Toponymical list of counties of the United Kingdom

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Toponymical list of counties of the United Kingdom is a list of the origins of the names of counties of the United Kingdom. For England and Wales it includes ancient and contemporary counties.

Background[edit]

Throughout the histories of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom a variety of languages have been used to name places. These languages were often used in parallel with each other. As a result it is often difficult to assess the genuine etymology of a placename, hence some of the entries below are assigned more than one meaning, depending on which language was used to originally give the place its name. One of the most common words used in county names in the United Kingdom is the suffix shire. This is a West Saxon word meaning division.

England[edit]

County name Abbreviation Established Language of origin Earliest form Derivation
Avon AV 1974 Brythonic n/a Named after the River Avon. Avon is a Brythonic word meaning river.
Bedfordshire BE Ancient Old English Beadafordscir[1] Shire of Bedford. Bedford itself derives from Bieda's ford
Berkshire BK Ancient Brythonic + Old English Bearrucscir[1] Shire of Berrock Wood.[2] Berrock possibly from Brythonic "Hilly place".
Buckinghamshire BU Ancient Old English Buccingahamscir[1] Shire of Buckingham. Buckingham itself means Home of Bucca's people.
Cambridgeshire CA Ancient Old English Grantabrycgscir[1] Shire of Cambridge. Cambridge was previously known as Grantbridge (OE Grantanbrycg), meaning Bridge on the River Granta. There is a reference in Gildas to Caer Grawnt indicating an earlier Brythonic origin. The name of the city became Cambridge due to the Norman influence within the city in the 12th century. The name of the river Cam within Cambridge is a backwards derivation.
Cheshire CH Ancient Old English Legeceasterscir, later Ceasterscir[1] Shire of Chester. Chester derives from the OE ceaster meaning an old Roman town or city. This itself stems from the Latin word castra, meaning 'camp' (or 'fort'). The city's former name was Legacæstir (circa 8th century) meaning 'City of the legions'.
Cleveland CV 1974 English n/a Named after the Cleveland area of North Yorkshire, which encompasses the hills and coast of the Whitby area. This historic area was partially included in the new county created in 1974, which also included the urban areas of Teesside. Cleveland is derived from Old English and literally means 'Cliff land'.
Cornwall CO Ancient Brythonic + Old English Westwealas [1] The late Roman name for Cornwall was Cornubia, from the name of the tribe which lived there, the Cornovii, meaning 'people of the peninsula', either from Latin cornu or from Brythonic cern, both meaning 'horn'. The suffix wall is derived from OE wealas meaning 'foreigners', as was also applied to the Celtic people of Wales. In the 6th/7th century AD, the Anglo-Saxons referred to Cornwall as 'Westwealas' to differentiate it from the more northerly land that eventually became Wales. Cornwall is thus a blend of Cornubia + Wealas.
Cumberland CD Ancient Brythonic + Old English Cumbraland[1] 'Cumber' is derived from Cymry, the word that the Brythonic inhabitants of the region used to identify themselves (similar to the Welsh name for Wales, Cymru). Thus Cumberland means 'Land of the Cumbrians'.
Cumbria CU 1974 Latin n/a 'Cumbria' is derived from Cymry, the word that the Brythonic inhabitants of the region used to identify themselves (similar to the Welsh name for Wales, Cymru). Cumbria is a Latinised version of this word, which was chosen in 1974 for the name of the new county.
Derbyshire DE Ancient Old Norse + Old English Deorbyscir[1] Shire of Derby. Derby itself derives from the ON meaning 'Animal settlement'.
Devon DV Ancient Brythonic Defnascir[1] Originally 'Defnas'. The word shire was added and has subsequently been lost. Defnas is derived from the Celtic tribal name Dumnonii, which is of unknown origin. The Welsh name for Devon is Dyfnaint and the Cornish name is Dewnans.
Dorset DO Ancient Old English Dorsæt[1] Literally 'People of Dorchester' (cf. Somerset). Dorchester (originally Dornwaraceaster) is an Old English name probably derived from the Roman name Durnovaria, with the addition of the suffix 'ceaster' (denoting an old Roman town). Durnovaria is in turn derived from a lost Brythonic name meaning fist (possibly place with fist-sized pebbles).
County Durham DU Ancient Old English Named after Durham. Durham is derived from the OE Dunholm meaning 'Hill island'.
Essex EX Ancient Old English East Seaxe[1] Literally 'East Saxons'. The county was the former petty Kingdom of the East Saxons.
Gloucestershire GE Ancient Old English Gleawcesterscir[1] Shire of Gloucester. Gloucester is derived from the Old English name Gleawcester', meaning approximately 'Roman town called Glevum'. Glevum is in turn derived from a Brythonic name meaning bright place.
Greater London GL 1965 English n/a Greater metropolitan area of London.
