Newton-le-Willows is a town in Merseyside. Bolton-le-Sands is a village in Lancashire. Houghton-le-Spring is a town in Tyne and Wear. There are probably other placenames with -le- in the middle.

What is the origin of these articles? All appear to be in the North of England, and Anglo-Norman has had a lot of influence on the English language. But how did a French article end up in the middle of placenames that do not otherwise exhibit any obvious sign of Frenchness? Is its origin Norman French at all?

There is a short reddit thread on the question. The responses there are not terribly informative, nor is this digitalspy thread.

  • If they're recent, it might be a modern faux-French affectation, kind of like calling shops "shoppe".
    – Barmar
    Apr 24, 2017 at 15:00
  • 2
    shoppe is old English, not French, though. So, it's not an affectation. It's right in line with the language.
    – Lambie
    Apr 24, 2017 at 15:44
  • There is also Chester-le-Street. Wikipedia explains: But "Chester" is a common name for towns in England, and in the Middle Ages "Street", for the Roman road, was added. Also, Hetton-le-Hole. Wikipedia says: The name of Hetton-le-Hole derives from two Anglo-Saxon words which were spelt together "Heppedune" or Bramble Hill. The name gave rise to a local landowning family, the le Hepdons [...] The ancient manor [..] was divided into two parts known as Hetton-on-the-Hill and Hetton-in-the-Hole.
    – njuffa
    Apr 24, 2017 at 16:24
  • Without being able to come up with a specific example to Google I'm fairly certain that this construction (also with -les-) is common in French place names
    – Chris H
    Apr 24, 2017 at 16:37
  • Slightly different but worth a mention: Chapel-en-le-Frith
    – Chris H
    Apr 24, 2017 at 16:46

2 Answers 2


The main theory for Houghton-le-Spring is that "le" means "in the"

as evidenced by The Regester Booke — belonginge to the Paryshe of Houghton in the springe from the yere of our lorde god 1563 vnto this present yere 1598 conteininge, Weddinges, Christninges and Burialles

Prior to being "Houghton le Spring" it was Houghton in le Spring


  • 1
    Might "le" be related to the old French preposition "lès"? This preposition is used only in place names nowadays. It means "près de" ("near" in English). It is also sometimes written "lez" or "les" (without accent). See fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A8s . Apr 27, 2017 at 12:23

Apparently, some date back to the 13th century, but others are much later. It will depend on which one you're talking about:

An interesting example of this is the class of names of the pattern of Chester-le-Street in County Durham. There are at least ten examples of this formation in the one county. For a thousand years from the eighth century Chester was simply Cestre, Cestria; in 1406 the Latin addition in Strata appears, 'on the Roman road', Frenchified as Chestre in le Strete in 1411, and simplified to Chester-le-Street from 1607. The other nine are [...] Houghton le Spring (Houghton in le Spryng 1410-1556) [...]

Elsewhere there are earlier examples: in North Yorkshire, Thornton le Street is in via 1208, in strata 1268, Thornton le Moor in mora 1208, Newton le Willows in le Wilughes 1300.

But others are only fifteenth or sixteenth century - Thornton le Beans, in le Beyns, in Fabis 1534, Barton le Willows, in the Willos 1574, Norton le Clay, in the Clay 1536...

English place-names in the sixteenth century: the search for identity

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