AskDefine | Define borough

Dictionary Definition



1 one of the administrative divisions of a large city
2 an English town that forms the constituency of a member of Parliament

User Contributed Dictionary



Old English burh, from Germanic *burgs. Cognate with Dutch burg, German Burg, Swedish borg.


  • /ˈbʌɹə/


  1. A fortified town; a town or city.
  2. A town having a municipal corporation and certain traditional rights.
  3. An administrative district in some cities, e.g., London.
  4. An administrative unit of a city which, under most circumstances according to state or national law, would be considered a larger or more powerful entity; most commonly used in American English to define the five counties that make up New York City.
  5. Other similar administrative units in cities and states in various parts of the world.
  6. A district in Alaska having powers similar to a county.

Derived terms


administrative district
municipal burough

Proper noun

The Borough
  1. The area, properly called Southwark, just south of London Bridge.

Extensive Definition

A borough is an administrative division of various countries. In principle, the term borough designates a self-governing township although, in practice, official use of the term varies widely.
In the Middle Ages, boroughs were settlements that were granted some self-government. Boroughs were particularly common in England, Germany, and Scotland. In medieval England, boroughs were also entitled to elect members of parliament. The Borough in Southwark, London is thought to have been the original 'borough' from which all others derive.
Usually, a borough is a single town with its own local government. However, in some cities it is a subdivision of the city (e.g. London, New York City, and Montreal). In such cases, the borough will normally have either limited powers delegated to it by the city's local government, or no powers at all. At certain times, London has had no overall city government and London boroughs were the main unit of local government for Londoners. In other places, such as Alaska, a borough does not designate a single township, but a whole region. In Australia, 'borough' can designate a town and its surrounding area, e.g. Borough of Queenscliffe.
Boroughs are to be found in Ireland and the United Kingdom, more specifically in England and Northern Ireland. Boroughs also exist in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, in some states of the United States, in Israel, and formerly in New Zealand. (In New Zealand a Borough generally had 1,000 - 20,000 inhabitants, and was administered separately from the surrounding County. In 1989, the country was reorganised, and the counties and boroughs were merged to form Districts.
Several places in Britain owe part of their name to borough, but with a variety of spellings; e.g.:
A few places, e.g. Brough and Bury, are named exclusively for their being a borough. It should also be noted that not all places which contain this are named after boroughs, such as in Farnborough, which comes from berga, meaning 'hill'.
These forms of the word borough were carried to North America. The Scottish forms are found in the American South and West. The suffix -bury is found in New England. The ending -boro is also common in the American South, especially in North Carolina. Borough is a rare surname, most common in the UK and USA; but derivatives of the word, such as Brough, are a little more common. The related German word Burg (castle) is common in German place names and is also found in North American place names.
Nominally self-governing boroughs existed in medieval France and Spain, called bourg in French and burgo in Spanish. Both these terms are found in some place names.


In many parts of England, "borough" is (listen) as an independent word, and as /bɹə/ when a suffix of a place-name. As a suffix, it is sometimes spelled "-brough".
In the United States, "borough" is or /ˈbʊɹoʊ/. When appearing as the suffix "-burg(h)" in place-names, it's .

Present-day boroughs


In Quebec, the term borough refers to an administrative division of a municipality.
Only eight municipalities in Quebec are divided into boroughs. See List of boroughs in Quebec.
It was previously used in Metropolitan Toronto, Ontario, to denote suburban municipalities. The Borough of East York was the last Toronto municipality to hold this status, relinquishing it upon becoming part of the City of Toronto on January 1, 1998.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the name "borough" is applied to various types of local government districts.
In England, there are three types of boroughs: London Boroughs, metropolitan boroughs, and non-metropolitan boroughs. The term London Boroughs is used to describe a type of district with borough status that have been in existence in Greater London. Reorganized in 1965, Greater London currently has thirty-two of these type of borough, including the City of Westminster. Districts with borough status within the six metropolitan counties of England are known as metropolitan boroughs. Districts granted a charter outside Greater London and the six metropolitan counties are non-metropolitan districts are simply known as boroughs.
Elsewhere in England a number of district and unitary authority councils are called "borough". Historically, this was a status that denoted towns with a certain type of local government (a municipal corporation). Since 1974, it has been a purely ceremonial style granted by royal charter, which entitles the council chairman to bear the title of mayor. Districts may apply to the British Crown for the grant of borough status upon advice of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, local government was reorganised in 1973. Under the legislation that created the twenty-six districts of Northern Ireland, a district council whose area included an existing municipal borough could resolve to adopt the charter of the old municipality and thus continue to enjoy borough status. Districts that do not contain a former borough can apply for a charter in a similar manner to English districts.
Several unitary authorities in Wales are called county boroughs. Apart from the title of the authority and its civic head, there is no difference in powers between these and the other Welsh unitary county councils.
A number of boroughs have additionally been granted the higher status of a city.
For Scottish usage of a cognate term, see burgh.

