All of a sudden the scales fell from my eyes: OxFORD and CamBRIDGE. Is there a serious reference for this - not so surprising, but linguistically amusing - fact that these two prominent university cities (by the way both of them doubled across the ocean) share their names by ways to cross a river?

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    I guess the fact is mostly due to the fact that people tended to name their settlements after landmarks which are important to them. A fort and a bridge, a port, are easily recognisable as such, but there are more of them which sometimes have changed a lot during the time, but still originate from such (like -ham from 'home'). And those exist in many languages. – skymningen Oct 15 '13 at 14:17
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    When the settlement near the bridge on the river Cam finally grew to ten families, the Planning Committee had a meeting to determine a name for the place... – GEdgar Oct 15 '13 at 14:33
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    They are not the only places in the UK which have ford and bridge as part of their name. That's not surprising, for the reason that skymninge gives. – Barrie England Oct 15 '13 at 14:39
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    Bosphorus University is less prominent than those two, but 3-way boat races have been held among the three universities. (Oxford is related to Bosphorus: “The name comes from Greek Bosporos (Βόσπορος),[2] which the ancient Greeks analysed as bous βοῦς 'ox' + poros πόρος 'means of passing a river, ford, ferry', thus meaning 'ox-ford' ...”) – James Waldby - jwpat7 Oct 15 '13 at 14:41
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is to do with the origin of place names rather than the English language as such. – David Jul 15 '17 at 10:15

A rough count using the List of towns in England gives:

  • ~30 town names with bridge; and
  • ~120 with ford.


The earliest clear evidence of occupation in the area of Cambridge is the remains of a 3,500-year-old farmstead. There is also evidence of widespread Roman settlement, including numerous farmsteads and a village. It would also seem that the bridge was originally built by the Romans.

After the Romans had left, Saxons took over the land ... and renamed it Grantabrycge – 'Bridge over the river Granta'. Over time the name evolved to become Cambridge, while the river Granta became known as the river Cam to match the name of the city. 2


The City of Oxford is, however, quite young compared with Cambridge, having been settled only in Saxon times (400 - 1066). It was initially known as Oxenaforda, meaning "Ford of the Oxen", and began with the foundation of an oxen crossing in the early 900 AD period. 3


It's noteworthy that the older, Roman, place had a bridge, whereas the more recent, Saxon, place only had a ford. The Romans were great builders of towns, bridges, fortresses, etc., but after they had left much of this fell into disrepair, the country became divided into various kingdoms, and much more fragmented. By the time Oxford was settled, fords were more common than bridges. 4, 5, 6

It is also not surprising that many older places were built next to, and took their names from, rivers and their crossings, because rivers were important routes for travel and trade prior to the coming of the railways.

So, no, it's not particularly surprising that two prominent British university cities have reference to river crossings in their names.

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  • Your answer perfectly meets my question. I always had the impression that Cambridge were a little bit more "noble" than Oxford - and you give an "explanation" which has to do with more or less advanced ways to cross a river. – Hans-Peter Stricker Oct 15 '13 at 16:25

Both words can be found in etymological dictionaries. Have you looked at what etymonline says? Another serious reference is A Dictionary of British Place-Names by Anthony David Mills of University of London. He is quite dedicated to demystifying the toponyms of the UK. In the mentioned book, he records:


Grontabricc c. 745, Cantebrigie 1086 (DB). ‘Bridge on the River Granta’. Celtic river-name (see GRANTCHESTER) + OE brycg. The change from Grant- to Cam- is due to Norman influence. Cambridgeshire (OE scīr ‘district’) is first referred to in the 11th cent. The later river-name Cam is a ‘back-formation’ from the place-name.

Cambrigga 1200-10. ‘Bridge over the River Cam’. Celtic river-name (see CAM) + OE brycg.


Oxnaforda 10th cent., Oxeneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford used by oxen’. OE oxa (genitive plural oxna) + ford. Oxfordshire (OE scīr ‘district’) is first referred to in the 11th cent.

[Cambs. — Cambridgeshire; Glos. — Glaucestershire; Oxon. — Oxfordshire]

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    Of course, that doesn't make me a cow. No, it does not. – Talia Ford Oct 15 '13 at 15:01
  • Without your comment I would not have noticed. But surely it does not. – Hans-Peter Stricker Oct 15 '13 at 15:07

The British Isles have the most unsettled and unpredictable weather in the world, the forecasts can completely change within one hour. But extreme cold or heat, and storms, are rare, hurricanes unknown. This is perfectly explained by the situation : rather tiny islands, on the west side of an large ocean, with a latitude in the range of 50° North. You may have a sunny morning and strong showers in the afternoon, or the reverse.

They are therefore notoriously rainy, and there are a number of rivers, wetlands too, many of strategic importance (see the battle of the Boyle, for instance) ; then, of the fords and bridges where you can cross them and have to control.

And the coast is very indented in a number of places, then a number of town's names ending by "wich" (for the Scandinavian "-vik" = bay), or "-on-sea" too. No point is further than some 100 miles from the sea.

Nothing is similar in continental Europe, America, etc., where everything is big.

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    I think the whole weather thing is blown out of proportion. There are surely places in the world where the weather is more unsettled and unpredictable. I think it all goes back to the time when the Romans moved to the British Isles from their nice and sunny Apennine Peninsula and got a rude awakening. – Talia Ford Oct 15 '13 at 16:17
  • @Talia Ford Please give examples of places where the weather is even more unpredictable. I have been all over the world and don't know one. Besides, Italy is far from being always "nice and sunny" ; try it in winter : you can have inches of snow, even in Sicilia. But the weather is by far more predictable. India, with the monsoons is much more extreme, but you predict them for the next year with very little margin of error. – ex-user2728 Oct 15 '13 at 16:52
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    Have you been to Vietnam, Bolivia or visited the mountainous areas of New Zealand? Have you been to Ontario in the Great Lakes area? Have you been to upstate NY? But what I was thinking of was New England: "Lake Winnipesaukee is located at the southern foothills of the White Mountains in New England--an area that has the most unpredictable weather in the world. New England is the only part of the world where three major storm tracks intersect. Air masses from the North Pole and the Gulf of Mexico regularly collide here." – Talia Ford Oct 15 '13 at 17:08

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