Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

Gotham

Q From Gregory Hefner: Could you please tell me how Gotham came to be a reference to New York City?

A It’s the fault of Washington Irving. He applied the name to New York in an issue of a humorous magazine name Salmagundi, a title taken from the name of a salad which consists of a variety of ingredients. The original Gotham is popularly supposed to be the village of that name in Nottinghamshire, though I gather there’s little good evidence of this. The story is that bad King John (Magna Carta etc) decided to visit Gotham on a royal progress, though why he should when he had a perfectly good castle to stay at just up the road at Nottingham is not explained. The villagers realised this would be inconvenient and expensive because of the size of the king’s retinue. They decided to pretend to be imbecilic in front of the king’s heralds, by trying to fish the moon out of a pond, running madly in circles, trying to drown an eel, clasping hands around a thorn bush to imprison a cuckoo, and other crazy actions. The ploy worked and the king decided not to come. A collection of tales about stupidity was published in the reign of Henry VIII, entitled The Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham. So the name had by Washington Irving’s time long been associated with stupidity, even though the original story was actually about a kind of twisted cleverness. Washington Irving thought this just the name to give to a city which he believed was inhabited by fools.

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ LinkedIn Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Feb. 1999

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-got1.htm
Last modified: 6 February 1999.