I was reading this question What is the reciprocal verb of "to thank"?, and naturally the (non existent, but surely quite useful) word unthank came to mind. I then recalled there are several places in England and Scotland called Unthank. Does anyone know why they are called this rather strange name? Presumably it isn't due to the ingratitude of the inhabitants.

4 Answers 4


The Internet Surname Database gives this explanation:

According to the Oxford Directory of English Place Names, the place and hence the surname derives from a pre 7th century Olde English word "unpance" which means literally "without leave," and described an area of land which was occupied unlawfully.

Rahul (in the comments here) makes a great observation about the Surname Database's facts:

I think the site mistransliterated unþanc, where þ is pronounced th. There are far more relevant hits for unþanc, including Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, than there are for unpance (no hits for unþance though).

(I think Rahul is almost certainly correct about this.)

  • That database looks like a great resource — although I wish they’d give references, so that one could be more sure of their reliability.
    – PLL
    Feb 5, 2011 at 0:55
  • @PLL: Agreed, although this particular entry does mention this Oxford Directory.
    – Kosmonaut
    Feb 5, 2011 at 1:03
  • Yep — in some cases they’re good and conscientious, but it’s a bit uneven. But it’s marvellous fun for browsing…
    – PLL
    Feb 5, 2011 at 1:04
  • 1
    Well this just reminds me of the lovely English folk group The Unthanks.
    – Orbling
    Feb 5, 2011 at 1:57
  • 4
    I think the site mistransliterated unþanc, where þ is pronounced th. There are far more relevant hits for unþanc, including Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, than there are for unpance (no hits for unþance though).
    – user1635
    Feb 5, 2011 at 20:05

In answer to R Wilson's contribution, Gaelic was never commonly spoken in Fife, and even then not until the late medieval and early-modern period were similarly sounding place names corrupted from the earlier native tongue in keeping with fashion of the time and erroneous, mythical belief.

One example of such name changing from P to Q Celtic is Kinneil at the eastern end of the Antonine wall; recorded by the Welsh monk Nennius as Penguaul and by Bede as Peanfahel. Another highly significant word highlighting the degree of misunderstanding and misinterpretation is the name of the first Pictish king according to the Irish Kinglist, "Cruithne", which translates to Pictish as "Pritani". It's also interesting that the name Patrick appears not uncommonly as "Cothric", begging the question as to Patrick's origin, as Cothric is a rarity prior to the emergence of the saint.

The greater influence on the Lowland tongue comes from Saxon, and the older place-names are Brythonic, although it is fairly clear there has been a period in time where both Brythonic and Gaelic names appear to have been almost inter-changeable.

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It appears to me that both answers above have merit. While I think Janus is right about the order of the words in the Gaelic version, of the 4 Unthank's in Scotland none of them have particularly strong Anglo Saxon connections, but while there were Angles in Southern Scotland, Unthank in Moray and Unthank in Angus were highly unlikely to have ever had Angles living there, and any name origin is more likely to be Gaelic, Pictish or Norse.


This name, Unthank, while not common, appears in Scotland as a placename. Sometimes "Winthank". In Scotish sources the name is given as a corruption of two Scottish gaidhlig words - Uaine - meaning a lamb and, - fanc - meaning a pen for animals. Such pens or fanks are still in use for sorting sheep or lambs. Normally of dry-stone walling around 5 feet in height, they vary in area from a few square yards to hundreds of square yards. The combined gaidhlig of ' Uaine fanc' gives 'lamb pen'. Such 'lamb pens' were relatively common within the boundaries of medieival market towns as, the lambs were seperated from the flock, fattened and, moved to such pens prior to slaughter. Such an instance can be found in Cupar, Fife, where Winthank House still stands.It is public record that a large area belonging to, and abutting the house boundary, was an area reserved for animal stock into the mid 16th century. In medieival times, a baroness referred to as baroness Unthank, lived at that place.

  • 1
    While this sounds plausible, there’s better documented support for Unthank from Anglo-Saxon unþanc, meaning a squatter farm (as noted in the other answer). Do you have any references or additional evidence that would lend support to this alternate interpretation? Mar 27, 2014 at 18:03
  • There are several things wrong with this. Firstly, a lamb is uan (genitive uain), not uaine, which means ‘green’. Secondly, uan fanc does not give ‘lamb pen’, but ‘pen lamb’; i.e., not ‘the pen of/for a lamb’ but ‘the lamb of a pen’, which makes no sense. A lamb pen would be fanc uan. Mar 27, 2014 at 18:37
  • The Dictionary of the Scot's Tongue is fairly clear that there isn't a gaelic root. It gives the same Middle English root unðonk as other sources for the place at Freuchie dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/unthank
    – Spagirl
    Mar 20, 2017 at 16:37

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