Londinium

London ought to be the easiest of all place names to explain.  It is amply attested in Roman times as Londinium and subsequently evolved through various spellings, including some beginning with Lund-, like the modern pronunciation.  Yet many linguists perceive London as a big problem.

A theory by Coates (1998) is widely repeated: that Londinium came from *Plowonid-on-jon, meaning ‘unfordable river’ or perhaps ‘overflowing river’.  He set out the recorded ancient forms of London’s name and discussed how they might have evolved phonetically.  His article seems not to be available on the web, so here is its key piece of text:
      Effect of general absence of /p/ in Celtic                 *Lowonid-on-jon
      Loss of */i/ - see below                                            *Lowond-on-jon
      IE */ow/ > late British/Brittonic */o:/                      *Lōond-on-jon
      Presumable absorption of short */o/ into long */o:/ *Lōnd-on-jon
      British third-century raising                                     *Lūnd-on-jon
      Other late British/Brittonic changes                         *Lūndein or Lūndyn
Coates, R (1998) ‘A New Explanation of the Name of London’. Trans. Philological Society 96, 203-229.

Coates baldly asserted that “Evidently the language of the people from whom the Romans took the name was British Celtic”, supplying no evidence whatsoever but simply stating an article of faith.  Nowadays it is thought that Celtic languages crystallised out from a more basic form of PIE on the western seaboard of Europe, with the diagnostic loss of P most likely arising in Iberia.  So, if Celtic speech had reached ancient London it would have come by land from the west, down the Thames, or by sea from the east, up the Thames.  Neither scenario receives any support from other early names, once one has discounted circular logic.

Inside the M25 there appears to be not a single modern or ancient place name that cogently demands a Celtic explanation.  Possibly the best candidate for an exception is Penge, but other names, such as Cray, are “Celtic” only by false logic.  In fact, as Coates himself has documented, very few places in the south-east of England have promising Celtic etymologies.  Most of those collapse upon careful examination.  And Coates (1998) approvingly cited the view of Rivet and Smith (1979) that the Ravenna Cosmography “is notoriously full of problematic readings and gross errors”, which is just plain wrong.  So we must stop Plowing and look elsewhere to explain Londinium.

As a place to live, London makes sense only as what it became after the Romans unified the lowland zone of Britain – an administrative capital, transport hub, and major port.  Looking at London today, with its parks, gardens, river embankments, and transport links, one tends not to realise that its original value for humans was low.  London Clay is useless for agriculture, nearby hills tend to be pebble beds, and most of the river’s edge was flanked by noisome, possibly malarial, marshes.  The river was tidal, too wide to ford below Thorney Island (Tamese, Westminster), and liable to catastrophic floods (as on Canvey Island in 1953).

The Museum of London presents very little evidence for settlement before Roman times.  One must travel to Wimbledon or Charlton to find a convincing hill-fort, and there is no sign of a serious Roman fort of the type built elsewhere to keep an eye on a local population centre.  However, it is highly likely that a few ancient Britons lived in favourable areas, such as on Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, next to the Fleet river, where all traces would have been buried under Roman and mediaeval London.  These hypothetical proto-Londoners would have natural links by land north of the river, but their main economic base must have been trade up and down the Thames.

In everyday speech, most places tend to have banal names.  Residents of the Isle of Wight invariably speak of “the Island”.  Londoners speak of going “into town” or of “the river” much more than they mention central London or the Thames.  So it is a reasonable guess that London’s earliest name somehow described its river-harbour function, as did so many later names along the Thames.  Think of the Fleet river, the Strand, and all the instances of –hythe, including Greenhithe, whose first element probably meant ‘gravel’.

Since the Romans ultimately called their new city Augusta, they can presumably be ruled out as creating Londinium from the Empire’s name stock.  To an English speaker, an obvious parallel is the word land.  Londinium was just the place to get out of a ship with dry feet because a timber wharf had been built at the river’s edge.  To sustain that idea, we must address three questions: when, who, and how.

Archaeologists date the construction of London’s Roman river wharfs to AD 52, nine years after the initial conquest.  Before then ships presumably either grounded on a falling tide, to be unloaded onto carts, or else shifted cargo onto smaller boats to travel upstream.  How much that process happened before the conquest is unknown, as is the ethnic identity of those in charge of the port operations.  At the very least, one can be sure that a significant proportion of merchants, ships’ crews, and Roman auxiliary soldiers came from across the North Sea, especially around the lower Rhine, where they grew up speaking languages ancestral to modern Dutch, Frisian, Flemish, Low German, etc.

Standard books cite PIE *lendh- ‘open land’ as the source of land and lawn in English and of Celtic words for ‘enclosure, church’ such as llan so prolific in Wales.  However, the origin may lie deeper, even in some pre-Indo-European substrate language left over from Doggerland.  Both Old English and Old Frisian had spellings lond, discussed by advanced linguists, e.g. hereLondinium’s ending –inium is fairly common and unremarkable in Latin, but possibly it conveys a sense of plurality and abstractness – ‘landings’.

Others may wish to discuss how an original name similar to *Landen might have evolved in a cosmopolitan port before it got written down as Londinium.  We simply focus on the geography involved: London grew up on a major estuary, a little downstream of the first fordable place, on the north bank where the ground was relatively solid leading into the heart of Britain.  From the point of view of a foreign merchant, London's unsuitability for farmers to live was a positive advantage: it was like an ultra-sheltered version of the classic beach trading place.

One final linguistic point.  Similar names often apply to similar locations far apart.  Thus Tamese at Westminster was much the same as Ταμεια at Perth: both names essentially meant ‘river crossing’.  So it is interesting to note another twin of London, at Gloucester, situated at the first fordable place of the Severn estuary, whose ancient name Glevum resembles Latin glaeba ‘land, soil’.

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Last Edited: 25 July 2016