Guide to Welsh origins of place names in Britain

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Introduction

Place names are made up of elements – the words people used to describe a place or their response to their environment.

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun (Bryn, Talwrn or Dinas), but most place names comprise more than one element with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The generic can be qualified by:

  • an adjective (Bryn-coch in Powys, SH7602);
  • an element defining the location in relation to a river (Brynaman);
  • an archaeological site (Bryn-celli-ddu);
  • a building (Bryneglwys in Denbighshire, SJ1447);
  • a person (Brynsiencyn in Isle of Anglesey, SH4867); or
  • vegetation (Bryncelyn).Qualifying elements may, occasionally, precede the generic element (Gwynfryn in Wrexham, SJ2552). It is quite common for the definite article y to precede a place-name (Y Bala, Y Waun, Y Trallwng).

    Generic elements can be:

  • topographic, referring to features of the landscape; or
  • habitative names, describing the settlement in which people lived (tref, pentref and bod); or qualified by:
    • personal names (Tremadog, Pentremeurig, Bodorgan);
    • elements relating to size (Trefechan, Pentre-bach, Bodfach);
    • elements relating to location (Tre’r-ddôl, Pentre-bont, Bodffordd); or
    • elements relating to adjacent building or feature (Trecastell, Pentre’r-felin, Bodysgallen).Ecclesiastical elements can loosely be described as habitative names, since many are combined with:

      • personal names, usually of saints (Llandudno, Betws Garmon, Capel Curig), or with

      • elements that specify a location (Llan-faes, Betws-y-coed, Capel-y-ffin).

      There are many pitfalls for the unwary, attempting to understand place names and indulging in the indiscriminate, uninformed and naïve interpretation of elements on the basis of the place names as they appear today. For example:

  • Swansea has nothing to do with swan or sea;
  • Hope is not connected with hope;
  • Caerdydd has no connection with dydd;
  • Ystradau is not dau;
  • Llai is not llai;
  • Tre-saith is neither tre nor saith.

It is true that very many place names bestowed during the last two centuries do actually mean what they appear to mean. However, it is equally true that many place names are not what they seem, because of the passage of time, oral transmission, changes in spelling conventions and the natural urge to transform the obscure into the recognisable. Only the historical forms as they appear in the earliest documents can reveal a place name’s ultimate derivation and meaning. All who hope to interpret place names must heed that warning, and verify the origin and meaning in authoritative reference books on place names.

This is a glossary of the elements, generic and qualifying, most frequently found in the place names of Wales. Elements found only in the names of mountains, lakes, rivers, islands and bays are not included.

Each element is cited in:

  • its radical form;
  • any common dialectal variant;
  • its feminine form (in the case of an adjective);
  • its plural (if found in place names); and
  • its gender.

    The meaning given is that which occurs in place names. Some elements occur only in place names and others are prefixes, suffixes or particles that modify or qualify place names. Two place names (with grid references) are cited in most cases as examples for each element. […]

 

(from The Ordnance Survey)

See also

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