We aren’t usually surprised if the spelling of a place name diverges from how we pronounce the name today. This often happens because of major sound changes long ago. But I recently came across a spelling that shortened radically less than 200 years ago. The name of the southern English seaside town Brighton was still spelled as Brighthelmstone in the first part of the 19th century.
Presumably that change simply caught up with an earlier change in pronunciation.
The Victoria County History of Sussex says the town was called Bristelmestune in the 11th century (when first recorded in the Domesday Book) and Brighthelmeston in the 14th-17the centuries. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol7/pp244-263 According to the Wikipedia page on the town:
- The name may derive from Beorthelm (an Old English personal name, held by, for example, 4 bishops in the 10th century) and tūn (‘homestead’). Or it may drive from Old English words for stony valley.
- Brighton was originally an informal name, first seen in 1660.
When did the spelling change?
To get a sense for when the spelling change occurred, I searched the British Newspaper Archive. The middle column shows the number of hits for the county of Sussex (which contains Brighton). The right-hand column shows the number of hits nationally.
The earliest uses of Brighton I found in the archive were:
- a list of subscribers in the Sussex Advertiser in 1746, including the name ‘Israel Payne, Brighton‘
- a notice of a coach service for Brighton in the Sussex Advertiser in 1793.
The above comparison is very crude. Many of the hits for a national search are for other places called Brighton. So, here is a more detailed comparison by decade, and only for articles tagged as being in the county of Sussex. A quick look at some hits for Brighton suggests that they are all about the Sussex seaside town, not about other places.
The table shows that the use of Brighthelmstone was declining before the middle of the 19th century and the use of Brighton was increasing. Even at the start of the century, Brighton seems to have already been much more common. (Presumably, the rapid increase for both names from 1800 to 1839 comes from a large increase in the number of newspapers in the archive.)
There is still a handful of hits in the 1950s, but only in articles talking about the history of the Brighton area.