The History of County Names

The History of County Names

The history of county names in England spans centuries, with many having been altered and influenced by the many armies that have invaded Britain. Often, they would do so as a means of asserting their authority, which has provided historians with a strong insight into the history of various regions.

In general, any county with a name ending in ‘-land’, such as Northumberland, would originally have referred to a ‘tract of land’ that was significant to the county. On the other hand, counties that end in ‘-set’, such as Dorset, have an ending derived from the Old English word ‘saete’ that means sellers or inhabitants. Counties ending with ‘shire’ have an ending that derives from the Old English word ‘scir’, which means ‘administrative division’. An example would be Berkshire, which means ‘administrative region centred near a forested hill’. The name appears to have originated from a combination of Berroc (forest) and ‘barro’, which means top or summit.

Other county name origins include:

  • Cheshire means ‘administrative region centred on Chester’
  • Cornwall means ‘Welsh in Kernow’. The ‘wall’ in Cornwall came from the Old English ‘wealas’, which meant foreigner. Those who lived in Cornwall called themselves Cornovii ( meaning promontory people). The Saxons called the area ‘Cornwealas’ Welsh in Kernow).
  • Cumberland means ‘land of the Cymry (of the Celtic people)’.
  • Derbyshire mean ‘administrative region centred on Derby’
  • Devon means ‘land of the Dumnonii’. The Saxons called this tribe the ‘Deofnas’.
  • Dorset means ‘dwellers near Dorn (Dorchester)’.
  • Durham means ‘hill island’ and is also shared by the county town. Originally Dunholm (Scandinavian for hill island) the Normans changed it to Durelme.
  • Essex means ‘land of the East Saxons’.
  • Hampshire means ‘administrative region centred on Southampton’. An earlier form for Southampton was Hampton. The ‘south’ was added later to differentiate it from Northampton.
  • Kent means ‘land of the Cantii’ (a tribe well known to the Romans).
  • Lancashire means ‘administrative region centred on Lancaster’.
  • Lincolnshire means ‘administrative region centred on Lincoln’.
  • Middlesex means ‘land of the middle Saxons’.
  • Norfolk means ‘the northern people of East Anglia’.
  • Northumberland means ‘territory of the people living north of the River Humber’.
  • Oxfordshire means ‘administrative region centred on Oxford’.
  • Shropshire means ‘administrative region centred on Shrewsbury’. An early form of Shrewsbury was called ‘Scrobbesbyrig’, pronounced ‘Shrobbesburi’.
  • Somerset means ‘dwellers near Somerton’.
  • Suffolk means ‘the southern people of East Anglia’.
  • Surrey means ‘southern district’ (of Middlesex) and comes from Suther-ge. Those who lived here were called ‘Suthrige’.
  • Sussex means ‘land of the southern Saxons’
  • Westmoreland meant ‘territory of the people of the western moor’. In the modern spelling there is no indication of people within the title, but in the 10th Century spelling of ‘Westmoringaland’ there is as the word means ‘land of the Westmorelings’. However, government reorganisation has meant the disappearance of Westmoreland as a county.
  • Worcestershire means ‘administrative region centred on Worcester’.
  • Yorkshire means ‘administrative region centred on York’.

See also: Scotland and Place Names

MLA Citation/Reference

"The History of County Names". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.