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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.

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

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Last modified: 6 February 1999.