The tiny village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, central England, is the next stop on our list. From the outside looking in, it is a picturesque, entirely unassuming rural English village, nestled between the River Trent to the south, and the city of Nottingham to the north. To look at it, you wouldn’t think that it had given its name to one of the most famous -and entirely fictitious – cities in the world. Yes, this really is the story of Gotham City. But no, this particular tale doesn’t begin with a bungled robbery in an inner-city alleyway. Instead, we’re back in Tudor England
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Sometime around the mid fifteenth century, the name Gotham began to be used as a byword for any unsophisticated backwater town or village whose populace was all proverbially foolish, bumpkin-like characters. The earliest record we have of that comes from one of the Wakefield Mystery Plays, a series of thirty-two religious plays first performed in Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, sometime in the mid 1400s. We know from the only surviving script of these plays that at least one of them contained the line, ‘foles all sam, Sagh I never none so fare, Bot the foles of Gotham’; take that impenetrably jumbled Middle English and bring it bang up-to-date, and you’ll have something along the lines of, ‘They’re all fools. I never saw a fool so fair [game] as the fools of Gotham.’
This allusion became so widespread in Tudor English that in 1540 an entire my blog of comic anecdotes about the ironically named ‘Wise Men of Gotham’ was published. In one of the stories, one particularly foolhardy Gothamite rides his horse while carrying a huge sack of grain on his back so that the horse doesn’t have to carry all the weight. In another, a gang of Gothamites decides to punish an eel that has eaten all the fish in a local pond by trying to drown it. Eventually, the joke became so widespread that it even inspired a sixteenth-century folk rhyme, which described the hapless misadventures of three wannabe seamen from Gotham:
Three wise men of Gotham,
Went to sea in a bowl.
Had the bowl been stronger,
My song’d been longer.
Admittedly, it’s unclear whether or not this proverbially foolish ‘Gotham’ was actually based on the real-life village of Gotham or was merely a fictional invention, but the Nottinghamshire Gotham is widely considered the most likely candidate. Being known for your proverbial stupidity isn’t the most welcome legacy a town could leave on the linguistic landscape, but happily it’s not all bad news. Things began to change around the turn of the eighteenth century.
It was around then that Gotham began to be used as a nickname for any town whose inhabitants were (albeit very unfairly) viewed as being less sophisticated or less cultured than those of larger, more cosmopolitan cities. In this context, the nickname Gotham was probably applied to any number of different places across England including, among them, Newcastle upon Tyne. But, by then, all those old-fashioned Tudor folktales and folk rhymes had started to fall out of fashion, and as they vanished from memory the name Gotham began to lose all its negative connotations. By the nineteenth century, it was being used merely as a byword for any large town or city, regardless of the sophistication of the people who lived there. And in that context, it remained particularly associated with Newcastle: Heav’n prosper thee, Gotham! thou famous old town, Of the Tyne the chief glory and pride: May thy heroes acquire immortal renown, In the dead field of Mars, when they’re try’d: Amongst them, O ne’er may a flincher be found; And that mirth they from duty may draw, Long, long, through their ranks may these accents resound, Kiver awa’, Kiver awa’, Kiver awa’. ’
Those are the lyrics to a Newcastle ballad called ‘Kiver Awa’, which, according to the collection in which it appeared, was written in November 1804. The ‘Gotham of the Tyne’ mentioned here is, unsurprisingly, the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, and this obscure ballad proves two things.
Firstly, given the glowing praise these lyrics heap on the city, by the turn of the nineteenth century we can tell that Gotham is a name that has been all but embraced by the city, and lost all of its earlier negative connotations. And secondly, as this ballad provides us with the earliest known written reference to any city anywhere being labelled ‘Gotham’, the very first ‘Gotham City’ was Newcastle upon Tyne.
To most people today, however, Gotham has firmly established itself as a nickname for New York. So at what point did the name make its leap across the Atlantic?
English emigrants are presumed to have taken Gotham – by that time simply an old nickname for a large city – across to America in the early 1800s, and there began using it in reference to New York City. In that sense, it first appeared in print in the United States in an instalment of the author and journalist Washington Irving’s satirical magazine Salmagundi in November 1807, which made reference for the first time to ‘the chronicles of the renowned and antient [sic] city of Gotham’.
For Irving’s article to have made sense to its readers, we can presume that the nickname Gotham was already fairly well established in New York by the time he came to use it. There, over the years that followed, its use in reference to the city of New York blossomed, while over in England the nickname largely disappeared. By the turn of the century, the word had completed its extraordinary journey from rural Nottinghamshire, to the shores of the River Tyne, and finally across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.
Etymological connections have also been drawn to a long-lost ‘Gotham Hall’ in the county of Essex, the proximity of which to the capital might have made its relatively rustic inhabitants a prime target for jokes among the more urbane Londoners nearby. But if that’s the case, it’s doubtful that the earliest written record of Gotham would appear two hundred miles away in Wakefield.