Word on the Street

This entry is a first for The Baedeker Raids, as I have the pleasure of introducing a guest post by a fellow author from the Michael O’Mara stable. Caroline Taggart has written some twenty books and her newest, published this week, is New Words For Old, an illuminating and very enjoyable forage through the English language and its quirks, in particular our habit of repurposing old words to describe new phenomena (think of the ‘world wide web’). Here she reveals a few of the many words to have shed their skins and taken on new meanings in our loved/hated city of London. Over to you, Caroline.

English is a fantastically versatile language and we Brits (and our American and Antipodean cousins) have always been pretty hot on inventing new words when we need them, or recycling old ones when a new shade of meaning comes along. Contrariwise, as Lewis Carroll might have said, we sometimes preserve obsolete words in idioms and place names. Because London is so rich in ‘all that life can afford’, it should come as no surprise that the capital is way up there in the wordgames stakes.

If you stroll through the City it’s easy to note the churchy connections around St Pauls – Paternoster Square, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Corner – and to spot street names that belong to the days of medieval markets – Cheapside (with ‘cheap’ coming from an old word for market), Cornhill, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane.

You might also find yourself ambling along Poultry and wondering vaguely why it isn’t called Poultry Street. Aha! It is certainly the street where chicken, ducks and the like were sold, but poultry used to mean not just the birds but the market that sold them. In other words, Poultry in this instance meant ‘the poultry market’ – and the name of this London street is the only surviving use of the word in this sense.

Idioms like spick and span and to give someone short shrift retain words and meanings that are rarely seen in everyday life, but perhaps more interesting to Londoners is one explanation for why we describe someone as as bold as brass. In 1770 the Lord Mayor of London was a Mr Brass Crosby, who became involved in a controversy after various printers published accounts of parliamentary debates. At the time this was considered a breach of parliamentary privilege, but Crosby loudly and tenaciously stood up for freedom of speech, refusing to prosecute the printers and saying that it was in the interest of the citizens whose rights he was sworn to protect that such matters be made public. Sticking his neck out like this earned him a stretch in the Tower, but it is as a direct result of this incident that Hansard, the verbatim account of Parliament’s proceedings, came into being. Is he the first person to have been as bold as brass? It’s difficult to be sure, but fun to speculate.

One thing we can be more definite about is where the modern concept of a cartoon came from. The word has been around for a long time: Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci produced cartoons not to make people laugh but as full-size ‘roughs’, drawn on paper, whose designs would then be translated to canvas or, often, to walls in the form of frescoes. When the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire and were being rebuilt in 1843, some grand frescoes were commissioned to decorate it and the preparatory cartoons were exhibited to the public. The magazine Punch published a satirical drawing by John Leech, depicting London’s poor visiting an art gallery. The accompanying editorial pointed out how ridiculous it was to expect the government to consider ‘the wants of the pauper population, under the impression that it is as laudable to feed men as to shelter horses’. The point was that, considering how many people were starving, the government might have found better things to do with its time and its money. Punch had published satirical drawings before and continued to do so, but now they had a name – cartoons.

At about the same time, the Lyceum in London gave us the first theatre stalls, adopting the word that was used to describe divisions in a cowshed or stable that kept the animals apart. Now it described a new phenomenon – individual seats in the main part of the auditorium. Previously, the rich in the theatre had hired boxes, while everyone else milled round together in the pit.

Theatre itself has also had a chequered career. The first successful playhouse in London was opened by actor-manager James Burbage in 1576 and known as The Theatre. It’s tempting to write ‘known simply as The Theatre’, but there was nothing simple about it. Plays up until that time had generally been performed in the yards of inns; to create a formal venue for them was a big step forward and to call that venue a theatre was pretty grandiose. Until then, a theatre had been what we would now call an amphitheatre, often a vast circular space with tiers of seats rising away from the stage. Burbage’s Theatre would have been on a smaller scale – more like Shakespeare’s Globe than the Colosseum – but with any luck, he must have thought, the name would pull in the punters.

The first tabloids were nothing to do with newspapers: they were small compressed drugs or medicines (what we more recently called a tablet, until that came to be synonymous with iPads and the like). You could also, in pre-teabag days, buy a cheap tabloid of tea, made from compressed tea leaves or tea dust. The defining feature was that they were small. Early tabloid newspapers weren’t necessarily small in format; what they did was print the news in small, easily digestible chunks.

And about ten years after medicines were first sold as tabloids, up in York Colgate and Company first put British toothpaste in a tube (in imitation of an American invention pioneered, oddly enough, in New London, Connecticut). It may be because of this that a part of the London Underground became known as the Twopenny Tube, with the trains being squeezed out of a tunnel the way Colgate’s Dental Cream was from its tube. There’s no definite evidence to link the two, but the timing is – at worst – a happy coincidence. Whatever the reason, neither Underground nor Tube is a particularly accurate name for the London network: less than half of it is underground. But it’s probably too late to change it now.

New Words for Old: Recycling our language for the modern age by Caroline Taggart is published by Michael O’Mara, priced £9.99 http://www.mombooks.com/books/new-words-for-old-9781782434726/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s