The first recorded spelling of the town's name as "Burlech" is 12th century, although the first part of the name may be even older, referring to an ancient type of Celtic hill fort. In Norman times the settlement was called "Bourlac". The Burnley Burnell family originated here in the 16th century. The town name is recorded in the Domesday Book as "Berlech", which means "hill with burls", referring to a hillock surrounded by thorn bushes. Burl is a dialect word for thorn. Burl came from Old English býr-læch meaning birch or birch tree.

The toponymy of Burnley has been shaped throughout its history houses for sale burnley by the different surnames borne by the early inhabitants. To name but a few, the name Burnley was associated with Burnell and with Bury. Burnell has left the most marked influence on the modern names of the town, being the name by which the town is more commonly known outside of Lancashire. Burnley means "Burnel's village". In the 15th century it was spelt "Burlech".