United States

The word "borough" has many meanings relating to local government in the United States. Since the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes local government for the most part a matter for the states rather than the federal government, the states are free to have political subdivisions called "boroughs", or not to do so, and to define the word in many different ways.
The following states use, or have used, the word with the following meanings:


In Australia, the term "borough" is an occasionally used term for a local government area. Currently there is only one borough in Australia, the Borough of Queenscliffe in Victoria, although there have been more in the past.


Under Israeli law, inherited from British Mandate municipal law, the possibility of creating a municipal borough exists. However, no borough was actually created under law until 2005-2006, when Neve Monosson and Maccabim-Re'ut, both communal settlements (Heb: yishuv kehilati) founded in 1953 and 1984, respectively, were declared to be autonomous municipal boroughs (Heb: vaad rova ironi), within their mergers with the towns of Yehud and Modi'in. Similar structures have been created under different types of legal status over the years in Israel, notably Kiryat Haim in Haifa, Jaffa in Tel Aviv-Yafo and Ramot and Gilo in Jerusalem. However, Neve Monosson is the first example of a full municipal borough actually declared under law by the Minister of the Interior, under a model subsequently adopted in Maccabim-Re'ut as well.
It is the declared intention of the Interior Ministry to use the borough mechanism in order to facilitate municipal mergers in Israel, after a 2003 wide-reaching merger plan, which generally ignored the sensitivities of the communal settlements, largely failed.

Republic of Ireland

Under the Local Government Act 2001 section 10 (3) and schedule 6 part 1 chapter 1, the following continue to be known as Boroughs (though this is largely a matter of nomenclature) Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Sligo, Wexford. In Section 10 (7) continues the "use of the description city in relation to Kilkenny, to the extent that that description was used before (January 1, 2002) and is not otherwise inconsistent with this Act."

Historical boroughs

In its original Anglo-Saxon connection with its modern meaning, a borough was a number of households or an extended household, surrounded by a defensive wall. This might have been a stockade or a walled town. In place-names therefore, it can refer to the walled enclosure of a lord's hall or to a walled town. When the Five Burghs of the Danelaw were given that name, this was people's view of them. By the late medieval period, a charter from the king and a civic organization became more significant in defining a borough than the wall was.

England and Wales

Municipal boroughs

In England and Wales, boroughs developed as a method of providing a corporate identity for a town, particularly in relation to rights obtained from local barons or from the English Crown. The formal status of borough came to be conferred by Royal Charter.
These boroughs were generally governed by a self-selecting corporation (i.e., when a member died or resigned his replacement would be by co-option). Sometimes boroughs were governed by bailiffs or headboroughs.
Debates on the Reform Bill (eventually the Reform Act 1832) had highlighted the variations in systems of governance of towns, and a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the issue. This resulted in a regularisation of municipal government (Municipal Corporations Act 1835), with all municipal corporations to be elected according to a standard franchise based on property ownership. At the same time, a procedure was established whereby a town could petition Parliament to be given borough status. The 178 reformed boroughs, and those that followed them, became known as municipal boroughs. A number of unreformed boroughs remained after 1835, these being finally abolished in 1886.
The reform of county government in 1888 established the county borough, a city or town that had a corporation as any other borough, but with additional powers equivalent to those of a county council.
As part of a large-scale reform of local government in England and Wales in 1974, both county boroughs and municipal boroughs were abolished. However, the civic traditions of many boroughs were continued by the grant of a charter to their successor district councils. In smaller boroughs, a town council was formed for the area of the abolished borough, while charter trustees were formed in other former boroughs. In each case, the new body was allowed to use the regalia of the old corporation, and appoint ceremonial office holders such as sword and mace bearers as provided in their original charters. The council or trustees may apply for an Order in Council or Royal Licence to use the former borough coat of arms.

