I was planning a little trip the other day when I noticed that a number of rivers in Britain have common names. The ones I spotted were Avon, Ouse and Esk. Is there a reason for this? Are these names derived from something?

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    Ouse is quite probably related to the PIE *wed- or *ud-, meaning water as an inanimate substance (whence whiskey, the Greek ύδωρ (hydro-), the English water, the German Wasser (water), the Russian вода (water), ведро (bucket), выдра (otter), the Latin onda (wave), the German Undine, etc.). Not sure about the others.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 28, 2011 at 18:52
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    For the specifics, Ward gave an excellent answer. There are other similar anomalies in place names in the British Isles. One of my favourites is Pendle Hill. The word 'pen' means hill. Later, the next incomers changed the hill's name to 'Pendle', meaning 'hill hill'. And then the next incomers, not knowing the etymology (and sadly lacking an internet) called it Pendle Hill or 'hill hill hill', so Pendle Hill really, really, really is a hill, because anything said three times is the truth. Jan 28, 2011 at 20:50
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    But anything said four times is apparently too good to be true, alas: Torpenhow Hill
    – PLL
    Jan 28, 2011 at 21:57
  • Good Lord. It's these tiny gems of knowledge buried in comments that keep me coming back to this site. I wonder what Linguistics.SE will come up with. Languages are freaking fascinating (and that should be in bold, italics, and all-uppercase). @PLL.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 28, 2011 at 22:32
  • @PLL: I hadn't heard that one - but your URL led me to Wikipedia's List of tautological place names which does include 'Pendle Hill' amongst its celebrities - though I knew of that independently of Wikipedia. Jan 29, 2011 at 1:09

4 Answers 4




"Avon" derives from the British language abona, "river", which also survives as a number of other English and Scottish river names, and as modern Welsh afon (pronounced [ˈavɔn]), "river".



The English name for the river derives from its Celtic name Usa, from *udso-, "water," which derives from the Indo-European root *wed-, "wet, water" (and the same root from which we derive water and wet). Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the "Water River" or the "Wet River." Of course, the English who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the wordas is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.



At the same time the river names Axe, Exe, Esk and Usk are all derived from the British word isca meaning "water".

It would seem none of the naming was very original to begin with.

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    There are at least 10 French cities named "Aix" (Aix-en-Provence being the best known), also from the old French for "water". I guess there were springs or baths there. Jan 28, 2011 at 19:26
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    It has always amused me that 'River Avon' translates to 'River River'. Little things please little minds :)
    – chimp
    Jan 28, 2011 at 21:42
  • @chimp: My mother is a geographer, I think I was first amused with that when I was about 5, lol.
    – Orbling
    Jan 28, 2011 at 22:15
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    It doesn't surprise me that there are rivers named River River - having visited Loch Lochy in Scotland and Llyn Llyn in Wales :)
    – HorusKol
    Jan 29, 2011 at 12:12
  • @chimp -- you'd love Torpenhow Hill. "Tor", "pen", and "how" all mean "hill". Sep 11, 2013 at 21:56

Esk or, Exe from isca I suggest is "Celtic" related to "pisces" hence "fish river". Axe is said not to be cognate with Exe.

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    Welcome to EL&U and thanks for your contribution. If you have them, it is helpful if you are able to provide references or other substantiation for your suggestions, so we know that they are not just your personal opinion. Also what does "isca" mean?
    – TrevorD
    Aug 28, 2013 at 15:19
  • British Isca is not related to piscis. The Insular Celtic cognate to piscis was *ēsko-, which with the regular diphthongisations of ē gave Old Irish íasc (gen. éisc) and Proto-British *oesk- > Welsh wysg. Isca goes rather with Old Irish uisce and is from *u(d)skio- > Proto-British *üskjo- > *isko- (since lost in the currently extant British languages, where the ‘other’ word for water is used: Welsh dŵr (Old Welsh dwfyr), Breton dowr, Old Irish _dobur). Jun 23, 2015 at 8:29

I'm originally from Harrogate, North Yorks, so my local river was the Nidd, which means "sparkling".

These days, I live in Perth, Western Australia, where the Swan River flows. Before becoming the Swan River, however, it is known as the Avon River, named after the Avon in England, which of course means River River. Funnily enough though, here it's pronounced the old British way with a short "A"' ie "Avvon", rather than "Ayvon".


The word 'ESK' almost certainly has origins much more ancient than Celtic tradition. I suspect the word derives from ancient biblical texts which references 'ESEK', a spring or well of water. ESEK first appears in Genesis 26 as the name given by Isaac to a well dug by his people. Local herdsmen, jealous of Isaacs growing wealth and influence, contested the wells dug byIsaac as a means of controlling their prosperity. In biblical times, the word 'Esek' literally meant 'contested'.

As the Old Testament narrative spread through northern Europe, words and place names were adopted. Indeed, in the 'ESK' valley of The Borough of Angus, where the rivers South and North Esk flow, sits the village of 'Padanaram', referenced in the very same Chapter of Genesis as the well-spring 'ESEK'.

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    Are you contending that the Celtic Isca is derived from an ancient Hebrew reference? How do you justify that?
    – itsbruce
    Nov 20, 2014 at 10:30

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