How Did Soho Get Its Name?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago
How Did Soho Get Its Name?
Photo by Michael Goldrei in the Londonist Flickr pool

Few place names in London or elsewhere roll off the tongue like Soho. It's a salaciously dangerous whisper of a word, like that of an exotic club you should steer well clear of. But where was the evocative moniker conjured from in the first place?

The common held theory is that 'soho' is an old hunting cry. In the 16th century this area of central London was a hunting ground, and it's widely claimed 'soho' was used either to encourage or to call off harrier dogs when fetching game, namely hares. Steve Coogan, playing porn baron Paul Raymond in the 2013 film The Look of Love goes along with that theory (yelling 'soho' out of the back of his Rolls-Royce), as does the esteemed Brewers Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (adding that 'soho' was a synonym for 'tally-ho'), and the Survey of London:

The word Soho is an ancient hunting call, and there is evidence that hunting took place over the lands to the west of Wardour Street.

Already reputable itself, the London Survey uses the Oxford English Dictionary as its source for this nugget, which, you would have thought, puts an end to the matter. But there's a spanner in the works; when mentioning the word 'soho' the OED never explicitly mentions London, let alone the area of central London we're concerned with:

In fact, the more you delve into the hunting cry premise, the more iffy it becomes, being winkled by various sources as 'not well defined' and an 'unsubstantiated urban myth'.   

So where else could 'soho' have come from?

Monmouth House, Soho Square in the 17th century

Another theory can be shrugged off pretty quickly. If you thought it might be an abbreviation of South (of) Holborn, then according to Soho expert Pete Berthoud, you're being "ridiculous". Pete's right, too — Soho isn't to the south of Holborn, but to the west of it. The Survey of London must shoulder some of the blame for this false etymology; people reading the following paragraph have often mistaken the colon for an abbreviation of 'South of Holborn':

In 1641 Anna Clerke, 'a lewd woman', was bound over to keep the peace after 'threteninge to burne the houses at So: ho’.

The confusion can be compounded by the fact SoHo in new York City derives its name from 'South of Houson Street'.

The 'cry' theory from another angle is that 'soho' was the rallying call of the first Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor. This would appear to be bolstered by the fact that there was once a Monmouth House in Soho Square; could this be where our quest ends? Unfortunately not. The Duke of Monmouth myth is dispelled by the fact that 'Soho' or 'So Hoe' were in use at least 50 years before the battle. So we can write that theory off too.

The Spirit of Soho mural on Broadwick Street. Note the hare riding a hunting dog in the bottom left corner. Photo by DncnH in the Londonist Flickr pool

But, as Pete points out, there's yet another 'cry' theory, this one concerning 19th century author Walter Thornbury's suggestion that 'soho' might come from "the footpad's slang of the 16th century, when the fields were lonely at night, and divers persons were robbed in them...". Like the hunting theory, it's credible; footpads did abound in the area at the time. But again, there's nothing to substantiate the claim.

As it transpires, the hunting cry derivation is by far the most substantiated and the most credible. But it's not certain. Thornbury is keen to hammer home the nebulousness of  the 'soho' name, musing at one point: "In reality, however, we do not know much about the matter, and had better let it alone." That nebulousness continues to this day; Pete says he likes 'we'll never know' best as a theory too, and seeing as Soho is one of his specialist subjects, well, we know when we're beaten.

What we can say is that the numerous other Sohos, SoHos and SOHOs around the world — from Buenos Aires to Beijing — take their name from London's. We're honoured of course, but to be honest, the sketchiness of our Soho's etymology is part of what makes this place so special.

Last Updated 14 October 2016

Jo Cooper

Ho might come from 'Hoo' which is a place name in plenty of areas. e.g. Luton Hoo7, Sutton Hoo. From memory it means a raised area of land. Variations include Bengeo in Hertford (comes from Beane Hoo or raised area of land above the River Beane).

Russ Willey

Interesting article, and thanks for namechecking Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (which I compiled). But I think you've implied more disagreement about the derivation of Soho's name than actually exists. *All* authoritative sources suggest, one way or another, that an old hunting cry is the best bet for the origin of the name, without saying this can definitely be proven. I could back this up by quoting at greater length from each of the reputable sources you cite – Brewer's, Survey of London, Walter Thornbury (who seems to have moved more towards the hunting cry theory the second time he wrote about the subject than the first) – plus others, but I'll spare you that. The only source you quote that completely writes off the hunting cry story as an urban myth is the article in easyJet's inflight magazine, which doesn't carry the same weight as your other sources.

Jim Morvay

Here in the US, the area known as Soho, in New York City, is a shortened form of "South of Houston" (Houston being pronounced HOWSTON).

RichSpalding

In Hong Kong, SoHo is South Of Hollywood Road according to Wikipedia. I'm sure the British rulers at the time liberally borrowed the name from London too