Around the World in 80 Words:
A Journey Through the English Language
Hidden away in the dictionary between the words stellate (“star-shaped”) and stelleroid (“a starfish”) is the peculiar word Stellenbosch. Listed as a verb meaning “to demote, out of incompetence, to an ineffective or menial position”, Stellenbosch is a surprisingly useful word given its unfamiliarity. And what’s more, it also has a superb etymological story lurking in its footnotes.
Stellenbosch itself, those notes will explain, is the name of a town in South Africa, where, during the Boer War, a British remount camp for the training, care and rehabilitation of war horses was located. In the days before motorized military transport, looking after the horses at the remount camp was an important task—but, admittedly, it was far from front line duty.
Any officer whose front-line conduct or tactical decisions had proved unsatisfactory, might ultimately find themselves “Stellenbosched”—that is, moved aside, out of harms way, to a significant but much less impactful position at the Stellenbosch camp. They had not been demoted as such (and so could scarcely complain about their reassignment), but were nevertheless cashiered far from the military front line.
It was this brilliant geographical etymology that inspired the latest HH book, Around the World in 80 Days—a fascinating collection of all those words in the dictionary we owe to our maps and atlases. Beginning and ending in London, the Around the World route takes in the likes of the tiny Swedish mining town whose name lurks behind four chemical elements, and the tiny Czech mining town whose name lurks behind more than 100 world currencies; and the mountain in Jordan whose name is a metaphor for the unreachable, and the Australian island whose name inspired an old word for the unforgivable.
Six continents, 70 countries, and 80 fascinating etymologies; Around the World is a circumnavigation of the English language like no other.
Kent Street ejectment
Bags packed? Passport ready? Good, because we’ll be making no less than eighty stops on this etymological trip around the world. And just like another literary circumnavigation before ours, we’re beginning this journey in London. But while Phileas Fogg’s eighty-day voyage began in the lavish surroundings of The Reform Club, we’re starting off in—well, a less decadent setting. A poverty-stricken street in eighteenth century Southwark, to be exact.
Places all across London have provided inspiration for countless words and phrases over the centuries, from an Aldgate draught, a punning name for a bad cheque (so called as Aldgate was once home to a well-used water pump) to a Westminster wedding, an eighteenth century term for what one contemporary dictionary defined as ‘a whore and a rogue married together.’ Quite what that says about the nearby abbey’s popularity as a high-society wedding venue is probably best left unsaid.
Because inmates at London’s Newgate prison were typically shackled together in twos, to walk Newgate fashion is to walk hand-in-hand, while a Newgate nightingale was once a witty nickname for a literal jailbird in seventeenth century slang. If you’ve ever been in financial difficulty then you’ve been on Carey Street, a reference to the Bankruptcy Department of London’s Supreme Court that once stood at this address in Holborn (and that now lies, somewhat ironically, beside the London School of Economics).
And if you’ve ever just missed the Tube or found yourself stuck in an endless London traffic jam, then you may have had cause to use Billingsgate—a seventeenth century word for coarse language that namechecks the notoriously vulgar-tongued vendors of London’s Billingsgate fish market.
On the opposite side of the Thames from all these, however, was Kent Street. You won’t find its name on any maps of London today, but you will at least find it in the dictionary under the heading of a Kent Street ejectment.
Kent Street was one of London’s most ancient thoroughfares, thought to have developed from a Roman road that once connected the city to Greenwich, Canterbury, and Dover. Originally, little more than fields and open ground lay either side of it, but as London thrived this empty greenbelt was gradually eaten up by a sprawling network of houses and hostels, inns and taverns—and even one of the city’s largest leprosy hospitals.
As one of the main roads into and out of the city, by 1565 Kent Street had grown in significance enough to warrant the passing of an Act of Parliament ordering that it be paved. This sparked a further boom in house building and development, but unfortunately for Kent Street, these were far from the most luxurious homes in the capital—and their tenants were far from the most affluent.
Soon, the entire Kent Street area had become synonymous with the very worst of London’s squalor and destitution, and those who ventured into it were quick to ensure they didn’t repeat the journey. In his Survey of London (1720), the English historian John Strype described Kent Street as ‘very long but ill-built,’ and ‘chiefly inhabited by broom-men and mumpers’ (or street-sweepers and beggars, as we’d know them today). In his Travels Through France and Italy (1766), the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett labelled Kent Street ‘a most disgraceful entrance to such an opulent city,’ that gave anyone unfamiliar with the capital ‘such an idea of misery and meanness … all the wealth and magnificence of London and Westminster are afterwards unable to destroy.’
Another equally evocative account from the late 1800s lamented Kent Street’s ‘evil reputation,’ and described a street where it was not uncommon to find ‘men, women, children, asses, pigs, and dogs … living together in the same room.’ Even Charles Dickens thought it ‘the worst kept part of London’ (second only to Haymarket, in his opinion), while one nineteenth century dictionary spelled things out even more clearly: in a description of precisely what constitutes living the ‘high’ and ‘low’ life in London in the early 1800s, the lexicographer John Babcock had this to say.
White Cross Street, of a Saturday night, is low; and so is Petticoat Lane of a Sunday morning; and Kent Street, all day.
John Badcock, Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf (1823)
All day every day, there was seemingly no escaping how ‘low’ life was on Kent Street. Its inhabitants were among the city’s poorest, their homes among its most miserable—and their landlords among its least sympathetic.
No matter the meagre circumstances, there was still rent to be collected on Kent Street, and woe betide anyone who fell into arrears. With no property worth seizing to cover the debt, insolvent tenants on Kent Street would often find themselves being swiftly and unceremoniously evicted via an uncompromising method that became known as the Kent Street ejectment:
Kent Street ejectment. To take away the street door [of a house]: a method practised by the landlords in Kent Street, Southwark, when their tenants are above a fortnight’s rent in arrear.
Francis Grose, A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785)
That definition is the earliest record we have of a Kent Street ejectment, suggesting that the practise first emerged among the stoniest of the stony-hearted landlords of mid eighteenth century London. Use of the term (and, we can presume, the practise) steadily dwindled throughout the 1800s, and the expression has long since gathered dust in one of the more neglected corners of the dictionary; it’s remained little more than a historical and linguistic curio since the turn of the twentieth century.
Kent Street itself, meanwhile, has long since changed: renamed Tabard Street in 1877, after redevelopment and renovation in the early 1900s it’s now a perfectly respectable neighbourhood standing in the shadow of The Shard, one of modern London’s most impressive landmarks. It is also no longer one of the city’s main arterial routes, but no matter—we can take some other route out of the capital, as it’s time to embark on the first leg of our trip.
So. Let’s leave the hustle and bustle of London behind us. We’re off across the Channel for some much-needed time in the French countryside…