The Great Wen

I used the phrase ‘the great wen’ the other day and got to wondering if many people still use it, and how many people actually get the reference. I didn’t realise that the term, a disparaging name for London, was coined by William Cobbett some time in the 1820’s. Cobbett was born in 1763 in Surrey, the son of a farmer; he had an interesting and varied life, but he is chiefly known for his writing and his various campaigns and for being a radical and political reformer. He wrote many pamphlets and it is in his book ‘Rural Rides’ that he actually quotes his own phrase, ‘the great wen’ when speaking of the capital city. A wen is a very nasty thing, a sebaceous cyst, so his comment is very disparaging indeed!

I grew up in Cambridge, which is not that far from London, and there it was commonly known as ‘the smoke’, and also, I have discovered, ‘the big smoke’; no doubt this came from the air pollution the city suffered (and other big cities too) when most homes, businesses and industry was heated or powered by coal – and before we had smokeless coal.

Other nick-names I’ve discovered are ‘the swinging city’ in the 1960’s, ‘Reykjavik on Thames’ in the 2000’s and just ‘the city’ – although this  mainly refers to the central financial area of the capital. The actual City of London, is a city within the greater London area.

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