Why do these place names have prepositions in them?

Look around place names in the United Kingdom and you will find many places with three or more words in their names, often with a preposition somewhere in the middle. Consider cities like Stoke-on-Trent, Southend-on-Sea, Newcastle upon Tyne, Barton-upon-Humber, Barton on Sea, and perhaps more famously, Stratford-upon-Avon. Each of these places has either an “on”, and “upon” in them, followed by a location, usually the ocean of the river that runs through them. So, what’s up with that?

It turns out that this sort of naming is not uniquely English. Across the Channel in France, we have Pacy-sur-Eure, Thiel-sur-Acolin, and Meschers-sur-Gironde. While place names containing multiple words are not uncommon in France, such as Aix-en-Provence, these names still follow a similar pattern to the English place names.

Other places of note include the Netherlands, where we find places like Millingen aan de Rijn, Wijk bij Duurstede, and Snel an Polanen. Across the border, in Germany, we have the more renown Frankfurt (am Main), not to be confused with Frankfurt an der Oder. Other places include towns like Burg bei Magdeburg, Landsberg am Lech, Vishofen an der Donau, and Neufahrn bei Freising. These places all share similar patterns of preposition use, and a reference to another place or geographical location. Observing these patterns, I thought, why not dive a little bit more into why some places follow such patterns, while many others do not.

The answer might be more obvious than you think. There are multiple places that share the same name, and the most well-known example of this is Frankfurt. Frankfurt, which many would associate with the city in the state of Hesse in Germany, also shares its name with a city in Brandenburg, a village in Markt Taschendorf, Bavaria, and a settlement in Wanzleben, Sachsen-Anhalt. While it is possible to distinguish each Frankfurt by the state or municipality the Frankfurt is located in, to distinguish the larger cities, people generally preferred to distinguish them by the river that runs through them. For Frankfurt am Main, that is the Main, and for Frankfurt an der Oder, that is the Oder. But for the smaller Frankfurts, their place name in official addresses go by the larger municipality, such as Wanzleben-Börde for the one in Sachsen-Anhalt, and Markt-Taschendorf for the village in Bavaria. Other settlements could use the major settlement in its proximity to distinguish from other settlements, as with Burg bei Magdeburg.

When we look to England, there is not really a pattern in hyphenation rules of these three-word place names, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle upon Tyne. There is also not really a pattern over the preference for one preposition over another similar one (think “upon” versus “on”). The word “upon” could have sounded more sophisticated than “on” to some people, leading to its use in major towns. But of course, exceptions do exist, like we see in the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle upon Tyne example. Nevertheless, the use of prepositions for this function is shared between the countries and languages that use them.

It is worth to note that such distinguishing has been done in some towns in Norway, known for the infamous villages called Å. To distinguish one Å from the other villages called Å, the preposition i is used followed by the municipality the village is located in. For instance, the Å in Åfjord is known as Å i Åfjord, but it also goes by Årnes and Åfjord. The Å in Moskenes is referred to as Å i Lofoten (Å in Lofoten).

Interestingly, in the Anglophone sphere, these place names are much rarer in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, although the United States does have a couple of places following the pattern. Most notably, there are Hastings-On-Hudson and Croton-On-Hudson in New York. This pattern has also made its way into pop culture and literature, such as Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, the hometown of Doctor Dolittle, and Stow-on-Side in Galar, a region in the eighth generation of the Pokemon games, Sword and Shield. A curiosity that I decided to explore from travelling and randomly exploring Google Maps, I am glad to have learnt something from this exploration, and made a little something to share what I have learnt.


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