Obviously some houses bear their names from characteristic features one is supposed to grasp presently.

I have just run into this one: "Barrow Elm House".

I do know what a barrow is and what an elm is. What I do not understand here is the logical or semantic link between the two.

As a barrow can also be an "ancient burial mound" (Webster International Dictionary), does "Barrow Elm" mean the house sits on such a mound covered or ornamented with elms? Or am I missing something more elementary?

  • 1
    In my opinion, strictly speaking, this question is off-topic because it's about etymology, and as our Help Center states, "This is not the right site for questions about: Etymology, evolution of the English language, or historical English - see english.stackexchange.com instead." Sep 10, 2014 at 10:17
  • There may be a meaning, or there may not be. Some people choose a name simply because it rings pleasing to the ear. If you don't know the story already, read up on Corinthian leather.
    – J.R.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 12:15
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    Thank you for you correction. However, I still think this question fits english.stackexchange.com better than here, ELL, which is supposed to be a place for learners. And don't get me wrong. I'm the one who upvoted your question, mainly in the merit of seeing that you seemed to sincerely have a problem to understand what Barrow Elm House means, and try to answer that. But now I feel a little uneasy seeing how you graded our users in their answers. Sep 10, 2014 at 13:09
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about the choice of a name for a house, which has nothing to do with learning "normal" English. Sep 10, 2014 at 14:23
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    I don't think the question's about etymology, exactly - I interpreted it as effectively the same as "what does the phrase 'Barrow Elm House' mean, and how could it make sense?", and answered with an etymological explanation because I felt that was the best way of answering that question. I can see the argument for moving it to ELU, but I don't think it's an unreasonable question for an English learner to ask (place names are often confusing).
    – ZsigE
    Sep 10, 2014 at 15:11

5 Answers 5


The elm tree has a symbolic connection with death and the Underworld. See this information from the Woodland Trust:

Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins.

Given that symbolism, I think it's likely that elms have long been associated with burial mounds ("barrows"), and that the house is (or used to be) located near a barrow with elms nearby.

(Extra notes: a Google search indicates that this placename is not at all unusual in the UK. Also, a glance at an Ordnance Survey map for the UK countryside shows a lot of barrows - they're marked as "tumulus" - so it's not a stretch to say that a lot of houses have been near these at some point.)

  • It all makes sense and I shall retain your explanation as a valid and thorough one.
    – Brice C.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 10:06
  • tumulus is the singular, tumuli is the plural
    – QuentinUK
    Mar 12, 2017 at 15:34

I don't know where that house is, but Wikipedia tells us there is a Barrow Elm near Hatherop:

Barrow Elm, about 0.75 miles (1.21 km) southeast of the village, is a prehistoric tumulus.

A house placed at, near, or on the road to, that place could well be named after it. The singular elm seems to indicate that there was a single elm. You don't need many trees to give a place a name :)

  • Very good. That is some useful piece of information and apparently converges with my own view
    – Brice C.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 10:01

Barrow Elm is the name of a place. It doesn't need to make analytical sense, any more than "London" needs to make sense.

  • hem… I should think your answer fell rather short: whereas there is no straightforwardly recognizable word or root in 'London', there are two such words in the queried name. If the house were called 'The Willows' you would certainly agree that it is or was surrounded or adorned with trees of that species.
    – Brice C.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:56
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    Not at all - maybe the owner just liked the name. There are lots of houses called Rivendell, purely because of The Lord of the Rings, that are nowhere near a riven dell, for example.
    – user8543
    Sep 10, 2014 at 9:26
  • Tolkien's world is imaginary just as Tolkien's word can be both imaginary and reality-inspired (riven dell = river dale?). Here linguistics is at stakes, not fiction.
    – Brice C.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 10:08
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    @BriceC To support 200_success's answer, you should treat Barrow Elm as a name, ant that's about it under the scope of ELL. If you're curious about why it was named that way, you can do the same, both in the case of Barrow Elm and in the case of London, but that will be about etymology. (For example, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology_of_London.) Sep 10, 2014 at 10:12
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    @BriceC. Having meaning or not is not my point here. My point is that for learners, it's better not to analyze names. And if you're not a learner, and seek reasons why things in English are the way they are, it's fine. It's actually admirable. (There are plenty of such questions I have myself too, e.g. "Does y'all mean you all?", "Why it's 'you are' not 'is'?", "Why the White House?". I think you see the pattern.) The thing is it's just that your question could be taken as a not-by-learner one, and if that is the case, I'd like to recommend you to ask this kind of questions on ELU, not ELL. Sep 10, 2014 at 13:15

As others have said -- and probably beaten to death -- a name does not have to make sense. Specifically, a name is not a sentence or even necessarily a grammatically correct fragment of a sentence.

"Elm" of course is a kind of tree. In the context of a place name I assume "barrow" refers to a dirt mound.

This one strikes me as a little bit odd because of the ordering of the words. If someone called a place "Elm Barrow", I'd take that to mean that it was on or near a barrow that was covered or surrounded by elm trees, or at least that had one or two prominent elm trees in the vicinity. That is, "barrow" is a noun and "elm" is used as an adjective describing something about the barrow.

But "Barrow Elm" is backwards. There can't be a barrow sitting on an elm tree.

But as it's a name, maybe whoever made it up just liked the sound better if you switched the two around. Or maybe they are intended to be unrelated: there is a barrow and there are some elms. I don't know how you could know without asking the person.

I just checked a dictionary and I see that "Barrow" is also the name of a river in Ireland. Perhaps the person who named this place was thinking of that river and of an elm tree that grows along that river -- a "Barrow elm".

I see that "barrow" can also mean a castrated pig. The tree belonging to this pig, or where this pig lives? "My pig's tree" seems a funny thing to want to call a place, but as I'd never heard that definition of the word before, I don't know the connotations.

  • Interesting. But avoid paradoxes: you say a name does not have to make sense but you are going the very same way than I, i.e. conclude there must be some meaning. Therefore I shall retain your answer as useful.
    – Brice C.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 15:37
  • @BriceC. It doesn't HAVE to make sense, but it MIGHT make sense. And thus you and I are both looking for sense in it. :-)
    – Jay
    Sep 10, 2014 at 18:56

As has already been said, there is no guarantee that the name chosen makes any sense. However, there is a plausible etymology if the name did arise organically.

It has not been uncommon in England for names to be given to significant trees. For example, this Google Books link:


discusses trees called the Gibbet Tree, the Court Tree, and the Barrow Elm. These were notable trees used for public purposes. In the case discussed, the Barrow Elm appears to have been on or near a barrow, but that may not always have been the case; "barrow" could have arisen from the name of a settlement, or a corruption of a similar word such as "borough."

Then, once the tree gained that name in the neighborhood, it would be natural to name the new property after the older and more widely known tree.

In other words: I think everyone who is trying to work out a semantic meaning such as:

The house that is by the elm that is near the barrow

is missing the mark. The meaning of the name when it was applied to the property--again, assuming there was one at all--was more likely something closer to:

The property on which the tree everyone calls the "Barrow Elm" is located.

  • Wonderful comment.
    – Brice C.
    Sep 11, 2014 at 5:34

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