When the Romans first landed in England they came across an island inhabited by numerous tribes that frequently lived independently but occasionally were bound in loose alliances. Many of the people the Romans came across were Celts, though it is almost certain that the Romans came across pre-Celts in England. Many parts of England used different forms of language, as there was no uniformity among the Celts who had come to England in waves over time. Some spoke a Brittonic/Brythonic dialect while others spoke with a Goidelic dialect. The former developed into the Breton/Welsh languages while the latter into the Gaelic language. The Romans needed standardisation and as a result put all their records of English place names in Latin. However, what this tended to do was to obscure the original meaning of that place name. What was convenient for the Romans has not helped historians try to work out original meanings. In some cases the Celtic name has survived as opposed to a Roman one.
London was known as Londinium by the Romans, which translates as ‘the town of Londinos’.
Reculver in Kent was known as Regulbium, which meant ‘headland’.
Dover was known as Dubris. This translates as ‘water’ in Celtic but was a reference to the River Dour rather than the English Channel.
Lincoln was known as ‘Lindon’ though at some point during the Roman occupation the word ‘colonia’ (colony’ was added. The modern spelling of Lincoln is a combination of the two – Lin and Col.
Carlisle was known as Luguvallium, which meant ‘Luguvalo’s Place’. This may have been as a result of the war-god Lugus or a reference to the Celtic leader Luguvalos. While an immediate reaction would be to point to a connection with the latter, this may not be the case.
York’s Celtic name was Eboracum. It is thought that the first leader in the land that later contained the city was Eburos. Later settlers changed the name to Eoforwic (which meant boar farm) and later invaders changed the name to suit their purposes. The Danes called the place Iorvik. Yeork was first used in the C13th.
In Celtic times, Leeds was known as Loidis and translated as ‘district by the river’.
Most towns that ended with -ceter, -chester, or -caster referred to former Roman military towns (Chester and Colchester being the two most obvious). The Old English word ‘ceaster’ almost certainly derived from the Roman ‘castra’, which meant camp. However, this is not true for all towns that end with these letters. Grantchester, for example, has an Anglo-Saxon background.
Some place names have some form of ‘cester’ or ‘chester’ at the end of them but have a meaning in themselves. Manchester, for example, derives from ‘Mamucio’, which means ‘breast-shaped hill’. Gloucester derives from ‘Glevum, that means ‘bright place’. Worcester means ‘chief town of the Wigoran tribe’.
Chester was also known as ‘Civitas Legionum’ that meant ‘City of the Legions’. This was later abbreviated to Legionum that changed in Old English to ‘Legaceaster’. By the C11th this had changed to ‘Ceaster’.
Exeter also had a Celtic origin. It meant ‘town on the Exe’, though the river was originally called the Isca (water). A number of towns with a Celtic origin also have links to a nearby river. Lancaster was named as a result of the nearness of the River Lune (‘health-giving’) and Frocester the River Frome (‘brisk one’). Colchester is built near the River Colne but no one is sure why the river was called the Colne.
Both Salisbury and Lichfield have Celtic origins but with an English suffix.
Salisbury started as Sorviodunum. This has been translated as ‘Sorbio’s Fort’ but no one is sure as to the meaning of the first part of the name. The Saxons removed the second part of the name (‘dunum’) and replaced it with ‘burh’. This led to the spelling changing to ‘Searobyrg’. The Normans changed this to Salesbiri by the C13th.
Lichfield originally meant ‘grey wood’ (Letocetum) that changed to Liccidfeld in Early English. This was a near correct translation of the Celtic as Liccid meant ‘grey wood’ while feld was added to indicate the open land that existed just outside of Lichfield.
Many places in Cornwall – where the Romans had little long-term impact – maintain place names with a clear Celtic origin. Bodmin means ‘house of monks. Penzance means ‘holy headland’ and Cambourne ‘crooked hill’. Those Cornish towns that start with ‘Perran’ commemorate St. Peran. Looe means ‘inlet by the sea’.
Many river names in England also have a Celtic origin. Some such as the Wear, Don, Avon, Axe, Exe, Esk, Usk and Wiske are derived in some part from ‘water’ or ‘stream’. The Thames, Thame and Tame are all derived from the word ‘dark’. The Trent and Tarrant both come from the Celtic to trespass and indicate that both rivers had a reputation for flooding. The rivers Leven, Lymn and Leam all derive from the word ‘elm’ while the Derwent and Darwen derive from ‘oak’. The River Taw means ‘silent one’