The roots of the name Orleans

The name of the town Orleans has troubled historians and linguistic experts for centuries, and continues to do so...

At first glance it is easy to say that the name of the city derives from 'Aurelianus' (215 ca.-275) and was named for the Roman Emperor of that name - later becoming 'Orlians' and finally Orleans. But this apparently simple story hides a problem that has much occupied scholars, and continues to do so to this day - by the 19th century it was generally accepted that, in ancient times, Orleans possessed another name, 'Cenabum' or 'Genabum' that was then abandoned and converted into Aurelianus. The great debate among historians is due to the fact that no one knows for sure whether the site of the original 'Cenabum' coincides with actual Orleans, or if the name is instead the original name for the town of Gien.

Here the parties were divided. We note an interesting fact - by the mid-19th century a Latin inscription bearing the name of “Cenabum” was discovered in Orleans, and as Dejardins said 'if the inscription under the name "Cenabum" was discovered at Orleans, it is logical to think that “Cenabum” and Orleans are the same site, because it is a bit difficult to assume that a heavy Latin inscription can have been moved from Gien to Orleans, two cities that are located 41 miles apart'.


There has been much discussion about the roots of the name Cenabum. According to the author of the article "Orleans" ["Histoire de Villes de France”, Paris, 1855, p. 575 ff.] since Orleans sits on a bend of the River Loire, the term Cenabum derives from the Celtic word "Cen" ('point') and "Avon" ('Water') for which "Cenabum" would indicate "a 'point' on the water."

Stephan Gendron, the author of a recent book about place names of France said that Orleans 'raises serious problems'. He also casts doubt on another possible etymology: “[...] It is proposed, said Gendron [...that the roots of the name of Orleans are derived from] gen ('curve'), related to the Latin word “genu” ('knee'), because the city lies on a “curve” of the Loire. This hypothesis remains fragile [...]".

Furthermore, Gendron finds unconvincing the etymology proposed by Jacques L. Pons, who derives "Cenabum" from "dinner" by extension to be understood as meaning a “place of distribution” or “place of trade.” However, the Pons’ hypothesis is not so extravagant, given that Strabo (58 BC-25 ca.) called Orleans "Carnutum Emporium" ( the “market” or “store” of Carnutes).

Gendron then makes another interesting observation on the name "Aurelianus" which was the basis for "Orleans": "[...] The town changed its name in the third century BC: it is called "Civitas Aureliani" by Gregory of Tours (530-594) and the poet Fortunatus(530-609 ca.). The form "Orleans" comes from the ablative “Aurelianis”. But why choose the name "Aurelianus" in place of the name of the ancient city? Many characters, including Emperor Aurelian, had this name in the Empire. But none of them seems to have some relationship with the city of Orleans [...]”.

A Roman explanation?

About this point, however, we should consider the "merits" of Aurelian at Carnutes, when the Emperor, after the devastation inflicted by the Vandals and Alans arrived to Gaul to help residents rebuild their destroyed villages. He became known as "Galliarum restitutor" [ the “restorer” of the Gaul”]. It was then, in honour of the Emperor, that the "Civitas Cenabum" changed its name to "Civitas Aurelianorum", then known as the "Urbs Aurelianensis" (Sidonius Apollinaris[430 ca.-486]) and "Aureliana Civitas" (Jordanes [VI century]) [See "Histoire de Villes de France", p. 575-577].

In later centuries Orleans suffered attacks by Attila [406-453 ca.] (451), became united to the Kingdom of Chilperic (539-584) and finally to that of Hugh Capet (940-996).