What’s in a (place)name?

Section from Cassini Map

We spent a fascinating morning last Wednesday. The tiny village of Espinas organises a walk every Wednesday in July and August. The guided walks follow local footpaths and take in sights of historical or other interest. Last week’s was a bit different.

History man 

Nadette and René Curato had invited an expert on local place names, M. Paul Burgan, to lead the walk. You couldn’t really call it a walk: it was more of a stroll between strategic points around the village. However, that didn’t matter. The point was for M. Burgan to explain the origins of the many place names that pepper the commune.

Local history is a subject very close to my heart – even closer than Gevrey Chambertin – so I was riveted. M. Burgan is a small, wiry, energetic man with a gnome-like beard, sporting a beret for the occasion. Although he has the lilting regional accent, he was very easy to understand.

I’m very glad I didn’t miss this walk, although of course I forgot to take a pen so anything I write here will be from my less than reliable memory. Apologies in advance for any errors. Here are a few of the things I learned from M. Burgan.

The mists of time

Most of the place names in this area originated between the 10th and the 17th centuries. Some originated earlier as Latin or Gallic names. The local people converted them into Occitan, the principal language of southern France at that time. Later, some of them had French spelling and pronunciation imposed on top as well. All of them were the names that local people gave to hamlets, areas or even single fields or plots of land within the commune.

Many of the names designated a topographical feature, such as a hillock – ‘pech/puech’ – or a hollow or valley – ‘combe’.  Sometimes they reflected what the local people grew – or were unable to grow – in a particular field or area. It was interesting to note that a piece of land called ‘Paradis’, where there was soil rich enough for a vegetable garden, is next to one called ‘Séguela’, which was too poor to grow anything but rye. There are many places in the region called ‘Séguela/Ségala’, showing that much of it was poor land.

The name Espinas, which I always thought indicated its situation at the top of a hill, actually shows that a lot of blackthorn once grew there. The locals had to grub it up before they could cultivate the soil.

A place sometimes took the name of the person who lived there. For example, ‘Combe Jean’ indicates a hollow where someone, or possibly several people, called Jean lived – although that’s the French rendering of his/their name. It was common, if unimaginative, for parents to give all their sons their father’s name. They distinguished between them by calling them ‘Jean le petit’ or ‘Jean le gros’. Equally, the people often took the name of a place as their surname, so it’s not always easy to tell how a name originated.

Saints alive

Normally, a saint’s name designates a place where there is or was a church or chapel. For example, the original village of Espinas was located around the church of Sainte-Cirice, which no longer exists, but the place has kept the name of the church.

M. Burgan explained that Saint-Martin de Tours was a very successful saint who had many churches and chapels named after him throughout France: ‘He had an effective press attaché.’ In fact, the word chapel (chapelle in French) is thought to derive from ‘capella’, the medieval Latin form of ‘cappa’. This was a short cloak – cape – worn by Saint-Martin, preserved as a relic by the kings of France and taken to the battlefield when they went to war. The reliquary’s more permanent resting place became known as a chapel. As always, there are dissenting views. I’m only repeating what M. Burgan said.    

There was much, much more. M. Burgan delivered his pearls of wisdom with an engaging sense of humour. He included anecdotes about the region as well as insights into how people thought and lived. I will look at the countryside here with fresh eyes now.

We asked M. Burgan what he thought about the origin of our lieu-dit, La Lune. He said, ‘It almost certainly has nothing to do with the moon.’ But he was unable to explain its roots. This would require further research. I have always thought that it was probably a corruption of a much older word. I’ll have to start doing some digging.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved



  1. Vanessa, this is fascinating. I’m always intrigued by place names and local history. We have a lot of ‘eix’ endings round here so that’s something I must investigate. But what a shame M. Burgan couldn’t offer any hints about La Lune. However, I’m sure you’ll unearth it’s history soon.


    • I must say, I find it a fascinating subject. We have a lot of -ac endings here, which is common in SW France, as it is in Brittany. M. Burgan gave an explanation but I switched off at that point so will have to do some research. I will be very interested to find out the origins of La Lune. I should really have done it before.


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