Greater Manchester GM 1974 English n/a Greater metropolitan area of Manchester. Manchester itself is OE version of the Roman name Mancunium. The first part of the name in turn derives from Mamm, a Brythonic word meaning 'breast-like hill'.
Hampshire HA Ancient Old English Hamtunscir[1] Shire of Southampton; the county has occasionally been called the 'County of Southampton'. Southampton was known in Old English as Hamwic or Hamtun[1] 'home farm'. 'South' was added later to distinguish Southampton from Northampton, but the county name was not similarly treated.
Herefordshire HE Ancient Old English Herefordscir[1] Shire of Hereford. Hereford is OE meaning 'ford suitable for the passage of an army'. Originally known as Magonsæte (Magonset) meaning "people of Magnis", a former Roman town near the modern Kentchester.
Hertfordshire HT Ancient Old English Heortfordscir[1] Shire of Hertford. Hertford is OE meaning 'ford frequented by deer'.
Humberside HB 1974 English n/a Area around the River Humber. Humber is a pre-Celtic word of unknown origin.
Huntingdonshire HU Ancient Old English Huntadunscir[1] Shire of Huntingdon. Huntingdon is OE meaning 'Hunters' hill'.
Isle of Wight IW 1974 English + Brythonic Wiht[1] Ancienthe OE Wiht may mean 'place of division'. Alternatively, it may be derived from the Brythonic "eight-sided"; cf. Welsh wyth ('eight'). The Roman name was Vectis.
Kent KE Ancient Brythonic
or earlier
Cent or Centlond[1] (Land of the) Cantii or Cantiaci, a Celtic tribal name possibly meaning white, bright.
Lancashire LA Ancient Old English Shire of Lancaster. Lancaster itself derived from the name of the River Lune (Lune is a Brythonic word meaning 'pure'), and the OE suffix 'ceaster', denoting a Roman town.
Leicestershire LE Ancient Old English Lægreceastrescir[1] Shire of Leicester. Leicester itself derives from Ligore, a Celtic tribal name of unknown origin, with the OE suffix 'ceaster', denoting a Roman town.
Lincolnshire LN Ancient Old English Lincolnescir[1] Shire of Lincoln. Lincoln is derived from the Roman name Lindum, which in turn derives from the Brythonic Lindon ('The pool').
Merseyside ME 1974 English n/a Area around the River Mersey. Mersey is an Old English word meaning 'boundary river'.
Middlesex MX Ancient Old English Middelseaxe[1] Literally 'Middle Saxons'.
Norfolk NO Ancient Old English Norþfolc[1] 'Northern people'
Northamptonshire NH Ancient Old English Norðhamtunescir[1] Shire of Northampton. Northampton was originally 'Hamtun', and the county Hamtunescir; the North was added later to distinguish them from Hampshire and Southampton. Hamtun means 'home farm' in OE.
Northumberland ND Ancient Old English Norðhymbraland.[1]
Older Norþanhymbrarice for the Kingdom of Northumbria.[1]
Ancienterritory of those living north of the River Humber. Humber is a pre-Celtic word of unknown origin.
Nottinghamshire NT Ancient Old English Snotingahamscir[1] Shire of Nottingham. Nottingham itself derived from OE name meaning 'home of Snot's people'.
Oxfordshire OX Ancient Old English Oxnafordscir[1] Shire of Oxford. Oxford means derives from the OE name 'ford used by Oxen'.
Rutland RU Ancient Old English Roteland 'Rota's territory'.
Shropshire SH Ancient Old English Scrobbesbyrigscir[1] Shire of Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury is derived from the OE name 'Scrobbesbyrig' meaning 'scrubland fort'
Somerset SO Ancient Old English Sumorsæt[1] 'People of Somerton'. Somerton is OE for 'farm used in the summer'. Alternatively, Somerset may be derived from 'people of the summer land', with Somerton derived from thereafter.
Staffordshire ST Ancient Old English Stæffordscir[1] Shire of Stafford. Stafford is OE meaning 'ford by a landing place'.
Suffolk SK Ancient Old English Suþfolc[1] 'Southern people'
Surrey SU Ancient Old English Suþrige[1] 'Southern district', referring to its position south of the River Thames
Sussex SX Ancient Old English Suþ Seaxe[1] Literally 'South Saxons'. The county was the former petty Kingdom of the South Saxons.
Tyne and Wear TW 1974 English n/a Area between the River Tyne and River Wear. Tyne is an alternative Brythonic word for 'river' and Wear is a Brythonic word meaning 'water'.
Warwickshire WA Ancient Old English Wæringscir[1] Shire of Warwick. Warwick is OE for 'Dwellings by the weir'
West Midlands WM 1974 English n/a Area in the west of the English Midlands, centred on Birmingham.
Westmorland WE Ancient Old English Westmoringaland[1] Literally 'land west of the moors'.
Wiltshire WI Ancient Old English Wiltunscir[1] Shire of Wilton. Wilton is OE for 'willow farm' An older OE name for the people of Wiltshire was Wilsæt[1] (cf. Dorset, Somerset).
Worcestershire WO Ancient Old English Wigreceastrescir and variants[1] Shire of Worcester. Worcester itself is derived from an OE name meaning 'Roman town of the Weogora'. Weogora is a Brythonic name meaning 'from the winding river'.
Yorkshire YO Ancient Middle English Eoferwicscir[1] Shire of York. York is directly derived from the ON Jorvik ('horse bay'). However, Jorvik was the Norse interpretation of the OE Eoforwic ('boar town'), which itself was an interpretation of the Roman name for York, Eboracum. This is in turn derived from a Brythonic name, Eboracon probably meaning place of yew trees.


