish
- As seen in: Ballater, Balmore, Balloch
Scotland - loch
Meaning lake or sea inlet, "loch" is a term used even today in both Scots and modern English and can be found in several Scottish place names. Where these places are found paints a pretty good picture of where Scotland’s lochs can be found, largely on the west coast of Scotland. There are several places featuring "loch" around Scotland’s most famous loch, Loch Ness, too.
- Meaning: lake, a sea inlet
- Origin: Cumbric, Scots Gaelic, Irish
- As seen in: Lochinver, Pitlochry, Kinlochleven
The most common place name elements in the UK
We’ve counted how many times common place name elements appear across the UK and compiled a list of some of the most popular elements by country:
The UK’s most common place name elements and meanings:
- Ton: enclosure, estate, homestead. As seen in: Wolverhampton, Clifton, Brighton
- Ley: from leah, a woodland clearing. As seen in: Wolverley, Keighley, Beverley
- Ham: farm, homestead, [settlement]. As seen in: Birmingham, Bishop's Waltham, Saxmundham
- Ford: ford, crossing, road. As seen in: Bradford, Watford, Salford
- Wes: west. As seen in: West Ham, Weston-super-Mare, West Wycombe
- Field: open land, a forest clearing. As seen in: Sheffield, Huddersfield, Wakefield
- Nor: north. As seen in: Norwich, Northampton, North Berwick
- By: settlement, village. As seen in: Tenby, Formby, Coningsby
- Gate: road. As seen in: Harrogate, Margate, Bathgate
- Pen: head (headland or hill), top, far end of, end of. As seen in: Penmaenmawr, Penally, Pentlepoir
Wales’ most common place name elements and meanings:
- Llan: church, churchyard, village with church, parish. As seen in: Llanybydder, Llandaff, Llanberis
- Pen: head (headland or hill), top, far end of, end of. As seen in: Pendine, Penderyn, Penrhos
- Ton: enclosure, estate, homestead. As seen in: Bosherston, Cosmeston, Burton
- Tre: settlement. As seen in: Tredegar, Tresaith, Tregarth
- Cwm: valley. As seen in: Cwmaman, Cwm-yr-Eglwys, Cwmpengraig
- Pont: bridge. As seen in: Pontardawe, Pontcanna, Pontypridd
- Aber: mouth (of a river), confluence, a meeting of waters. As seen in: Aberaeron, Abergavenny, Aberystwyth
- Coed: wood, forest. As seen in: Betws-y-Coed, Pen-y-coed, Cyncoed
- Pant: a hollow. As seen in: Panteg, Pant Eidal, Pantmawr
- Nant: ravine or the stream in it. As seen in: Nantgarw, Nantyglo, Nantgaredig
England’s most common place name elements and meanings:
- Ton: enclosure, estate, homestead. As seen in: Southampton, Paddington, Tiverton
- Ley: from leah, a woodland clearing. As seen in: Crawley, Dudley, Foxley
- Ham: farm, homestead, [settlement]. As seen in: Evesham, Farnham, Gotham
- Ford: ford, crossing, road. As seen in: Guildford, Bideford, Hereford
- Wes: west. As seen in: Westbury, West Bromwich, Westminster
- Field: open land, a forest clearing. As seen in: Lichfield, Chesterfield, Hayfield
- By: settlement, village. As seen in: Somersby, Hornby, West Kirby
- Nor: north. As seen in: Northam, Northwick, North Widcombe
- Gate: road. As seen in: Gateshead, Ramsgate, Wingate
- Street: road (Roman). As seen in: Shimpling Street, Honeystreet, Bocking Churchstreet
Scotland’s most common place name elements and meanings:
- Ton: enclosure, estate, homestead. As seen in: Dumbarton, Livingston, Kirknewton
- Loch: lake, a sea inlet. As seen in: Kirkintilloch, Lochgelly, Inverallochy
- Bal: farm, homestead or mouth, approach. As seen in: Balnain, Balmullo, Balmerino
- Burn: large brook, large stream, small river. As seen in: Backburn, Whitburn, Queenzieburn
- Ar: high, height. As seen in: Armadale, Ardelve, Ardross
- Kirk: church. As seen in: Falkirk, Selkirk, Halkirk
- Wes: west. As seen in: Westhill, Westmuir, Westruther
- Field: open land, a forest clearing. As seen in: Birdfield, Harrietfield, Whistlefield
- More: large, great. As seen in: Aviemore, Newtonmore, Kinlochmore
- Glen: narrow valley, dale. As seen in: Glenrothes, Glencoe, Glenduckie
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We used TownsList.co.uk to source a CSV list of all the UK places.
We sourced the common place name elements from Wikipedia’s list of generic forms in place names in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The data was analysed in Excel to count how many times the common place name elements appear across the UK.
We used Datawrapper and uploaded the data for the chosen top place name elements by meaning to produce the selected country maps of the common place name elements.
The selected maps were chosen based on interesting map patterns and place name meanings.
All information is correct as of March 2022.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.