How Did the River Thames Get Its Name?

The River Thames in London.

The River Thames is a major river that is situated in the southern region of England. Also flowing through London, it is easily the longest river among rivers flowing solely within England with a length of around 215 miles. In fact, the whole region of Greater London is drained by this major river. In the larger United Kingdom region, it is the second-longest with the River Severn being the lengthiest.

The Source of the River Thames 

The source of the River Thames is at Thames Head in Gloucestershire and flows all the way to its mouth, which is at the Thames Estuary in the North Sea. The course of the river sees it pass through several counties such as Buckinghamshire and Kent as well as cities like Kingston upon the Thames, Oxford, Westminster, and many more. The Thames has more than 50 named tributaries (both fresh and saltwater) as well as more than 80 islands.

The Naming of the River Thames

The name “Thames” comes from the word “Temese,” which is from Middle English. In turn, the word “Temese” comes from the Brittonic Celtic word “Tamesas,” which translates to a river. The Brittonic Celtic form of the word in Latin is “Tamesis,” which eventually derives the modern Welsh pronunciation of the river “Tafwys” (Thames).

While it is unclear what the word meant, it is possible that it may mean “dark” (or variations of this) based on related words from other languages such as Russian, Lithuanian, Welsh, Middle Irish, and Latvian. To lend even more weight to this theory is the fact that there are other rivers in Britain that seem to have similar origins such as Rivers Tamar, Tame, Teviot, and Team. Even one of the tributaries shares a name with the Thames. However, others have theorized that the origin is unknown and that its origins are not Indo-European.

The Isis

Once the river passes through Oxford, it is called the Isis River. The explanation for this goes as far back as the Victorian era when cartographers and gazetteers insisted that the proper name of the river was Isis from the source all the way to the village of Dorchester on Thames. For this reason, some maps actually labeled the river as “the River Thames or Isis” from the source all the way to the village. However, this usage has gone down and alternative theories for the name “Isis” have since come up. Historians surmise that the name Isis most likely arose from a modification of the Latin form of the river, that is, Tamesis. However, to some, the river is simply called the London River or simply the River.

Names Arising From the River

Since it is a major water body in England, it is not surprising that there are a number of regions that are named after the Thames although informally. These regions are the Thames Valley, the Thames Gateway, and the Thames Estuary. Other uses include the Thames Valley University, Thames Television, South Thames College, and Thames Valley Police (a formal body).


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