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.
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.
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.