Gazetteer of Montpeliers and Montpelliers in France

FRANCE

Montpellier

The capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, on the Mediterranean coast. For information on the modern French Montpellier - and some scenic photos - try the city's official website.

Origin of name

The first document to mention Montpellier is dated 26 Nov 985; this is in the Latin form monte pestelario.

Marcel Barral, who wrote a guide to the street names of Montpellier (Les noms de rues a Montpellier, 1989), reviewed several explanations of the Latin form, dismissing them as well-meaning but unscientific attempts at etymology on the part of early clerics. Thus, suggested derivations from pestel, woad; pastellum or pestillum, pestle (for crushing the woad); pestellum, bolt or bar (ie, the mountain that bars the road); or from mons puellarum, while often quoted, are all dubious.

The current academic view is that Montpellier is a tautological form, with a coloniser's Latin descriptor mons applied to a feature locally called *pela. Pela, it is suggested, means hill in a pre-indo-european language no longer recognised at the time of colonisation. It was thus taken to be a proper name, giving rise to a Latin form mons pelarius - `Pela's hill'.

Barral’s conclusion has the attraction of simplicity - referring the name to a geographic feature (a hill) which does genuinely appear to be the oldest part of the settlement. It would be desirable to see further examples of *pela before agreeing this as a definitive etymology, but it seems this is one of many names destined never to be fully resolved.

Barral quotes from an article by Charles Camproux, Histoire d'un toponyme: Montpellier in Melanges offerts a Charles Rostaing, Liege, 1974: this may provide more examples supporting the proposed *pela=hill origin.

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