Northern Ireland[edit]

County name Language of origin Meaning
County Antrim Irish One house
County Armagh Irish Macha's height
County Londonderry Irish (excluding London) Derry from the Irish Doire, meaning oak grove and London from the Plantation of Ulster by the livery companies of the City of London.
County Down Irish County of Downpatrick: Patrick's fort (formerly Dún Lethglaise or Fort by the stream)
County Fermanagh Irish Men of Manach (a tribal name)
County Tyrone Irish Territory of Eoghan (a personal name)


Scotland[edit]

County name Language of origin Meaning
Aberdeenshire Pictish Shire of Aberdeen: Gaelic scholars believe the name came from the prefix Aber- and da-aevi (variation;Da-abhuin, Da-awin) - which means "the mouth of two rivers".
Angus Gaelic Oengus (8th century king of the Picts)
Argyll Gaelic Earra-Ghaidheal - Coastland of the Gaels
Ayrshire Brythonic Shire of Ayr: Old Welsh Aeron[3] - The (River) Ayr.
Banffshire Gaelic Shire of Banff: Possibly "piglet", though likely from Banba - a name for Ireland.
Berwickshire Old English Shire of Berwick: Possibly meaning Barley farm. wick appears to be from a Norse word, vik, meaning bay, but also berewick, a term for farm or settlement dependent on a main settlement.
Buteshire Gaelic Likely from bót - fire
Caithness Old Norse and non-diagnostic Celtic Cat headland, from the tribal name of those who inhabited the area. The Gaelic name for Caithness is Gallaibh, meaning "among the Strangers" i.e. the Norse who extensively settled the area.
Clackmannanshire Brythonic and Gaelic Shire of Clackmannan: "The stone of Manau", a district of the Brythonic people of the Forth area.
Cromartyshire Gaelic Shire of Cromarty: Crombaigh - crooked bay
Dumfriesshire Brythonic or Gaelic Shire of Dumfries: Uncertain - perhaps Fort of the Frisians (Frisian is of uncertain origin but is thought to mean curly, as in curly hair) or Dun-phris (fort of the thicket), or Druim Phris (ridge of the thicket).
Dunbartonshire Gaelic (Formerly spelled 'Dumbartonshire') Shire of Dumbarton: Dùn Breatainn (fort of the Britons).
East Lothian Possibly Brythonic with English ("East") Prob. named from a Gododdin chief, (whom mediæval tradition named Leudonus) by way of Old English Loðene[1]
Fife Gaelic from Celtic Meaning unclear
Inverness-shire Gaelic Shire of Inverness: Mouth of the River Nis. Nis is Gaelic, but the original (ancient) meaning of the river name is elusive. It is unrelated to the common suffix ~ness, found all over Scotland.
Kinross-shire Gaelic Shire of Kinross: Cinn Rois - head of the wood (or possibly promontory)
Kirkcudbrightshire Gaelic Stewartry of Kirkcudbright: Cill Chuithbeirt - Church of Saint Cuthbert; Kirk is either from Norse or Old/Middle English, but the word order is Celtic
Lanarkshire Brythonic Shire of Lanark: (Place in the) glade
Midlothian Brythonic with English (Mid) Prob. named from a Gododdin chief, (whom mediæval tradition named Leudonus) by way of Old English Loðene[1]
Morayshire Non-diagnostic Celtic Moray: Sea settlement
Nairnshire Non-diagnostic Celtic Shire of Nairn: Penetrating (river)
Orkney Old Norse and non-diagnostic Celtic Islands of the Orkos (Orkos is suggested to have come from a Brythonic tribal name meaning boar)
Peeblesshire Brythonic Shire of Peebles: Uncertain - possibly pebyll, "pavillions".
Perthshire Probably Pictish Shire of Perth: (Place by a) thicket
Renfrewshire Goidelic/Brythonic Shire of Renfrew: Rinn Friù - point of the current
Ross-shire Gaelic Rois - either "forest" or "headland".
Roxburghshire Old English Shire of Roxburgh: Hroc's fortress
Selkirkshire Old English Shire of Selkirk: Church by a hall
Shetland Old Norse and non-diagnostic Celtic Origin disputed, but may be an Anglicisation of the Old Norse Hjältland (in the Scots Language a "z" is pronounced as a "y" in modern English), or suggested to refer to a personal name (Zet's land). Sealtainn in Gaelic. The old Gaelic name for the islands was Innse Cat, "islands of the Cats": the same people that Caithness is named after.
Stirlingshire Non-diagnostic Celtic Shire of Stirling: Sruighlea in Gaelic. Origin uncertain. Folk Etymology has it as "dwelling place of Melyn".
Sutherland Old Norse Southern territory. The Gaelic name for the region today is Cataibh ("among the Cats"), which refers to the same tribe that Caithness takes its name from, and was originally the name for both Caithness and Sutherland together.
West Lothian Brythonic with English (West) Prob. named from a Gododdin chief, (whom mediæval tradition named Leudonus) by way of Old English Loðene[1]
Wigtownshire Norse and/or Middle English Shire of Wigtown, from vik meaning a bay. In Gaelic, it is Baile na h-Ùige, "town on the bay".


