The village name is Old English and also Old German ("Dorn"and "Aue") and means "thorny floodplain". This refers to the fact that it was once a patch of hard ground in the middle of a marshy bog, though with modern farming methods the marshland has more or less disappeared. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the village was referred to as Dornei.
The manor house, Dorney Court, is listed among England's many fine country houses. The nearby Dorneywood is used as country home for a senior member of the Government, usually a Secretary of State or Minister of the Crown.
The village's close proximity to the M4 motorway (and, thus, its close proximity to London) has meant that Dorney is now an area popular with city commuters. It is also the location of Dorney Lake, where canoeing and rowing events at the 2012 Summer Olympics are held.
The village is on the north bank of the River Thames, and is surrounded to the south, east and west by the non-metropolitan county of Berkshire, with only a narrow strip of land running north (through Burnham) to the main body of Buckinghamshire. This anomaly dates to the Local Government Act 1972, which came into force on 1 April 1974 – the village had been originally included in Berkshire as the Bill, but an amendment to keep it in Buckinghamshire was proposed by local MP Ronald Bell, and accepted by the government.
The parish church is dedicated to Saint James.
In 1961 a cornfield at Dorney was the scene of a famous abduction. A lone gunman, James Hanratty, abducted Valerie Storie and Michael Gregsten in a Morris Minor parked in the cornfield. He forced them at gunpoint to drive to a lay-by on the A6 at Maulden in Bedfordshire, where he shot and murdered Gregsten, raped Valerie Storie before shooting her as well. She survived but was paralysed.
Within the parish of Dorney are the hamlets of Dorney Reach and Lake End.