London Mythbusting: #2 Big Ben Mixups

Just call me Ben, it's easier

The identity of the Gothic clock tower at the Palace of Westminster is like flypaper to pedants and counter-pedants. Any time someone refers to ‘Big Ben’, anywhere on the web, you can guarantee there will be a comment within minutes pointing out that Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the tower. It’s like people have Google Alerts set up for such transgressions.

There are two levels of pedantry at play here. The amateur nitpicker will immediately leap in and declare that ‘there’s no such tower as ‘Big Ben’ – I think you mean St Stephen’s Tower’. Look, see, the BBC are very careful to not fall into the Big Ben trap. Twice. Visit London are keen to point out the fallacy. The Independent concur. It’s definitely St Stephen’s Tower, and not Big Ben.

Talk about red rag to a bull (another myth, by the way). A second cohort of pedants stands guard, ready to pounce on such heresy. ‘It’s not St Stephen’s Tower,’ they cry. ‘It’s simply known as the Clock Tower. St Stephen’s is the shorter, spired tower above Central Lobby’. And, technically, they’re correct. Wired fell into the trap, but so have innumerable bloggers and photographers.

However, we’d like to fly the flag for the vernacular. The term ‘Big Ben’ is in such common parlance, and the phrase ‘Clock Tower’ so generic and ambiguous, that for the sake of clear communication it is much easier to refer to the tower as Big Ben. Our solution is to call it Big Ben in passing, and then add a cheeky tag as insurance against insistent pedants.

If you want to delve into this issue further, have a wade through this lengthy and monumentally pedantic Wikipedia discussion.

Previous mythbusting: how to tell if the Queen is at home.

Image by wallyg in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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  • DeanN

    “Look, see, the BBC are very careful to not fall into the Big Ben trap. Twice. Visit London are keen to point out the fallacy. The Independent concur. It’s definitely St Stephen’s Tower, and not Big Ben.”

    Indeed, even the great Londonist has made this mistake before.

    Totally agree that the tower should be referred to as Big Ben though, pedants be damned.

    • M@

      Indeed, even the great Londonist has made this mistake before.

      Would never have happened on my watch. ;-)

  • http://undefined Ben

    As a kid I was lucky enough to get a guided tour and walk up and explore the tower and stand a couple of feet away when the deafening quarter past bell rang and although it was about 27 years ago I seem to remember them saying it was called Westminster tower.

  • IanVisits

    To be even more pedantic, the formal name for the bell is actually the “Bell Victoria”, and Big Ben is just a nickname ;)

  • http://jasonbstanding.com Jason B. Standing

    Wow, it’s a good job Captain Kirk never piloted Big Ben, or you’d be able to set up some sort of perpetual motion device powered by pedantic idiots arguing.

    http://www.news.com.au/technology/were-sorry-for-claiming-captain-kirk-was-in-command-of-captain-picards-starship/

  • DeanN

    “Look, see, the BBC are very careful to not fall into the Big Ben trap. Twice. Visit London are keen to point out the fallacy. The Independent concur. It’s definitely St Stephen’s Tower, and not Big Ben.”
    Indeed, even the great Londonist has made this mistake before.
    Totally agree that the tower should be referred to as Big Ben though, pedants be damned.

  • http://undefined Ben

    As a kid I was lucky enough to get a guided tour and walk up and explore the tower and stand a couple of feet away when the deafening quarter past bell rang and although it was about 27 years ago I seem to remember them saying it was called Westminster tower.

  • IanVisits

    To be even more pedantic, the formal name for the bell is actually the “Bell Victoria”, and Big Ben is just a nickname ;)

  • M@

    Indeed, even the great Londonist has made this mistake before.
    Would never have happened on my watch. ;-)

  • http://jasonbstanding.com Jason B. Standing

    Wow, it’s a good job Captain Kirk never piloted Big Ben, or you’d be able to set up some sort of perpetual motion device powered by pedantic idiots arguing.
    http://www.news.com.au/technology/were-sorry-for-claiming-captain-kirk-was-in-command-of-captain-picards-starship/