Wales[edit]

County name Language of origin Meaning
Anglesey Old Norse Ongull's Island
Brecknockshire Welsh Brycheiniog + shire : Brychan's territory
Caernarfonshire Welsh Shire of Caernarfon: Fort opposite Fôn (Môn is the Welsh name for Anglesey, fon is its lenited form, used here after a preposition)
Cardiganshire Welsh Ceredigion+shire (Cardigan town is a back-formation) : Ceredig's territory
Carmarthenshire Welsh Shire of Carmarthen: Fort at Maridunum (the Roman place name Maridunum means fort by the sea)
Clwyd Welsh from the River Clwyd (the river name means hurdle)
Denbighshire Welsh Shire of Denbigh: Little fortress
Dyfed Welsh (District of the) Demetae (Demetae is of unknown origin but describes the pre-Roman settlers of the area)
Flintshire Old English Shire of Flint: (Place of) hard rock
Glamorgan Welsh Morgan's land (Welsh Gwlad Morgan)
Gwent Welsh From Venta (Silurum), perhaps originally meaning trading place, the name of the Roman administrative centre later known as Caerwent.
Gwynedd Welsh According to folklore, after Cunedda. The Roman name for this district was Venedotia, seemingly cognate with Gwynedd, thus preceding Cunedda. More likely therefore to be "the place of white-topped mountains".
Merionethshire Welsh Meirionnydd+shire : (Place of) Meirion
Monmouthshire Old English Shire of Monmouth: Mouth of the River Monnow (Monnow is a Brythonic word meaning fast flowing)
Montgomeryshire Norman Shire of Roger de Montgomery
Pembrokeshire Welsh Shire of Pembroke: Land at the end
Powys Compound of Latin and Welsh Provincial place
Radnorshire Old English Shire of Radnor: Red bank


References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  2. ^ Asser's Life of King Alfred
  3. ^ Taliesin: Rheged Arise
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Placenames by A.D. Mills and Adrian Room (1991) Oxford University Press
  • Pàrlamaid na h-Alba: Ainmean-àite le buidheachas do dh' Iain Mac an Tailleir
  • The Celtic Place-names of Scotland by W.J. Watson (Birlin 2004) ISBN 1-84158-323-5

See also[edit]