Nautilus

The Science Hidden In Your Town Name

Unusually heavy winter rains have flooded the town of Chertsey, west of London, twice in the past three years. Only its old center—a raised plot on the bank of the River Thames where Anglo-Saxon monks built an abbey in the seventh century—has remained consistently dry. For most residents, the rising waters, often stinking with sewage, have come as an unwelcome surprise after centuries of a relatively dry, stable climate. They seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, this telling fact about the place they call home: In Old English, Chertsey means “Ceorot’s island.”

The name harkens back to the Early Medieval Period, when Germanic tribes began to settle, and name, many of the places dotting maps of modern Britain. Back then, water was ubiquitous. Sediment deposits dating to this era paint a picture of overtopped riverbanks and runoff rushing down slopes. “Anglo-Saxon England was a water world,” says Richard Jones, a landscape historian at the University of Leicester. He studies how early English settlers used place names, or toponyms, to encode practical information about their watery environment. For instance, Byfleet, a village in southern England, indicates a “tidal creek,” or “estuary”; Buildwas, in the west, describes “land subject to rapid flooding and draining”; and Averham, in the east, a “settlement at the floods.”1

But starting around the 11th century, the British landscape got drier as its climate stabilized and glaciation drew moisture from the biosphere, and many of these toponyms lost their original meaning. Development spread from “island” sanctuaries like Chertsey Abbey into

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