Notes on the Underground

A little book on the origins of the names of stations on London's Tube prompts the Monitor's language columnist to consider the magic of place names.

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I didn't get around all that much on my recent trip to London; yet in another sense I traveled all over the city.

I owe this adventure to a little pocket guide I couldn't resist: "What's in a name? The origins of the names of all stations in current use on the London Underground and Docklands Light Rail with their opening dates." First published in 1977, this book, by Cyril M. Harris, has been revised and updated several times.

I'm convinced that place names are some of the most fascinating words in any language. If ordinary language is about the packing of meanings into sounds, that goes double for place names. Or make that fivefold, or even 10-fold. Compared with a common noun like chair or table, a proper noun for a place evokes something vastly larger, more complex, and more specific.

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When a place has been consciously named to honor some notable personage or commemorate a significant event, the layers of meaning get packed even more densely. And then there's another layer above that: What do the kinds of names that make it onto a city's subway map tell you about that city?

Given how much of the London Underground was built during the heyday of the British Empire, it's remarkable how relatively few references there are to royalty, empire, and military glory.

By contrast, the Paris Métro is full of stations named for military victories – Austerlitz, Sebastopol, Stalingrad. And notably it's in Paris, not London, that one finds a station named for Britain's King George V: The French were grateful for his help during World War I. Yes, London has Waterloo, named after a great British victory – against the French, as it happens – and, of course, Victoria.

But actually a lot of Tube stations seem to be named for pubs. That's true of Angel, in north London, for instance. Ditto Swiss Cottage. Ditto Pimlico, which according to Harris was named after one Ben Pimlico and his "entertainment garden," in an adjacent neighborhood.

Actually Pimlico represents another trend: places named for people of local, but not national, significance. Compare and contrast Paris: A professor could make a French intellectual history course out of the prominent figures with a Métro station named after them.

It's force of habit for us former European studies majors to compare and contrast London and Paris like this; Dickens wasn't the only one interested in tales of the two cities.

Among other mysteries revealed in Harris's book: "Elephant and Castle" is not a corruption of Infanta de Castile, folklore to the contrary, but rather the namesake of another pub.

Boston Manor, which legions pass en route to and from Heathrow, has nothing to do with its namesake in Massachusetts. It started out in the 14th century meaning a farm belonging to someone named "Bords." Heathrow, London's primary airport, was once a row of houses on the heath.

Tooting goes back to AD 675, as Totinge. It derives from a personal name, Tota, and means "the place where Tota's people live." Tooting lives on in a couple of station names. Doesn't Tooting Broadway sound like a lovely place to hold a parade?

I wrote that the London Underground has no station named for King George V. But indeed the Docklands Light Railway has a King George V station, which opened in 2005. Arguably it’s named for the nearby King George V Dock rather than the monarch himself, and the DLR, while part of the Transport for London system, is not quite the classic London Tube. But my research was incomplete, and I want to own up.

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