If you’ve followed county cricket, the team names on the scorecard will give you an inkling of how place names were conceived in England. The distinctive suffix in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Hampshire might just make you wonder ‘hey, what’s with this overload of shire?’
Actually ‘shire’, ‘borough’, ‘ford’, ‘ham’, ‘minster’ and ‘ton’ are all generic zone markers used in the United Kingdom. Each has a distinctive meaning. ‘Shire’ is a larger administrative unit. It’s the rough equivalent of a district in India. ‘Borough’ or ‘Bury’ is literally a fortified enclosure and today it stands for a sub-district in a city. London, for instance, has 32 boroughs. ‘Ford’ (as in Oxford) implies a river crossing. ‘Ham’ (Nottingham, Birmingham) cues hamlet. ‘Minster’ (Westminster) is an area with a large monastery. And ‘Ton’ (Kensington) reflects a township.
Chennai is one of very few cities in the world with its own fascinating set of place names. The suffixes vary markedly from area to area, as the city is primarily a cluster of villages that fused into one organic whole only a few decades ago.
Alandur, Mylapore, Vandalur, Porur, Ambattur and Thiruvanmaiyur use the ‘-oor’ suffix implying that they were self-contained townships of yore. Velachery, Nemilichery and Guduvanchery deploy ‘-chery’ which is a sure-shot evidence for these being tiny hamlets, once upon a time. ‘Puram’ is an agricultural township—though Gopalapuram, Royapuram and Kotturpuram carry very few traces of their past.
‘Kuppam’ reveals a community organised around fishing. Nochikuppam and Ayodhya Kuppam are bearers of this occupational stamp. ‘Pettai’ or ‘-pet’ is a settlement of people with similar characteristics. Sowcarpet (merchants), Chintadiripet (weavers), Vannarapettai (washermen), Kosapet (potters), and Chetpet (Chettys) are in alignment with the definition.
Pakkam, bakkam or vakkam is tricky, though. In ancient Tamil, ‘pakkam’ meant a coastal township. With passage of time, it got corrupted to ‘bakkam’. Meenambakkam, Kelambakkam, Karapakkam, and Madipakkam point to some kind of maritime connection. But there’s another angle to ‘bakkam’. It’s also the Tamil version of the Urdu word ‘bagh’ (meaning: garden). Nungambakkam, Virugambakkam, Kodambakkam and Chepauk belong to this sub-genre.
My suspicion is ‘nagar’ (Sanskrit for ‘town’) came into use post-Independence. Which is why we have Besant Nagar, Ashok Nagar, Anna Nagar, and KK Nagar. The ‘aaru’ in Adyar, ‘karai’ in Neelankarai, ‘eri’ in ‘Otteri, denote ‘river’, ‘coast’ and ‘lake’ respectively. There are plenty of other places to talk about. Will unleash it all at the right place and at the right time.