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Word roots and routes: village, town, city

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 © PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

The word village is related to villa, which was originally a country dwelling with a farm and/or other surrounding houses, although it later became applied to an individual large, elegant residence with extensive grounds.

Another word related to village is villain, although in this case the connection is less obvious. A villain was originally an unsophisticated country-dweller; the negative connotations of the word developed to include the ideas of base instincts, unprincipled behaviour and, eventually, evil-doing. (Adjective: villainous, abstract noun: villainy.)

The Old English version of town was originally just an area of enclosed land; the word subsequently became applied to a farm and then to a larger group of buildings in such an enclosure. The ancestor of town also appears in innumerable place names with –ton: Brighton, Eton etc.

Some nouns connected with towns take the form of compounds such as town centre and town hall, while others are formed with the Latin-derived adjective urban: urban sprawl, urban myth etc. (From urb– we also have suburb and suburban.) In a similar way, country in compounds such as countryside and country dancing alternates with the Latin-derived adjective rural, e.g. rural areas, rural communities.

The adjective urbane (abstract noun: urbanity) reflects a positive view of urban, as opposed to rural, life – compare villain above! And the same positive association is evident in some of the words related to city, which include citizen, citizenship, civic, civil, civilian and civilization.

Rather confusingly, the City – with a capital C – is only a tiny, though important, part of London’s total metropolitan area, with its extensive suburbs. (Metropolis is from Greek, and means literally ‘mother city’.)

From an Old English word meaning a substantial and/or fortified settlement, we have borough, as in borough council. It is also, in various guises, the source of the second element of many place names such as Scarborough, Edinburgh, Canterbury.

People often assume that the element by– in the word bylaw (or bye-law) means ‘subsidiary’ or ‘secondary’, as in by-product or byway, but in fact it is a Scandinavian word meaning a dwelling place, farm, village etc. It also turns up in numerous place names such as Derby and Whitby, which are frequent in the region of Scandinavian settlement in northern and eastern England. One indication of the predominance of the Scandinavian incomers in some areas is that there are several places called Ingleby, which means ‘the farmstead or village of the English people’!

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Jonathan Marks

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