Q: In driving around the New York suburbs, I couldn’t help noticing the number of towns with “bury” in their names— Danbury in Connecticut, Westbury on Long Island, and Asbury Park in New Jersey. I suppose the suffix is related to the noun “borough.” Is it also related to the verb “bury”?
A: The combining form “-bury” in Danbury and the noun “Bury” in the English town of Bury St Edmunds are indeed related to “borough.” However, the use of “-bury” and “Bury” in place names isn’t related to the verb “bury.”
The geographical use of “-bury” and “Bury” is derived from burg or burh, Old English for a town or fortified place, while the verb “bury” comes from byrgan, an Old English verb meaning to raise a mound, cover, or inter. John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that interment originally referred to “covering a dead body with earth,” and “the general sense ‘put underground’ did not develop until the 14th century.”
The geographical and interment senses of “bury” come from different roots in prehistoric Germanic and Proto-Indo-European, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. (Though these roots predate written language, linguists have reconstructed them.)
The verb “bury” is derived from the Germanic bergan (to protect) while the geographical terms are derived from the Germanic bergaz (hill or mountain), according to American Heritage. The two Germanic terms ultimately come from different roots with the same spelling in Proto-Indo-European, the etymological ancestor of English and most other European languages.
The source of the verb in Indo-European is bhergh-1 (to hide or protect), American Heritage says, and the source of the geographical terms is bhergh-2 (high). Despite the identical spelling, the dictionary lists them as separate entries with different etymological descendants.
Getting back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Old English geographical terms burh and burg are the ancestors of “berg,” “borough,” “burg,” “bury,” and similar elements in modern compound place names.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the geographical term (with burge meaning city) is from an Old English glossary dated around 820: “to burge and to wealle” (“to the walls of the city”). From Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (1883), by Thomas Wright and Richard Paul Wülcker.
The earliest example in the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the term used in a place name is from a ninth-century manuscript that describes the building of bebban burh (Bamburgh) in the sixth century by Ida, the first known Anglian king. Bebban burh became the royal seat of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria:
“hér ida féng to ríce, ðonon norþanhymbra cyne-cyn onwóc, and ríxode twelf geár. he timbrode bebban burh, seó wæs ǽrost mid hegge betýned, and ðǽr æfter mid weallehere” (“Ida, who founded the royal line of the Northumbrians, reigned for 12 years [547-559]. He built Bamburgh, which was at first enclosed by a hedge, and later by a wall”). From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version A, written around 890.
During the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1450), the terms were spelled in many different ways in place names. Here are some examples from the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary: Tileburh (circa 1250), Oldebyry (1290), Kynnesbiry (1290), Goldesburgh (1303), Wyndilbyry (1334), Burgewelle (1346), Peterburgh (1397), Borowefeld (1406), Neu Salesbery (1450-53), and Newe Salysbury (1457).
The OED notes that the Old English stem burg or burh had a vowel change when used in the dative case—that is, as an indirect object, an object of a preposition, and so on: “This dative, biri, berie, buri, was also at times used for the nominative; whence the modern Bury, -bury, in place-names.”
The earliest example in the OED for a place name with the modern “-bury” spelling is from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”
As for the verb, the first Oxford citation is from an Old English hymn, written sometime before 1000, that describes the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea: “Þone geomormod Josep byrigde” (“whom sorrowful Joseph buried”).
If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2008 on why the verb “bury” usually rhymes with “merry” rather than “hurry,” though you can find both pronunciations in dictionaries.