Talk on OS Abbreviations and words

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Abbreviations and descriptive words on OS Maps

This article has the text of a talk given at the Geograph Conference in Southampton in February 2010. Links to images and maps have been added.

Note that maps may have changed since the talk was prepared, so words and abbreviations mentioned may not be on current maps.

Features on the ground may be represented on Ordnance Survey maps by symbols, abbreviations, descriptive words or specific names, depending on the space available on the map. In Geograph we have photos of many such features and with help from other contributors on the discussion forum I have put examples into articles.

We have photos illustrating every type of symbol on 1:50,000 scale maps, and have put map extracts and thumbnails into the articles listing them.

There is a list of abbreviationsExternal link on the OS website and also in J B Harley's 1975 book "Ordnance Survey Maps - a Descriptive manual". His list shows which abbreviations are used on which scales of maps, and I have extracted a list of those used on 25K and 50K maps and used that as a basis for the article listing and illustrating abbreviations - we have examples of most of them.

Some missing ones are no longer current, for example an abbreviation for Mental Hospital. Others I haven't found but probably exist, e.g. Cas for Castle.

The abbreviations we have seen on maps do come from the standard list - we have found just a couple not on the list, HMYOI for Her Majesty's Young Offenders Institution and ELDR for European Long Distance Route and we have told OS Customer Services about these.
NS9178 : Polmont Young Offenders institution by paul birrell 1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

SU9949 : Narrowboat in Millmead Lock, Guildford, Surrey by Peter Trimming Click thumbnail, then map on photo page, to see abbreviation ELDR.

Descriptive names are those defining the character or use of a feature, for example Recreation Ground. I have listed those I have found on 25K and 50K maps as two articles, Descriptive words A to M and Descriptive Words N to Z.
According to the 1975 Harley book they came from a standard list, but from around 500 examples we have collected it seems as if this standardisation has been abandoned. For example we have:
Antiquities get special treatment. They have Gothic type for non-Roman, Sans Serif capitals for Roman. And they get descriptive words even if there is a standard symbol for the feature - we have a lighthouse and a windmill as words in Gothic lettering.

SV8808 : Lighthouse, St. Agnes by Darren Smith 1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

NO5301 : Old seawater evaporation building and windmill by Jim Bain 1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

It does seem that sometimes what is included depends on the whim of the cartographer. We have areas particularly along boundaries where individual trees are marked - we have Ash, Oak, Elm (which has probably succumbed to disease), Field Maple, and even Thorn which I wouldn't expect to be a long-lasting tree.

Elm and Thorn on 25K MapExternal link
Ash and Oak on 25K MapExternal link
Field Maple and Oaks on 25K MapExternal link

There doesn't seem to be a distinction in lettering style between descriptive words and specific names. Sometimes it is not obvious which is intended. Rabbit Warren seems to have become a name of an area rather than a place where there are rabbits. Peace Pagoda appears in Milton Keynes and is probably specific - the one in Battersea Gardens doesn't get a mention although there is enough space available for the words on the 25K map.
NX6671 : Track junctions in Rabbit Warren Forest, Mossdale by Bob Peace 25K Map for Rabbit WarrenExternal link
SP8740 : The Peace Pagoda at Willen by Steve Daniels 25K Map for Peace PagodaExternal link

It may be obvious, but what is on the map depends on the space available. Anything on Dartmoor has space for wording, even "Letter Box" which is an unofficial one, not a Royal Mail one. Of thousands of cinemas, I have seen the word "cinema" only on the map for one which is large and is on the edge of a town, Nuneaton.
SX6267 : Crossing Memorial and Letterbox by Guy Wareham 1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
SP3588 : Odeon Bedworth by Michael Patterson 25K Map with word CinemaExternal link

So all that stuff is my obsession at present. More examples are welcome. And I hope to find a way to show 25K map symbols and examples, as I have done for 50K.

As a postscript, at the conference OS staff told me that the symbols themselves can be copied freely without asking for copyright permission. So I will be able to compile an article showing and illustrating symbols on 1:25,000 scale maps.

David Hawgood
Feb 2010

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