To read about or hear this episode, visit theallusionist.org/soho.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, give language the old spit-and-hanky treatment.
This episode is a companion piece to the latest 99% Invisible, The Soho Effect, which investigates the spread of place names like the New York neighbourhoods of Tribeca - Triangle Below Canal Street - Nolita - North of Little Italy - and SoHo - South of Houston Street. The names are formed a bit like acronyms, a bit like portmanteaus - I’d go for ‘acromanteau’, but our 99% comrades have decided to call them 'acranames'.
Here’s Avery Trufelman telling you whom to blame for the trend.
CLIP OF 99% INVISIBLE 'THE SOHO EFFECT':
AVERY TRUFELMAN: The American abbreviation of Soho, and the birth of the Acraname, can be traced back to 1962 and a fellow by the name of Chester Rapkin.
SHARON ZUKIN: He was an urban planner and eventually a member of the New York City planning commission from the late 60s to the late 1970s, and he was asked to investigate the conditions in what he called - or what the city planning commission called- the South Houston Industrial Area.
AT: A lot of people think that the resulting paper, known as the Rapkin Report, invented the term SoHo.
SZ: Now, I have recently re-read that report, and I do not believe that Rapkin used the term SoHo in that report.
ROMAN MARS: It’s also been said that Rapkin coined the term Soho in conversation. However it happened, around this time -
SZ: - people seized upon the term SoHo as an abbreviation....
AT: Which was certainly better than The South Houston Industrial Area. But not nearly as badass as its previous name: 'Hell’s Hundred Acres'.
HZ: You can hear the whole of ‘The Soho Effect’ at 99PI.org; the acraname trend is out of control.
HZ: There are several Sohos around the world: as well as that New York one, there’s one in Tampa, Florida, short for South Howard Avenue; the entertainment district in Hong Kong is another acraname, from South of Hollywood Road.
I think if you break down these acranames into their original components, they’re weak, aren’t they? Not particularly distinctive words or places. I put it to you that they are backranames - local features are backwards-engineered to fit a snappy name, already familiar from the first known Soho, here in London.
TONY SHRIMPLIN: It’s like all roads lead to Rome: all roads lead to Soho. It has this very special place. It’s the centre and heart of London. It’s a microcosm of the world, concentrated into ¾ of a square mile.
HZ: Tony Shrimplin is the chair of the Museum of Soho, and he’s lived here for around 24 years. We’re in the middle of Soho, in Black’s Club, founded in 1764.
HZ: Is this the first known area called Soho in the world?
TS: I would think it would be! I couldn’t say as a fact. I would think so - we’re talking 16th century. This was farmland, grazing ground, and then Henry VIII in the 16th century took it for hunting ground for his palace in Whitehall.
HZ: The word ‘Soho’ being used to refer to this area is first recorded in writing in 1632.
TS: I’ve been asked before, where does it come from, the name 'Soho'; the truth is, no one actually knows. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest it was a hunting cry, ‘Soho!’ like ‘Tally ho!’ - but why it should be this area that’s called Soho... Some say it was the Duke of Monmouth’s watchword at the Battle of Sedgemoor.
HZ: The Battle of Sedgemoor took place on 6 July 1685, in Westonzoyland in Somerset, around 140 miles away from Soho. So what would something yelled by the leader of the losing side have to do with it?
TS: The Duke of Monmouth had his place in what is now where Soho Square is. The Duke of Monmouth was Charles II’s illegitimate son. He tried to overthrow James II, I believe, and he would have been made king, and there was a coup, and he got caught, and he ended up being hung, drawn and quartered, I think.
HZ: He was beheaded, actually. But whether or not ‘Soho’ emerged from his mouth shortly beforehand is irrelevant, because the place had already been called Soho for at least fifty years before the Battle of Sedgemoor, so the place definitely isn’t named after the Duke of Monmouth’s battle cry. Maybe the Duke of Monmouth was bellowing out the name of the place where he lived, but ‘soho’ had previous form in being something that people shout. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says to Romeo:
TS: “A bawd, a bawd, a bawd, soho!"
HZ: That’s ‘bawd’ as in ‘bawdy’ - we don’t see the noun so much any more.
TS: Which translated means "A pimp a pimp a pimp, I found it out!"
HZ: ‘Soho’ also appears in similarly exclamatory style in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. 'Ho' and 'hoo' have been in use since at least the 14th century as noises to attract attention, and shortly thereafter, ‘soho’ followed as a hunting cry.
Now, I’m going to level with you: although it has the most evidence behind it, I’m not very satisfied with the hunting cry explanation for Soho’s name. Of all the area’s characteristics, of all the things that must have been said on that hunting land some 500 years ago, that’s the one that sticks? That would be like calling Soho ‘double espresso’ now.
But, sometimes we don’t get the slamdunk etymological evidence we want. And I admit, there are worse attempts to explain it.
