The Great Wen
Regular readers will be aware that I spend a little time exploring some of the highways and byways of our metropolis, London. I find its history fascinating and still miss, albeit fleetingly, my daily commute up to the Smoke. For some, though, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the dust is so off-putting that they would do anything to avoid it. They might be tempted to refer to the capital as the Great Wen, a rather uncomplimentary, if archaic, sobriquet that it has earned in certain quarters.
But what is a wen? Its origin is from the Old English noun, wenn, which was used to describe a tumour or a wart, coming into our language from the Proto-Germanic wanja. Specifically it was the best type of tumour to have, if you were unfortunate enough to have one as I do, one that is benign and was generally situated on the scalp. By the Middle Ages it was beginning to be used to describe any form of protrusion and in a figurative sense as a form of insult, a kind of medieval version of a big lump. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in Henry IV Part 2, first performed in 1600. Prince Hal uses it pejoratively to describe his free-booting companion, Falstaff, who was a little on the chunky size; “I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.”
By the 18th century, though, wen started to be used as a descriptor for a city. Cities were beginning to increase in size as more and more people fled the countryside in search of employment and those mythical streets paved with gold. Men of sensitive dispositions were appalled at the squalor and noise of these conurbations, full of ramshackle tenement buildings and streets, not to mention rivers, full of rubbish and excrement. One such soul was the Dean of Gloucester and economic theorist, Josiah Tucker, who wrote in his Four Letters of National Importance, published in 1783, of London “if therefore the increase of Building, begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?” The gloss on Wen may lead us to conclude that even then its meaning was beginning to be lost in the mists of time.
It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1822, who specifically nailed London as the great wen when he wrote, “but what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” For the next thirty years the custom was to use the phrase, the great wen of London, but by the 1850s the phrase that was sufficiently well known that the possessive was dropped and capital letters at the start of each word were used to denote that they were talking about London.
In a game of word association, I would probably respond to great wen with Big Yin, a phrase used by our Scottish friends to describe anyone of above average height, although these days most people associate the phrase with the comedian, Billy Connolly. Its antonym is a wee bauchle, which is used to describe a short-arse, often one who was shabby in appearance. A bauchle, after all, was a shabby, down-at-heel shoe.