Parliamentary boroughs

From 1265, two burgesses from each borough were summoned to the Parliament of England, alongside two knights from each county. Representation in the House of Commons was decided by the House itself, which resulted in many cases of a borough being represented in Parliament despite it having no corporation or mayor (or vice versa).
By the 19th century, the population changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had created a situation in which a major conurbation might have no representation in Parliament, whilst towns which had declined in size to mere villages still retained their seat. Additionally, the electoral franchise varied from borough to borough, some of which had become rotten boroughs.
The Reform Act 1832 sought to rationalise this system to some extent, as well as eliminating corrupt practices. Many boroughs, some of which existed in little more than name, were disenfranchised, whilst some of the industrial towns which had developed in the North came to be represented in Parliament for the first time.
Subsequent Reform Acts gave more parliamentary seats to the expanding boroughs, whilst disenfranchising the smaller ones. From 1884, voters in county and borough seats had the same franchise, so the distinction between the two was essentially eliminated; however, on the assumption that the smaller, urban boroughs would require less travelling for electoral candidates than in the larger, more rural county seats, the distinction between the two sorts of constituency was retained for the purposes of calculating maximum permitted electoral expenses.

Metropolitan boroughs

In 1899, as part of a reform of local government in the County of London, the various parishes in the county were reorganised as a new entity, the metropolitan borough. These became reorganised as London Boroughs in a subsequent reform, in 1965.
As part of the 1974 reform of local government in England, six major urban areas were established as "metropolitan counties", divided into "metropolitan districts". A number of those districts over time were granted the dignity of "borough", and thus became known as a metropolitan borough.


See Burgh.

Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

For the similar situation in Ireland cf Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act 1840.

New Zealand

New Zealand formerly used the term borough to designate self-governing towns of more than 1,000 people. A borough of more than 20,000 people could become a city by proclamation. Boroughs and cities were collectively known as municipalities, and were enclaves separate from their surrounding counties.
In the 1980s, some boroughs and cities began to be merged with their surrounding counties to form districts with a mixed urban and rural population. In 1989, a nationwide reform of local government completed the process. Counties and boroughs were abolished and all boundaries were redrawn. Under the new system, most territorial authorities cover both urban and rural land. The more populated councils are classified as cities, and the more rural councils are classified as districts. Only Kawerau District, an enclave within Whakatane District, continues to follow the tradition of a small town council that does not include surrounding rural area.

Borough as a place name

There is a neighbourhood in the London Borough of Southwark simply called The Borough, south of London Bridge across the Thames from the City. There are several villages in England, such as those in Cumbria and the East Riding of Yorkshire, called Brough, pronounced /brʌf/.
El Burgo in Spain is across the river Ucero from the smaller City of Osma; also in Spain lies the city of Burgos. See also below under the places mentioned in the next section on Etymology.


The word borough has cognates in other Germanic languages. For example, burgh in Scots and Middle English, Burg in German and Old English, and borg in both Danish and Swedish; the equivalent word is also to be found in Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Icelandic. Alternate forms and spellings in English include bury and burrow.
The English borough and the Scots burgh are derived from the Anglian word burh (with other dialectal variants including burg, beorh, beorg, and byrig). The word originally indicated a fortified town, and was related to the verb beorgan (cf. Dutch and German bergen), meaning "to keep, to save, to make secure".
A number of other European languages have cognate words which were borrowed from the Germanic languages during the Middle Ages, including brog in Irish, bwr or bwrc, meaning "wall, rampart" in Welsh, bourg in French, burg in Catalan, borgo in Italian, and burgo in Spanish (hence the place-name Burgos).
Also related are the words bourgeois and belfry (both from the French), and burglar; more distantly, it is related to words meaning "hill" or "mountain" in a number of languages (cf. the second element of iceberg).
borough in German: Borough
borough in Spanish: Borough
borough in French: Borough
borough in Indonesian: Borough
borough in Italian: Borough
borough in Hebrew: רובע
borough in Luxembourgish: Borough
borough in Hungarian: Borough
borough in Dutch: Borough
borough in Portuguese: Borough
borough in Russian: Боро
borough in Simple English: Borough
borough in Finnish: Borough
borough in Swedish: Borough
borough in Chinese: 自治城鎮

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Kreis, Stadt, archbishopric, archdiocese, arrondissement, bailiwick, banlieue, bishopric, boom town, bourg, burg, burgh, canton, city, close borough, commune, congressional district, constablewick, conurbation, county, departement, diocese, district, duchy, election district, electoral district, electorate, exurb, exurbia, faubourg, gerrymander, gerrymandered district, ghost town, government, greater city, hamlet, hundred, magistracy, market town, megalopolis, metropolis, metropolitan area, municipality, oblast, okrug, outskirts, parish, pocket borough, polis, precinct, principality, province, region, riding, rotten borough, safe district, sheriffalty, sheriffwick, shire, shrievalty, silk-stocking district, single-member district, soke, spread city, stake, state, suburb, suburbia, swing district, territory, town, township, urban complex, urban sprawl, urbs, village, ville, wapentake, ward
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