Word Bites — The Mystery of Soton

Sometimes, place names can often make little to no sense. Take Southampton and Northampton, in the United Kingdom, for example. One might think that they are bordering each other, but no. While Southampton is a city in the county of Hampshire, curiously deriving its name from Southampton itself, Northampton is located in Northamptonshire, somewhere in the East Midlands. Just in case knowledge in UK geography is lacking, these two counties are nowhere near. So what gives?

Northampton may have traced its origins to Old English as “hāmΒ tΕ«n“, quite literally meaning, home town. Well, it somehow turns out people liked calling some of their settlements home town as well, leading to several Hamptons popping up, like the Hampton in Kent, Worcestershire, and Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire. But probably the most significant one was what is now Southampton. And so, to make Hampton stand out from the other Hamptons, they decided to stick the North-prefix to it, thus coining it Northampton. Because English, like other languages, evolve over time, we see the early forms as “Northantone” in the 11th century, “Norhamptone” in the 13th century, before the most familiar “Northampton” from the 17th century.

And this brings us to Southampton, initially called “hamwic“, by the Anglo-Saxons, which evolved into “hamtun“, roughly meaning “the settlement on the bend in the river”, or somewhere along that line. Joining the list of settlements called Hamptons made the need to distinguish then Hamton from the rest, and so the prefix “suth-” or “south-” was added, leading to “Suthamton” being used some time in the Middle Ages, eventually evolving to “Southampton”.

But while we call a person from Northampton a Northamptonian, a person from Southampton is curiously called a Sotonian, and not a Southamptonian. Being that language nerd, this got me curious, and investigating. Did Southampton get called Soton at some point, or did colloquialisms enter use?

The word Sotonian probably was first used in the 1880s

Pouring through their usage, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer revealed that the word “Sotonian” may have entered use in the 1880s, and that “Soton” was used as early as the 1550s. However, it occurred that Soton could be used as a last name, and probably had been so for centuries.

Curiously, all leads pointed to two Southern Daily Echo articles covering the origins of Soton and Sotonian, dated 19th January 2011 and 15th December 2020. They reveal that Soton was used as an abbreviation for Southampton, as Sotonian was for Southamptonian. The later article cited c.1926 as the period in which these abbreviations were introduced, by the then called Southampton Echo. The reason given, was to save space because Southampton and Southamptonian took up too much space in the headlines.

The mystery still stands, however, as this leaves a 40-year-long gap where Sotonian appeared and left unaccounted for, or why Northampton did not do the same abbreviation, maybe to “Noton”. Outside of these sources, information about the etymology of Soton and Sotonian remains sparse. Will we ever know the true origins of these words? Only time, or perhaps the Sotonians, could tell.

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