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What’s in a name?

What's in a name? : Hilton, a farmstead in southern Norway, is where the family of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, geat grandfather of Paris originally came from - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Back to the farmstead, PETER TRUDGILL reveals the etymology of Paris Hilton’s name but he’s not going to France for the answer.

Travellers crossing from England to France via the Channel Tunnel emerge into French daylight in the vicinity of a place called Fréthun, southwest of Calais. In the Pas-de-Calais and the neighbouring le Nord département, there are many place-names with the same basic ending, including Offretun, Hardenthun, Connincthun, Autun, Landrethun, and Warneton (which is on the France-Belgium border).

Within 10 miles or so of where I’m sitting right now in Norfolk there are places called Easton, Weston, Norton, Sutton, Newton, Oulton, Upton, Melton, Claxton, Dunston, Carleton, Stratton – and very many more. England is full of place-names which end in -ton: Northampton, Southampton, Luton, Taunton, Brighton, Darlington, Preston…

The resemblance between the endings of these French and English names is not a coincidence. Like Fréthun, the English -ton names are due to settlement by Angles and Saxons who migrated out of northern Germany near the beginning of the fifth century. Many of these place-names are well over one and a half thousand years old – though we might suppose that Newton could be a little more recent.

The final element of all these names was originally the West Germanic word tun. The vowel in this word was long ­– it would have sounded rather like ‘toon’. But in Old English place-names, the vowel eventually got shortened, and the form was also later generally re-spelt as -ton to make for greater legibility with cursive handwriting.

In Modern English, the full, unshortened form of tun has become town. But in Old English 1,500 years ago, tun meant ‘enclosure’. Rather soon, however, it acquired the meaning of ‘enclosure round a house’ and then ‘homestead’ – this meaning still survives in modern Scots toun, ‘farmhouse’. From there, the meaning of Old English tun gradually became modified until it came to mean ‘settlement’ or ‘village’.

Our sister languages in the Germanic linguistic family have retained the word to this day, but English is the only one in which the meaning of ‘town’ has developed out of it.

In Modern Dutch, the corresponding word tuin most often means ‘garden’, as does West Frisian tún and North Frisian tün – so there the word has come to refer to a very particular type of enclosure. In German, on the other hand, the related word Zaun actually means ‘fence’ – probably the oldest meaning of the word – while Low German Tuun means ‘hedge’, so here tun applies to the feature which does the enclosing rather than to the enclosure itself.

In Sweden, there are many place-names ending in -tuna, such as Eskilstuna. And Norway also has place-names ending in -tun/-ton: Nordtun provides an exact parallel to English Norton; Optun is equivalent to Upton. Hilton, a farmstead in southern Norway, is where the family of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton – great-grandfather of socialite Paris – originally came from.

These names all go back to the Viking age, but it is likely they originally referred to an individual farm; Scandinavian tun never underwent the change of meaning from ‘homestead’ to ‘village’ which occurred in English.

In Old Norse, tún meant ‘a hedged plot, enclosure, court-yard, homestead, home field, home meadow’. In Modern Norwegian, tun means ‘a yard or farmyard, usually surrounded by a cluster of buildings’, while in Faroese tún denotes a ‘yard, courtyard, cobbled (court)yard between houses’, with the Swedish meaning being very similar to the Faroese. Icelandic tún, on the other hand, signifies ‘field, hayfield’. As a testament to the Nordic heritage of our Northern Isles, in the Scots spoken in Shetland, toon also means ‘a field adjacent to a farmhouse or croft, a home field’.

So this ancient Germanic word, which in its full version has come to mean variously ‘town’, ‘farmyard’, ‘garden’ and ‘fence’, has for a millennium and a half also survived as the second element of place-names, in the form of -tun(a), -ton and -thun, on the western edge of Europe, from Norway across to Norfolk and down to le Nord.


The Romans were famous for their construction of long straight paved roads. English place-names such as Stratton, Stradsett, Stradbroke, Stradishall, and Stratford all go back to Latin strata, ‘highway, paved road’. So do other names like Stretham, Strethall and Stretton. These towns and villages were all originally settlements on or alongside a Roman road.