I began to discover different words for “hill” as I travelled through England and Scotland. In Canada, places are often named after people or after towns in the old country. In Britain, place-names often reflect the landscape. If, in the days of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, one’s village was built near a hill, it was likely called simply “The Village of the Hill,” or perhaps “Houghton.” There are many hills in Britain, so it is necessary to differentiate between them, like the Scottish differentiate between different kinds of streams. Some of these hill-ish words naturally blend into J.R.R. Tolkien’s vocabulary of Middle-earth.
Old English torr “hill, specifically the top of a hill, or rocky peak”; Gaelic torr “lofty hill, mound”; Old Welsh twrr “heap, pile”
For some reason, tor rings with a particularly Tolkien note to me. It is debated whether the English borrowed it from the Celts, or the other way round.1 Tor also has a second meaning. While it translates into Modern English as “hill,” torr also comes from the Latin word turris “tower.” Thus Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, which I understand has great Arthurian significance, can refer to both the tower and the hill.
Gaelic bràigh “hill, upland”2; Scottish English brae “steep slope, or the side of a hill”
Brae is a common Scottish English word for “hill,” often found in poetry and literature. Bree is another form of brae, which comes from the Old British word briga. In The Lord of the Rings, the town of Bree is situated on and around Bree Hill.
Old English hoh “hill shaped like the spur of a heel”3; Old Norse haug “mound, cairn”
C.S. Lewis uses this word in The Chronicles of Narnia to refer to the hill which was raised over the Stone Table. The Narnians call this hill “Aslan’s How.” Hoo is a variation of how, as in the burial sight of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Sut means “south,” ton means “town.”
Old Celtic benno “peak, horn, conical point”
Ben is the most common word for “mountain” in Scotland. In Canada, we often name mountains by placing “mount” as a prefix, for example Mount Robson or Mount Edith Cavell. The Scottish use ben: Ben Nevis, Ben Alder, Ben Lomond, etc. Now the idea of J.R.R. Tolkien naming mountains Amon Hen, Amon Amarth, and Amon Sûl, doesn’t sound so odd.
I have only ever dipped my toe into place-name etymology, but every time I do I find it very exciting. The idea that the name of a place reflects its geography and the people who lived there (some names like Ibberton, a village in Dorset, mean “place of Eadbeorht’s people”) is profound and provides more light, and yet more mystery, to the hills and valleys of Britain.
Registration for the Winter/Spring semester of The Wordstapas will open on December 1st. Dates are available upon request. Readings TBD.
Much of the information regarding the definitions was gleaned from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, by Eilert Ekwall and Etymonline.com. Specific entries can be found below.
3 “In [place-names] the meaning varies from ‘steep ridge’ to ‘slight rise’.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, by Eilert Ekwall, “Hoh”