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Glamorous Grammar: The Lexicon of the London Underground

When it comes to commuting around the UK’s capital, Londoner’s are a longsuffering lot. Ordinary men and women become beasts as they descend the stairs into the Underground network, joining the scrum for a seat (and likely ending up standing with their face in someone’s armpit, anyway). The joy.

With the latest round of tubes strikes due to imminently reduce London to a standstill, we thought we’d take a look at the origins of some of the most linguistically-interesting station names, to give you something to focus on whilst waiting (patiently, please, we’re British) for your train. This is a station announcement…

Angel

If you think residents of this sought-after central location are particularly saintly, think again. The Angel area, and its tube station of the same title, are named after a former 17th century coaching inn on the Great North Road, The Angel.

Baker Street

Let them eat cake? Not on Baker Street, whose namesake, William Baker, was the builder who laid the street in the second half of the 18th century, not a patissier. Of course, tourists today flock to Baker Street on account of its most famous (literary) resident, Sherlock Holmes. No suggestion has been made to re-name the station, yet!

Canary Wharf

Transport hub for the bankers of London, you may well question what this corporate commuter station has to do with canaries. Well, Canary Wharf takes its name from a warehouse on the West Wood Quay, built to import fruit from the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. Whilst that may explain the London link, it doesn’t actually make sense of the bird imagery: the original name for the African islands – Canariae Insulaestands for ‘Island of Dogs’ as, according to Pliny the Elder, they were overrun with wild hounds.

Charing Cross

This title is a tale of two halves. For Charing, look to the river, and the Old English word ‘cierring’, or ‘turning’ – a reference to the sharp bend in the Thames at this location. For Cross, we journey back to 1290, and the series of monuments which marked the nightly resting place of Queen Eleanor’s body, following her death near Lincoln. The final Eleanor Cross – which has long since vanished – was found at the site of today’s station.

Hainault

Head east on the Central line and you might hit Hainault – not the Belgium province, but the equally unusual-sounding suburban station. Pronounced hay-nolt, the name comes from the Old English ‘Hyneholt’ or ‘Henehout’, meaning ‘wood belonging to a religious community’. The spelling was changed in the 17th century due to a fictitious connection with Edward III’s wife, Philippa of Hainault.

King’s Cross St Pancras

The stations serving a number of notable destinations – Paris, Hogwarts, the Oxbridge Editing offices (ahem) – both have an interesting etymology. The former, King’s Cross, is named after a huge monument of King George IV, which stood on the site that the station now occupies until 1845. St Pancras – which has nothing to do with an abdominal organ (though so many mistake Pancras for Pancreas that the station teamed up with a pancreatic cancer charity in 2014) – takes its name from a Roman teenager, who was beheaded, aged 14, for his faith. The station is thought to stand on one of the most ancient sites of Christian worship in the country.

Bonus fact: Controversy rages about the use of the apostrophe in the moniker, King’s Cross, and whether or not it’s needed. All official signage has carried the meddlesome mark since 1954, however, at City Hall, 373 search results include an apostrophe and 519 leave it out. King’s Cross or Kings Cross? The jury’s out.

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