11 London Misnomers

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By M@ Last edited 13 months ago

Last Updated 30 March 2023

11 London Misnomers

What's in a name? Often the opposite of what you'd expect

London's place names are an endless source of fascination, as we've seen over our series of articles on etymology. Sometimes, though, a name can be misleading or humorously outdated — if you take it literally. Here, we've collected together 11 London names or phrases that might be considered misnomers.

1. Piccadilly Circus

Obviously, there's no Big Top or acrobats to be found at Piccadilly Circus (clowns? - debatable). But "circus" has the secondary meaning of a rounded place where roads meet. The "rounded" bit is important. The word circus (in both senses) comes from Latin, where it denoted the circular space of a sports arena.

Three maps of Piccadilly Circus, showing 2023, 1890s and 1820s

Piccadilly Circus today is not circular. It's a crooked wizard's hat of a junction. But, as you can see from the earlier maps, this was very much a circular confluence in days of yore. Oxford Circus is also of debatable circularity. The road pattern is a straightforward crossroads, but the facades of the surrounding buildings describe a circular shape.

2. Westminster Abbey

An abbey, strictly speaking, is a building occupied by monks or nuns. It's getting on for 500 years since such holy folk dwelt within Westminster Abbey's precincts. Technically, the place is not a cathedral either, just a church (albeit a very, very important one). Its official name is the Collegiate Church of St Peter.

3. The Isle of Dogs

A 3D model of the Isle of Dogs with the blue thames looping round

Here, we're quibbling the "Isle" bit of the name, not the "Dogs" (which has uncertain origins, and may be something to do with royal kennels in Tudor times). Is the Isle of Dogs really an island, or merely a peninsula? It's open to debate, but I'd say "No, it is not".

The land is surrounded west, south and east by the Thames — a good start to islandhood. It's the north where things get interesting. Here, water channels connect both ends of South Dock to the Thames. So, theoretically, you could circumnavigate the Isle of Dogs, making it a true isle.

But not so fast. First of all, the western entrance to South Dock is now all but blocked by a sluice and low road bridge. This may have been a viable channel for much of the dock's history, but today you couldn't get so much as a weasel's kayak through the obstruction. It is completely unnavigable.

Then, we must consider that South Dock and its approach channels are all artificial. If we're going to count these, then a case could be made for central London being an island. It is, after all, circumnavigable by canal, connecting to the Thames at Brentford and Limehouse.

The name Isle of Dogs predates the docks. This was once marshy, undeveloped land that would have partially flooded during high tide. So, historically the Isle of Dogs probably was an intermittent island, but today it's difficult to justify the name.

4. The New River

New River, London. A round plaque on railings gives the history of the river which can be seen in the background

The New River opened in 1613 as a means to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into north London. People have been falling into it for 20 generations, so to call it "New" is like describing Shakespeare as a dazzlingly modern playwright. Also, does a man-made channel count as a "river"? A doubly duplicitous watercourse.

5. Eros

As any passing pedant will tell you, the famous statue in Piccadilly Circus is not Eros at all, but his twin brother Anteros (or sometimes the "Angel of Christian Charity"). Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. Both attributions are surprisingly recent. An opinion poll of 1914 found that only 5% of people thought the statue depicted Eros (most said Mercury). Nobody said Anteros. In fact, I've never been able to find a direct mention of Anteros any earlier than 1984. Sculptor Alfred Gilbert may well have intended that, but he never explicitly said so despite what you might read on Wikipedia. Let's all just agree to call it Eros, alright? (Ditto "Big Ben" for the tower.)

6. Chislehurst Caves

According to Chislehurst's website — and probably most of the locals — the Stygian attraction can be found in Kent. We'd prefer to call it south-east London, because it's in the London Borough of Bromley. But the tiresome debate about county boundaries isn't the reason we've included Chislehurst Caves in this list of misnomers. Our beef is with the word "caves", which are usually defined as natural chambers. Chislehurst's remarkable set of tunnels are entirely man-made, having been dug out centuries ago in the quest for chalk and flint. Reigate Caves in Surrey are similarly artificial.

7. Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant Mail Building

Today, this area of raised ground near Clerkenwell is best known for its sprawling mail centre, and the nearby Postal Museum. But the district was once a massive dump. This was the place, 300 years ago, where you might discard your fireplace cinders and other household refuse. The name "Mount Pleasant" was coined in irony, a jibe at the less-than-amiable surroundings. Things got still less salubrious with the coming of the Middlesex House of Correction — London's largest jail, famed for its treadmills.

The area recently underwent a mammoth transformation, with the construction of hundreds of posh flats. Perhaps wisely, the developers have dropped the name Mount Pleasant in favour of Postmark London. A one-bedroom flat here will set you back almost a million pounds, which is quite the turnaround for a Georgian dump.

8. St Martin-in-the-Fields

Along with St Giles-in-the-Fields, two prominent West End churches that haven't seen a field in 300 years. These fall into a broader class of misnomer — descriptive place names that were once accurate, but have since become anachronisms. Other examples include Chalk Farm, Smithfield (from 'smooth field'), Clerkenwell Green, St John's Wood, etc. etc.

9. Clapham Junction

Looking along the railway tracks at Clapham Junction with a low sun to the right, just off shot

It's in Battersea, as any local will tell you.

10. Affordable housing

A phrase guaranteed to get people doing those little air quotes with their fingers. By UK law, developers must include units with affordable rent in any new housing project (or pay for it to be built elsewhere). Affordable is defined as "up to 80%" of market value. The trouble is that 80% of "shit loads of money" is still "shit loads of money". Affordable housing is all too unaffordable for many Londoners.

11. London Underground

A tube train passing over a lower line, as seen from above
London Underground goes over London Overground at Whitechapel, in this pre-redevelopment photo. Image Matt Brown

London's most prominent misnomer is surely the Underground. Yes, it's mostly in tunnels through central London, but the long stretches built to serve the growing suburbs in the early 20th century are typically open to the elements. According to TfL, only 45% of the Underground network is truly underground (a total which may have gone up marginally since completion of the Battersea Power Station extension). The orange Overground lines, by contrast are indeed mostly overground. The chief exception is the dip under the Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe.

What misnomers would you add to the list? The comments are open...

All images by Matt Brown