Issue 135, page 1

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Spotlight on...

the West End of London, Dukes and eponyms

On the northern side of Piccadilly, just where it meets Hyde Park, a grand house stands alone.  In its heyday, it boasted the most exclusive address in the land: Number 1, London.  It was built as a gift from the nation to the Duke of Wellington, also known as "the Iron Duke",  after he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.  The English were not unanimous in their gratitude, however.  

The Monty Python gumbies.  Click for more Monty Python.Some took to wearing the new riding boots invented by the Iron Duke. These were the ancestors of rubber galoshes which the British call wellington boots to this day.  On the other hand, judging by ballads of the time, Napoleon enjoyed a considerable amount support among the lower classes.  Also, there was scant work for all the soldiers who now returned, often disabled, from the wars.  Many felt aggrieved and they expressed their point of view by lobbing rocks at Number 1, London.  And that's how Wellington got his nickname "the Iron Duke" - not from his fortitude on the battlefield but from the iron shutters which were fitted to protect his windows.

Across Park Avenue, just inside Hyde Park, is the Wellington Memorial.  A relic of Victorian  militarism, it features a twice-life-size bronze statue of a soldier.  But it's not a statue of Wellington, it's an ancient Greek warrior, naked except for his sword, shield, helmet and fig-leaf (as worn in the better class of ancient Greek battle).  He's not even wearing boots.

At the far end of Park Avenue is Marble Arch, a huge marble gateway that was built for the Duke of Buckingham's London home, some distance away.  Unfortunately, between the time the arch was commissioned and the time it was completed, it became fashionable to ride in huge carriages, so huge, in fact, that they couldn't fit through the marble archway.  The duke abandoned this folly and there it sits with traffic on all sides but never passing through it.  He recouped his losses later when he sold Buckingham House to the king who immediately renamed it Buckingham Palace.

If one is foolhardy enough to brave the traffic, one will find a small brass triangle set into the middle of the road near Marble Arch.  This marks the spot where the notorious Tyburn Tree stood.  This was a gallows capable of hanging three men at one time and, until 1816, hangings were public.  One of the most famous of all the Tyburn hangmen was Goodman Derrick.  The modern word derrick meaning a scaffold for raising heavy loads comes from his name.

It was in this part of London, in 1765, that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (17181792), once spent twenty-four hours at the gaming-table without other refreshment than "some slices of cold beef placed between slices of toast".  That's why we call two slices of bread with a filling a montague.   We jest... the word is, of course, sandwich

When a proper noun (a personal name or a place name), like Wellington or Derrick or Sandwich, is taken into the language in this way, the resulting word is called a eponym.  It is relatively simple to trace the origins of such words and we can usually pinpoint the date at  which the word entered the language.  Take, for instance, the verb to maffick.

When the Boer War (Dutch boer "farmer, settler") siege of Mafeking was lifted in 1900 there was wild rejoicing in the streets of Britain.  This riotous behavior was soon dubbed mafficking and to maffick was derived as a back-formation. 

Then there is the color known as isabella.  It is said to derive from Isabella, the Infanta of Spain whose husband, Archduke Albert, set siege to Ostend, Belgium in 1601.  Faithful Isabella undertook a solemn vow never to change her underwear until her hubby had possession of Ostend.  Well, he took the city all right, but not until 1604.  You can imagine how the Infanta felt about that!  Isabella is, therefore, a delicate shade of yellowish-brown: the color, some say, of a princess's undies after she's worn them for three years.  What a great story... shame it isn't true [see Sez You, Issue 136].

 At the East end of Piccadilly is Piccadilly Circus, a world-famous traffic circle with a statue of Eros in the middle of it.  But don't let this circus fool you.  There were no clowns and trapeze artists here.  Just as with Oxford Circus, the name merely refers to a circle (Latin circus  "circle", from Greek kyrkos "circle").  Also, we're appalled to report that Eros was recently moved to one side to make way for more cars.  Whoever ordered this move was sorely lacking in historical perspective.  The point is, while the statue is definitely a winged archer, neither the artist nor those who commissioned the monument ever called it "Eros".  That name came out of the popular imagination.  Its official name is "The Lord Shaftesbury Memorial" and the whole thing was devised as a visual pun to commemorate this great philanthropist.  If the archer were to release his arrow, its shaft would bury in Shaftesbury Avenue.  Yes, we know it's a rotten joke but it was a little secret piece of London known only to those who loved the city.  Obviously, that group doesn't include the faceless bureaucrats who pointed the arrow at random passing motorists.

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