In Ireland all the counties are expressed as 'County....' followed by the name, e.g. County Kerry, County Galway, County Clare etc. This equally applies to the six counties north of the border, County Down, County Londonderry, County Antrim etc.

This style is not used anywhere else in the United Kingdom, where the counties of England, Scotland and Wales are simply known by their names, without the word 'county' appearing before, or in the American tradition after the name. We simply say Lancashire, Surrey, Norfolk etc.

There is one unique exception to this. That is County Durham. We always speak of County Durham, as if it were Irish. Does anyone know why?

  • According to this link Durham has also been known as Durhamshire. Maybe you should direct your question to the Royal Mail :)
    – Mynamite
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 23:11
  • Are you asking WHY IS COUNTY USED, as opposed to Shire, Department, Etc. Or, are you asking WHY IS COUNTY ALWAYS STUCK ON FRONT whereas in every other state situation on Earth the state is simply referred to as Statename, not Statetype Statename. (For example, you could similarly ask "Why is The Hague always referred to as The Hague rather than just Cityname like most cities?")
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 10:06

3 Answers 3


Having searched and found no definitive answer, here is my best guess.

In the Middle Ages Durham was important politically as it was a buffer state between England and Scotland. From 1075 (after the Norman Invasion) the Bishop of Durham became known as a Prince-Bishop, granted certain autonomous powers such as the right to raise an army, mint his own coins, and levy taxes, on condition he remained loyal to the English (ie Norman-French) king and fulfilled his role of protecting England’s northern frontier.

County comes from the Old French term, conté or cunté and could denote a jurisdiction in mainland Europe, under the sovereignty of a count or a viscount. - ie, it was a word used by the Norman conquerors in England.

Shire on the other hand is an Old English word already given to many parts of England before the Norman Conquest.

Similarly, Ireland was never invaded by the Saxons but was conquered by the Normans. Thus the areas under direct French Norman rule - Ireland and Durham - were known as counties, while the shires of England retained their English shires.

You can find a parallel to this with food words - cows and sheep were the animals tended by the Anglo-Saxon peasants, beef and mutton were the meats eaten by the French nobility.

And the reason county goes before the name instead of after it is because the French speak backwards :)

  • 1
    Well done! It is interesting that when the Welsh counties were given their names, much later by the Tudors, that they adopted the old Saxon word 'shire' - Radnorshire, Caenarvonshire, Flintshire etc. Of course all those have now disappeared in the reorganisation of the 1970s. And the Welsh have no sentimental reason for hanging on to them, since they were English names.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 7:03
  • Notice my comment under the question, I think you are answering QuestionA. If the OP is asking QuestionB, this does not help!
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 10:07
  • @WS2 Thank you! I suppose by the time of the Tudors everyone was speaking English not French. Though strangely some of the Welsh counties have reverted - Clwyd and Dyfed are no longer used, they are now Flintshire, Denbighshire, Carmarthenshire etc. Yet Gwynedd and Powys remain. Something for stack-exchangers to wonder about in 50 years time.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 0:46
  • @Mynamite Yes, I am insufficiently versed in modern Welsh politics to understand why that happened in the 1990s. But I suspect a mixture of political intents (Plaid Cmyru v Tory Central Office?),around the drive for unitary status for smaller units - a key theme of John Major's local-government policy. Interestingly in Dyfed which contained much of 'Little England beyond Wales' two districts have reverted to English (Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthenshire,) but Cardiganshire has changed its name to 'Ceredigion'.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:06

According to Wikipedia, the surprising answer seems to be

The former postal county was known as "County Durham" to distinguish it from the post town of Durham.

It seems that usage has become common.

  • My mother's family came from County Durham :-)
    – user63230
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 22:13
  • But there are plenty of other counties with the same name as the major city (York/shire, Hereford/shire, Leicester/shire etc) - so why County Durham?
    – Mynamite
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 22:52
  • The answer is right there in your question: York is to Yorkshore as Durham is to County Durham.
    – fdb
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 23:07
  • Because there was never a DurhamShire, it was Northumberland before government started messing about with the counties. Before that it was almost a principality - belonging directly to the Bishop of Durham
    – mgb
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 23:36

I have no proof for this but what I have heard is that when County Durham was reformed in the early 1970s after the 1972 Local Government Act. This happened at the same time the UK Government took direct control over Northern Ireland's administration during the Troubles. The cynic in me thinks this was done to try and make more uniformity between mainland Great Britain and Ulster (a bit of PC window dressing), but was swiftly abandoned. Durhamshire would have made more sense.

Otherwise, it is probably just a contraction of County Palatine of Durham (the old name for the fiefdom of the Bishops of Durham).

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