I have become increasingly fascinated with place names. The other day I bought my second copy of Svenskt ortnamnslexikon, “Swedish place-name encyclopedia” (ed. Mats Wahlberg 2003). One often-consulted copy is in my office, and I’ve missed it many times — at home while reading or conversing, and particularly in the car when passing intriguing signposts.
Names are hardly ever nonsensical collections of sounds. We may not know what they mean any more, or if we know we don’t give it much thought. (In my family, we’re named He of the War God, Senior Imperial Concubine from Space, Name of God and New Victory. Our surname means Round Twig.) But all those myriad names that dot the landscape once meant something about those places. And few are unique: they’re part of an onomasticon, a special vocabulary of place names. Most Scandy place names are old, some dating to the Roman era or even farther back.
A good thing about Svenskt ortnamnslexikon is that not only does it cover innumerable individual names: it also has longer articles about their most common building blocks, allowing you to interpret a name at least in part even if it hasn’t got an entry of its own. This is an essential book for anyone trying to make sense of the Swedish landscape.