The Meaning of London

This way, please.

No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.

When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.

There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.

The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?

In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.

Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.

London’s familiar curve

So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.

The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.

OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.

Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.

Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.

Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.

The Seven Sisters of London

Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.

Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.

Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.

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