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How Places Get Their Names

If you're struggling with naming cities, towns, or other places in your novel or short story, here are some ideas based on how most real places get their names.

By
Ryan Paulsen, Writing for
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Places tend to get their names from their geography or history.

If you’ve ever tried writing fiction or dabbled in world-building in video or table-top games like Dungeons and Dragons, you may have noticed that one of the more challenging elements is something you may not expect—coming up with place names.

When you think about it, as exotic and evocative as the names some writers can come up with (J.R.R. Tolkien leaps to mind), here in the real world, place names can be a bit on the boring side.

If you’re reading/listening in North America, you might immediately think of how many cities and towns are simply named directly for places from the “Old World”: places like London, Ontario; Paris, Missouri; Brussels, Illinois; Amsterdam, Pennsylvania; Berlin, Connecticut; and Dublin, Texas. Sometimes the founders of places like this put a “new” at the beginning, as in New Hampshire, but sometimes it seems like they were just homesick and wanted a familiar name for their new surroundings.

Beyond just taking an old name and applying it to a new place, most names for cities, towns, and regions can be sorted into two main categories: geography and history. When you get right down to it, places are usually named for the things around them, or someone famous who contributed to their founding, or maybe even both.

For example, the city where I went to university was called Peterborough. It was named for a man named Peter, and the suffix “borough” comes from the same word that lends itself to the endings of places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Edinburgh, Scotland; it’s derived from an Old English word meaning “hill” or “hill fort.” So Peterborough is “the city on the hill that Peter helped build.” 

Pittsburgh is named for William Pitt and was the site of Fort Pitt.

As for Edinburgh, the first bit is much older and has its own complicated and contested history, but if you’ve ever been, or ever get a chance to visit Edinburgh, you’ll immediately recognize that the “burgh” part is from the hill. The castle is on a huge hill.

In the UK, a lot of places have the ending “-cester” or “-chester” (Manchester may be the most prominent one, but you'll find Dorchester, Gloucester and the famous Worcester as well). That ending comes from a Latin word meaning “fort” or “castle.” So someone built a castle in a nice place, it became more and more well-known as people settled around it, and then eventually that became the name of the city or town or even region itself.

By the way, it might seem like this is a specifically UK thing, but remember how homesickness led to the naming of US and Canadian cities and towns? There are actually 27 towns across the United States named Chester!

Speaking of the UK, and now that we’ve brought up “Worcestershire” (pronounced WOO-stuh-sure), you may be thinking about some other frankly baffling place names from that side of The Pond. Worcestershire definitely has the most memes playing off how different its spelling is from its pronunciation, but it’s far from the most extreme example of that quintessentially British phenomenon.

The top contenders for that particular crown have to go to the likes of “Cholmondeley” (pronounced “CHUM-lee”), “Woolfardisworthy” (“WOOL-zuh-ree”) and “Featherstonhaugh” (“FAN-shaw”).

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the sheer complexity of names like these, but a closer look reveals that even these stick to the general rule we spoke about earlier. Take Featherstonhaugh, for instance: it’s a compound made up of three Old English words for “feather,” “stone,” and “corner.” The exact particulars of these references may be lost to history, but as bewildering as the name seems at first, it’s still just using concrete items as a reference to help people find a place.

In North America, when early settlers started giving places English names, they also tended to borrow heavily from local Indigenous languages. In New York state, for instance, there are 62 counties. Of those, 36 are named after people, either Americans or royalty from wherever the early settlers came from. But another 19 counties take their names from various Native American languages that were used to describe the areas that were being settled or the tribes that lived there. For example, Oneida county is named after the Oneida people. The remaining seven counties were mostly named after some sort of geographic feature like a river.

Speaking of New York, while in an American context the city is very old (it had its name changed to New York from New Amsterdam way back in 1664!), to anyone who isn’t a recent arrival to the continent (and by that I mean people who only got here in the last few hundred years), New York is a veritable spring chicken. 

Obviously, there have been settlements around where the modern city of New York is now for thousands of years, but York, the city that gave it its name, was founded by Roman Legionnaires in the year 71 AD.

And guess what! The name comes from an ancient Celtic compound that most scholars think meant something along the lines of “the place of the yew trees.” 

So if you’re ever struggling to flesh out your game, story, or other imaginary world with some truly authentic place names, remember to look around at what’s nearby, and think about who helped bring people there in the first place. It’s how people have been naming places for thousands of years.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Ryan Paulsen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ryan Paulsen is an avid word nerd and co-host of the etymology podcast Lexitecture.