The origin of this term is uncertain. By some etymologists it is derived from burgh (Sax.), burgus (Lat.), a walled town, and thence applied to any association of families in a neighborhood, for the purpose of mutual protection. By others it is deduced from borgh or borhce (Sax.), pledge, referring to the civil division into tithings or decennaries, hundreds, etc, in which the inhabitants composing the tithing or hundred were pledges for the good conduct of each other. It is probable that in an early period, when great disorder prevailed, protection was the principal object of the vicinage of houses which was denominated a borough. The term villa, from which is derived the modern village, originally signified a private country residence, but was afterward applied to a number of buildings placed near each other for the common safety of the inhabitants. It appears from "Domesday Book" that there were 82 boroughs in England, including cities, at the time of the Norman conquest. Though differing as to the extent of their franchises and mode of government, they were alike in two respects: 1, in having a fair or market; 2, in having a borough court independent of the hundred.

A third particular afterward became the distinctive franchise of boroughs, viz., the right of sending burgesses to parliament. The original object of mutual defence was merged in another, viz., privileges of trade; and not long after the conquest the guild, which was an association of persons in a particular trade, became so intermingled with the original constitution of boroughs that it is difficult to distinguish the respective franchises belonging to each, and the guild merchant, which was a kind of incorporation or licensed association of all the trades, became substantially the borough, or at least became possessed of its franchises, government, and name. Membership of the guild thus became the principal mode of obtaining the freedom of the borough. The number of burgesses was by no means coextensive with that of the inhabitants; in fact, the boroughs were generally oligarchies, especially those which were created by charters after the conquest. The government was in many instances engrossed by a body self-constituted as the guild merchant, and in some cases even by a particular guild.

Borough franchises were derived from charter or prescription (which was founded upon a supposed charter), and consisted at first of particular privileges, as that of a fair or market, of having a court, exemption from toll, and the like. Charters of incorporation were first granted in the reign of Henry VI., although the ancient boroughs had in fact used the privileges peculiar to corporations, viz., of governing themselves, and of holding property in common. But from the period above mentioned, the history of boroughs belongs to the subject of municipal corporations, with the exception of parliamentary franchise. Before the act of 1832, known as the act for parliamentary reform, there were 171 boroughs in England, represented by 339 burgesses; from Scotland there were 15 members for boroughs, and from Ireland 36. By that act 56 English boroughs which had become insignificant in population were wholly disfranchised, 30 were deprived of one member each, and the right was given to 22 boroughs, which were before unrepresented, of returning two members each, and to 19 boroughs of returning one member each. The right of voting was also extended from a small privileged class to the citizens at large having certain qualifications.

By the reform act of 1867 11 more boroughs were disfranchised; 23 were deprived of one member each, and 25 members were given to new boroughs and universities. Previous to the act last mentioned the whole number of representatives from boroughs in the English parliament was 337 from England and Wales, 23 from Scotland, and 39 from Ireland; but by that act 28 of this number were distributed among the larger counties, which were divided into districts for the purpose. In the whole kingdom the number of members for boroughs is now 366. - In the United States the term borough is applied to an incorporated village or town, but not to a city. In England it includes cities as well as villages, though in some old statutes the terms city, borough, and village are used distinctively.