What's in a name? Well, quite a lot when it comes to understanding the history and the reach of the Vikings. 

Generally speaking, the presence of Norse names is an excellent indicator of the extent of Viking influence in any given area. As such, it has often functioned as an excellent starting point for historical investigations.

Simply put, if you find a town or village whose name appears to bear signs of a particular language or culture, there is a good chance that the people in question settled there at some point. 

So, how can you interpret the origin and meaning of place names, and how can you spot ones of Viking origin in your local area? 

Let's take a look.

Exploring etymology 

The simplest example of place names that originate in another country would be the many hundreds of towns and cities across the US that share their name with places in the United Kingdom. 

Any map will show you plenty of examples across the United States, from Chelsea and Brentwood to Norwich and Woodstock. 

New York, of course, was named after the city of York, though indirectly. King Charles II gave the land to his brother, James, the Duke of York. 

Most typically, places are named either after the presiding chieftain or ruler or some local feature, whether it's the landscape, vegetation, or resident animals. 

The name Manchester, founded by the Romans in 79 CE, was first recorded as Mamucium. 

This is thought to be the Latinization of the original Brittonic name and contains the combination of two words: mamm – a breast-like hill – and ceaster, meaning a fortification or old town, with the Latin suffix "-ium." 

Manchester is simply the modern equivalent.

The transformation of Eoforwic to Jorvik and finally to York showcases the profound Viking imprint on English cities and their place names. Photo: David Ionut / Shutterstock

The names of England

When it comes to the Vikings, let us begin with "old" York. 

The earliest Celtic name of the city is recorded in Roman sources as Eboracum. 

In around 400 CE, Angles took over the area and adapted the name to Eoforwic, meaning either "wild-boar town" or "rich in wild boar." 

Four and a half centuries later, the Great Heathen Army captured the city and renamed it Jorvik, which means "wild-boar bay" in Old Norse

This name was far easier for the Norsemen to pronounce.

There is also Coppergate, a well-known street in the heart of York that houses the famous Jorvik Viking Centre. "Copper" derives from koppari, meaning cup-maker, and "gate" comes from gata, meaning street. Thus, Coppergate translates to "the street of the cup-makers."

Anyone driving away from the city of York won't take long to identify a few more genuine Viking place names in the surrounding area. 

Seaside town Scarborough is believed to have been known as "Scarðabork" in Old Norse, meaning "stronghold of Skarthi," in reference to Thorgils Skarthi, a Viking leader.

Two other Yorkshire towns, Wetherby and Whitby, mean "wether's farmstead" and "white farmstead," respectively. For those wondering, a "wether" is a castrated male sheep.

The suffix "–by" is particularly common in both the UK and Scandinavia and can mean farmstead, farm, town, or village. 

In England, you can also look out for Selby, Grimsby, Derby, and Hemsby, among many others. 

You will also find many more examples of Viking place names in England, from Scunthorpe and Bishopthorp to Lowestoft and Scraptoft.

-thorpe: þorp, meaning village
-toft: tóft, meaning farm
-keld: kelda, meaning spring
-ness: nes, meaning cape
-by or -bie: by, meaning farm or settlement 
-kirk: kirkja, meaning church

Beyond Albion 

In Scotland, too, the mark of the Vikings is evident. 

Stornoway is an anglicized adaptation of two Old Norse words, stjarna and vágr, both meaning "bay."

Wick comes from the Old Norse word vik (small creek/inlet/bay), the same word that lends its name to the moniker of the Scandinavian raiders themselves. 

The island of Egilsay, in the Orkney Islands, surely couldn't sound more Norse and simply means "Egil's Island."

-ayre: eyri, meaning a gravelly or sandy river, lake, or sea bank
-ay: ey, meaning island
-dale: dal, meaning valley
-firth: fjörð, meaning fjord
-holm: hólm, meaning small island
-wick: vík, meaning bay
 

There is a Wicklow in Ireland, not to mention Waterford, which comes from vethr-fjörth, which we can loosely translate as "ram-creek."

Carlingford is thought to be a variant of kerlingafjörth, or "the creek/fjord of old hags." 

The name of Leixlip is also thought to be of Norse origin, deriving from lax-hleypa, or "salmon leap."

Snaefell, the highest point on the Isle of Man, comes from the words snæ, meaning snow, and fell, meaning mountain. 

A name so Viking that it shares a cousin in Iceland, the beautiful Snæfellsjökull, meaning "snow-mountain-glacier." 

Finally, although Wales was never settled by the Norse in large numbers, there are still some isolated examples there. 

These include Stack Rock, derived from stakk, meaning "pillar-shaped rock," and Ormes Head, from orms-höfuth, meaning "snake's head."

Normandy's name is derived from the settlement of the territory by Danish and Norwegian Vikings in the 9th century, and it was confirmed by a treaty in the 10th century between Charles III and Earl Rollo of Møre. Photo: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

Continental Europe

Though the greatest number of Viking place names outside of Scandinavia are undoubtedly found in the British Isles, France also has its fair share. 

These are predominantly found in Normandy, which was first settled by Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Examples include Bouquetot – Bøketoft in Old Norse, roughly meaning "thick-wooded farm" – Caudebec, or Kaldebekk, and Espelont, from Ospelund.

-tot: tóft, meaning farm
-londe, -lont: lund, meaning clearing
-bec: bekk, meaning brook or creek
-beuf: bæ, meaning town or farm
-torp: þorp, meaning village
-nez: nes, meaning cape

Finally, several towns and cities appear to bear Old Norse names in Russia. These are believed to derive from the spread of the Rus people throughout the country. 

Examples include Einarr in Inarevo, Kynríkr in Kondrikovo, and Hákon in Jakunovo and Jakunicha. 

Impressively, the name Bjorn appears in Bernovo, Bernjatino, Bemniški, Bernavo, and Bernoviči. 

It's worth noting that the very name for Russia is thought to have derived from the Rus, though there is still some debate on this.

Let the search begin

In Scandinavia, Iceland, in particular, is chock-full of place names authentically Viking. 

This is mainly because its language hasn't changed dramatically over the last thousand years. 

There are slightly fewer genuine Old Norse names in the central Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. 

This is because the form of place names has evolved with the languages and no longer carries the same Old Norse suffixes, though, of course, many can still be found.

Either way, the next time you're driving through lands formerly inhabited or plundered by the Vikings, why not try to spot an authentic place name or two?

If you're interested in delving deeper into the history hidden in place names, check out this informative article by BBC Bitesize here.

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