2021 Spring conference  —  April 10-11

The SNSBI 2021 spring conference was held online. This replaced the conference planned for Bridgend, which will now take place in spring 2022. A pdf version of the program may be downloaded here.


1300 – 1405 Session 1

Welcome from SNSBI president Diana Whaley.

Carole Hough, ‘“The most English county in Scotland”: Berwickshire place-names revisited’

Famously described by James B. Johnston as “the most English county in Scotland” (1940:7), the historical county of Berwickshire was the study area for the REELS project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust from 2016 to 2019. Eighty years after Johnston’s pioneering publication, it is appropriate to revisit the issues in light of more recent work. An overview of languages represented in the REELS database shows a preponderance of place-names from Old English (OE) and its descendants Scots and Scottish Standard English, the northern siblings of Middle English and Modern English. Individual formations represent doublets of common compounds recognised as name-types in England, for which the Scottish evidence adds to the overall picture (OE burh-tūn, OE hōh-tūn, OE mere-tūn), as well as doublets of rarer compounds where the English and Scottish occurrences throw light on each other (OE hrīs-tūn). While there are particularly close parallels with neighboring Northumberland (OE hwīt-ceaster), others occur as far afield as Wales (OE snāw-dūn). All occurrences of OE terms in Berwickshire extend their distribution further north. Of particular interest are rare terms (OE bæc-stān, OE bēmere, OE grǣg), terms unrepresented in English place-names (OE cyrn), and terms with a meaning previously hypothesised but unproven (OE cild). Reference: James B. Johnston, The Place-Names of Berwickshire (Edinburgh, 1940).

The slides are available here.

Ayokunmi O. Ojebode and Idowu Odebode, ‘Titbits on onomastics among the Yoruba Africans’

The study of names among the Yoruba ethnic group that dominates South-western Nigeria has received insufficient attention from critics. This study, therefore, is a modest overview of the Yoruba names within the prism of different contexts. A dissection of the names via the context of culture would reveal their significance to social realities (e.g. Àbíkú concept, Ifá corpus, twining, deities, predestination, orature) and the circumstances that engender them. Similarly, analysis of selected place names in the region would unearth peculiar narratives connected to the history and religion of the natives. The study seeks to affirm that far from being arbitrary, Yoruba naming contexts are complex and dynamic and are entrenched in history, religion, and culture.

The slides are available here.

1415 – 1515 Session 2

Jonathan Masters, ‘The changing marshlands along the River Alt, Lancashire: evidence of minor place-names, c. 1220–1300’

Scholars have long acknowledged the significant economic development of rural communities generated by the agricultural improvement of wetland landscapes such as the Cambridgeshire Fens and Somerset Levels. Despite its small geographical coverage, the wetlands along the River Alt in south-west Lancashire offer an important case study for similar developments in watery environments during the medieval period. Arguably, a substantial proportion of change in the local landscape can be attributed to the introduction of two Cistercian communities from the start of the thirteenth century. Our knowledge and interpretation of these developments can be enhanced using place-name evidence recorded in title deeds to better understand the geographical context and what impact agricultural practices had on wet lowland climates.

Jo Pye, ‘By Tre, Pol and Pen: mapping Cornish place-names in the landscape’

This paper will cover selected aspects of research undertaken for my PhD thesis in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Exeter, investigating Cornish Place-Names in the Landscape. The thesis builds on prior research into Cornish place-names by Dr Oliver Padel together with Historic Environment Record data shared by the Cornwall County Archaeological Unit. The approach uses Geographic Information System mapping to show patterns evident in selected Cornish place-name elements for medieval settlements throughout Cornwall. Over 5100 place-name elements were mapped according to their positions in the landscape in relation to natural features and settlement distributions, elevation, historical background, geology and soils contexts, and characterisation of historic landscape types. The research also covers dates of first attestation of settlement names, Domesday status where relevant, subsequent changes in name forms, and frequency of combinations with other place-name elements. The conference presentation will highlight research questions, headline findings from the research and how they have been underpinned by seventeen case studies of place-name element types. Topographical and habitative name elements were included in the sample studied, and confirm that they were originally assigned according to distinctive criteria reflecting shifting histories of settlement and language across Cornwall.

The slides are available here.

1530 – 1630 Session 3

Jennifer Scherr, ‘More thoughts on surnames in Somerset place-names’

Somerset is one of the southern English counties with a high proportion of repetitive estate names and hence of names with surnames as tenurial qualifiers (e.g. Shepton Beauchamp, Shepton Mallet, Shepton Montague). In November 2013, during SNSBI’s autumn day event (hosted by the University of the West of England and the Family Names in the UK Project) I spoke on the origins of some of these surnames. The majority arise from place-names in Northern France or from Old French or Anglo-Norman French personal names and bynames. About two thirds of the remainder are based on Middle English personal names, bynames and occupational surnames: the rest are manorial surnames of English origin. This paper will record later interaction with the FaNUK project and the Family Names in Britain and Ireland database; consider the best way of treating surname material in a place-name survey; and concentrate on providing new information about a variety of names.

