What’s in a name?

Back in the Middle Ages, people had a practical way of naming streets. If the street was home to a group of businesses that sold the same thing, then the street was often named for them. Even today, centuries later, you can look at a map of the City of London and see streets with names like Ironmonger Lane, Poultry Street, Fish Street, Bread Street, Goldsmith Street or Oat Lane. As you might guess, each street was once the home to a group of merchants involved in a certain trade.

Now… would you care to guess what type of business went down on Gropecunt Lane?

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not: during medieval times, many of the streets where prostitutes gathered to peddle their “wares” were known as Gropecunt Lane.

Since spelling had yet to be standardized, there were many variations, such as Gropecunte, Gropecounte, Gropeconte, Groppecounte, or Gropekunte. But they all had one thing in common – ladies of the night plied their trade there. Such streets were almost always located near the town’s market and\or docks, and almost all were centrally located. London had multiple streets with the name, and even though it was mostly the larger cities that had such streets, smaller towns weren’t unfamiliar with the name. Small market towns like Wells, Banbury and Shrewsbury also had their own Gropecunt Lanes.

The first record of a Gropecunt Lane is from 1230, and the practice seems to have died out by 1561 due to the changing sensibilities of the time, especially from conservative Protestants (prior to the English Reformation, prostitution was not only “put up with” by English authorities, it was often regulated). In some cases, such as the city of York, Gropecunt Lane was changed to the more innocent-sounding Grape Lane. In other cities, completely new names were given. In Oxford, for example, Gropecunt Lane was initally renamed Grape Lane, but was later renamed Maggie Lane in the 1650s.

But it wasn’t only trademen (and women!) that gave such direct names to streets. Addle Street (meaning “stinking urine”) still exists today, as does Fetter Lane (which was originally Fewterer Lane, which meant “an idle and disorderly person”). Sherborne Lane was originally known as Shitteborwelane, possibly due to some nearby cesspits. The street was then renamed Shite-burn Lane and Shite-buruelane before settling on Sherborne. Pissing Alley, also a common street name in London, was renamed Little Friday Street in 1848 before being absorbed into Cannon Street in 1853.

While it’s common in the US for streets to be named after buildings once located on them, or for people who once owned the property, such direct names as Gropecunt Lane are terribly amusing… to me, at least.

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