The Great Wen, the Big Smoke, and more. London has had a few names throughout its long history – some official, and some nicknames. What do they each tell us about the city?
Londinium: The Romans first founded the city and christened it Londinium. To this day though we still don’t know what this original name meant, and whether it was influenced by any earlier Celtic settlement or presence in the area. This naming by the Romans has proved one of the most enduring things about the city. It has been the basis for all the other official names that came after. Yet we still don’t know what it meant.
Augusta: In the 4th century the Romans gave Londinium the additional title of Augusta, meaning divine. It’s unclear why they did this, especially as Londinium is thought to have been declining in population and this time. Was it an attempt to bring more prestige and therefore more people to the city? Or was it a reflection of something happening in Londinium itself?
Lundenwic: Londinium was abandoned in the early 5th century, but at some point in the 7th century the Anglo-Saxons built a new settlement in what is now Covent Garden. They named it Lundenwic, meaning London-trading-town. So London continued to be an important river port of business during their time.
Lundenburgh: Alfred the Great moved the settlement back inside the ancient Roman city walls to provide greater protection from the Vikings, and renamed the town Lundenburgh, meaning London-fortified-town.
The Great Wen: In the 1820s the writer William Cobbett referred to London as The Great Wen, a wen being an abscess or cyst on the body. Cobbett saw London as a drain on the rest of the country, something that was destroying and corrupting rural England. This nickname continued to be used by those who saw London as too big, or as infecting the rest of the nation.
The Big Smoke: Thick and repeated air pollution in the middle of the twentieth century, especially a four day smog in December 1952, led to London being nicknamed the Big Smoke.
So a city whose original name is hidden in obscurity, has been described as a trading town and a fortified place, and been given nicknames labelling it as divine, as parasitic, and as a pollutant.
Pray for London to be a city that serves the rest of the UK rather than leaching resources away from it. Pray for it to be a clean city, and one that fills its divine purpose.
Mark Williamson also blogs regularly for One Rock, a training organisation developing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s passionate about good films, good food, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markonerock.