TS: For example, some people said, “South of Holborn”. Now that tallies in with South of Houston for the New York Soho. We’re west of Holborn, we’d be Woho.
HZ: Or Weho, which doesn’t sound good at all.
HZ: A few years ago, property developers had a go at rebranding the area north of Soho ‘Noho’, borrowing a name back from New York. But Noho already has a name, Fitzrovia, so it hasn’t really stuck. In fact, thus far, acranames haven’t really stuck in London at all.
As Tony said, Soho has been around since the 17th century, and acranaming is not how words were formed then, so it’s definitely not the etymology of Soho. People do love to believe that words with murky etymologies, like posh and several other four letter words, are acronyms. Zaltzman’s first law of etymology: it's almost certainly not an acronym. Especially if the word existed prior to the 20th century. Most London place names are older than that. There have been settlements on the site of London for thousands of years; and the city was officially founded after the Romans invaded in the year 43AD. And in the time since, London has expanded and engulfed the towns and villages around it, maintaining some of their names, replacing others, and adding more names for the areas in between.
And there are several different ways in which London’s districts’ names are formed.
Many of the oldest names are topographical. Tt’s hard to picture present-day suburban Croydon as an Old English ‘valley of crocuses’, or Battersea as a ‘dry island in a marsh’ - the names have hung onto things thatthe places themselves haven’t. There are so many of these names reflecting geographical features, particularly lingering as suffixes. ‘Hill’ and ‘field’, I’ll leave you to deduce. Anything ending in ‘burn’ or ‘born’ was referring to a stream, ‘ford’ was the river crossing, and ‘ham’ was a bend in a river - but ‘ham’ could also mean a homestead; they used to be spelled differently. ‘Dun’ or ‘down’ meant hill, but often appear as ‘ton’ as well, but ‘ton’ could also be a farm, as did ‘worth’ and ‘wic’ - for example Chiswick, a contraction of 'cheese wick', cheese farm.
A lot of the placenames containing those elements are more than 1000 years old. But there are a load which refer to more modern landmarks: pubs; churches; Marble Arch - obvious; Swiss Cottage - named after an inn built around 1803 in the style of a Swiss cottage; and the suburb where I live, Crystal Palace, named after the enormous glass exhibition hall placed here in 1851. That burned down in 1936, so maybe it ought to have been renamed after something that is still here, like Ornamental Victorian Dinosaurs, or Family-Friendly Pubs.
There are the places named after people - Victoria, thanks to the 19th century queen, Baker Street - named not after a baker, but the street’s builder William Baker. Hoxton - you’ve got the ‘ton’ for farm, and it belonged to a man called Hoc more than a millennium ago, so he really got good value out of it. Loads of places still contain the name of the Anglo-Saxon person who once owned a hillock there or such.
Then there are places named after their function, from Lambeth, where medieval lambs used to be unloaded from boats, to Eel Pie Island, where Victorians used to eat picnics, when eel pie was a popular delicacy. In Mayfair, there used to be a fair in May. In Mudchute, mud was dumped. And yes, Catford used to be riddled with wild cats.
But don’t be fooled some which appear obvious: there was no chalk farm at Chalk Farm, which is a corruption of ‘Chalcott’, badly-built buildings. And Cockfosters - well, I don’t want to spoil whatever explanation your imagination is conjuring.
There are thousands of stories in the place names of London, and the more you dig, the more you find. And some of those names made it out of London, too, thanks to Britain’s - let’s euphemistically say - keen tendency to leave marks all over the world. So Brits abroad often named places after those they left behind: for example, in uptown Pittsburgh, the area now known as The Bluff was previously known as Soho - yes, another one. In the early 19th century, the Brit James Tustin bought up much of the land, built a mansion, and rechristened the area Soho because he was homesick for where he used to live in Britain.
HZ: Do you think there’s a quality of the word ‘Soho’ itself that has made it quite infectious, for other areas around the world? It’s snappy, short, easy to spell.
TS: I used to make it short for ‘Soul hole’.
HZ: In a good or a bad way?
TS: I’ll leave that for the listeners to decide. Soho is a four-letter word.
HZ: Tony Shrimplin is the chair of the Museum of Soho - find it at mosoho.org.uk. They’re holding an exhibition about David Bowie’s Soho in April, as part of Record Store Day.
HZ: In case you were wondering, London itself has an annoyingly indistinct etymology. So to compensate, here's a bonus Soho-related linguistic fact, courtesy of Tony: Peter Mark Roget, he of the groundbreaking Roget’s Thesaurus, was born in Soho, in what is now Broadwick Street. He was a renowned physician, who also invented the slide rule. Ever since he was a small child, he had been compiling lists, to cope with depression. After 47 years of compiling lists of words grouped by concept, the first edition of his thesaurus was published in 1852. And it’s been in print continuously ever since.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Avery Trufelman and the rest of the 99% Invisible team, Tony Shrimplin, Black’s Club in Soho for letting us record there, and Martin Austwick for the music.
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