Graham Collis, ‘The Gislingham conundrum’

Gislingham in Suffolk at first sight is a “bog standard” name of Anglo-Saxon origin - an interpretation made in all the standard sources - Watts, Ekwall, and Briggs/Kilpatrick. However, when you actually visit the village, the village sign is resplendent with a Viking longship and the village newsletter describes a Viking origin for the name from a man called Gisli. It is difficult to find the origin of this story other than an article written in the Suffolk Review in 1970 entitled ‘A Brief History of Gislingham’ by Ronald Elliott, a local historian. Unfortunately the article is poorly referenced. He links the name origin with Gisleham - a village in Lothingland south of Lowestoft. He relates how a Viking called Gisla settled in Gisleham in 880AD and that 30 years later his son Gisli moved on to Gislingham and gave the village its name. Within a few miles there are other names of interest - namely Finningham, Westhorpe, Thwaite, and Wickham Skeith - all relatively close to the Roman Road that went from Colchester to Caistor St Edmund (Margary 3). The chronology is consistent with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

1645 – 1745 Session 4

Gavin Smith, ‘Is toponymy a social science?’

English toponymy commonly makes assumptions, which rarely are rigorously tested. It has few explicit explanatory ‘models’. One would expect a social science to have models – that is, testable simplified causal explanations of observed phenomena. A brief exposition is made of standard social science concepts and models, including: ‘central-place’, ‘estate’, ‘node’, ‘elite’, ‘social group’, ‘social network’, ‘gatekeeper’, ‘fashion’, ‘meme’, ‘agrarian rent gradient’, ‘hegemony’, ‘language substrate’, ‘dialect’ and ‘lingua franca’. Whilst seemingly familiar, their application to English toponymy has to date been limited. Arguably, the interpretation of all ‘place-name elements’ or memes would benefit from such application. The author, a geographer, has re-examined the Surrey and national distributions of three early place-name memes prominent in his home county: -gē (as in the name Surrey), -ingas (as in Dorking) and -stede (as in Oxted). Their three very different distributions point to different source dates, different regional origins, and to only a brief era of coinage for each. Potential specific historical gatekeepers are identified, as are potentially parallel memes, including -waru and windels-. New models can produce unexpected results.

Keith Briggs, book launch and report ‘An index to personal names in English place-names’

The book project announced at the SNSBI meeting in Norwich in 2015 is now complete, and should have been published by the English Place-Name Society by the time of this conference. The work consists of a merged index of all personal-name lists in EPNS volumes, combined with a number of other sources. The index contains 12598 headforms, and 16041 place-name forms in total. 8057 of the headforms are not in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) database, showing that a large proportion of OE personal names have no independent attestation.

The slides are available here. The book webpage is here.

Kay Muhr and Liam Ó hAisibéil, book launch and report ‘Family Names of Ireland’

The slides are available here.

The book webpage is here.

2000: social

Sunday 0930 – 1030: AGM

SNSBI members only.

1045 – 1145 Session 5: project reports

Eila Williamson and Simon Taylor, ‘Place-names of the coalfield communities’ (project report)

Based at the University of Glasgow, this project is part of the Heritage Lottery-funded Coalfield Communities Landscape Partnership. It is undertaking a place-name survey of five historical parishes (plus selected names in three other parishes) in East Ayrshire.

The slides are available here.

Emily Lethbridge, ‘Nafnið.is and what we can now do with the Icelandic place-name archive’

In this presentation, I will introduce the newly-launched database and user interface which is online at nafnið.is (also at for those who don‘t have ð immediately to hand on their keyboard). I will give an overview of what materials from the place-name archive at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Research are now accessible via this website, and I will demonstrate how to navigate the site. Finally, I will make a few observations about how researchers might use the database to access information about Icelandic toponyms and develop research on them.

Susan Kilby, ‘Learning the landscape through language: place-names and childhood education’ (project report)

Based at the University of Nottingham, this project followed on from the recent INS research that culminated in three new EPNS Shropshire volumes. Using that new research, the project's main objective was the creation of a set of teaching resources designed for primary school teachers and educators, and aimed specifically at Key Stage 2 pupils (age 7-11).

The slides are available here.

1200 – 1300 Session 6

Rob Briggs, ‘Benson and hedging my bets’

Benson (formerly Bensington) in Oxfordshire is a place that makes several appearances in Old English-period written records, most arising from its status as an important centre of secular power in a frontier zone between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. The collected early spellings of its name are rather more diverse than might be expected, and for this reason the etymological analyses found in most scholarly reference works on English place-names are not reflective of the full corpus of attestations. This paper will take a fresh look at the early name-forms off the back of introducing another into the equation, one that occurs in a text of late seventh-century origin. The discussion of this evidence will highlight the importance of paying attention to the textual transmission of sources and the latest historical scholarship for political context alongside the more standard concerns of place-name studies. This “new” evidence may be suggestive, but is not conclusive. Nevertheless, the written record reveals Benson to have been not only a place of repeated political significance, but also a place-name with a more complex etymological history than previously recognised.

Keith Briggs, ‘The nicknames of some medieval felons’

Nicknames describing a characteristic activity of the bearer were common in the Middle Ages.  There are very many examples of the “Shakespeare” type such as Brekepot, Clynkebelle, Fillecup, and Lickedish, and other important categories are formed with the article le followed by an adjective or agent noun.   Such names not only provide an insight into the thought-processes of the medieval mind, but contain valuable evidence of the Middle English colloquial vocabulary.   This talk will explore possible examples of a very small category: nicknames of felons, criminals, and outlaws, using evidence from fourteenth-century Suffolk documents.

The slides are available here.