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?
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 Houston 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.
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.