Going underground II

In August, I sang the praises of Andrew Martin’s book ‘Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube’. At the end of that post I promised a follow up covering the Americanisation of the lexicon of travel, Brunel and the war winning boots and state funerals on the Tube. Six months is no time at all in a blog, so here (finally) is the follow up!

For tourists, few things evoke a trip to London as effectively as a ride on the Tube. London’s deep tunnel network is unlike any other metro system in the world – curiously compact, cylindrical and ‘cosy’. Many, including most Londonders, will not appreciate the debt that is owed to foreigners, especially Americans, in the financing, design and running of the network.

Americans were also responsible for changing the way we speak about travel. Thousands, maybe even millions of people commute into London every day. But, if American linguistic influence hadn’t extended to Britain in the 1940s, they might have ‘oscillated’, ‘shuttled’ or even ‘taken season tickets’. The word we use today comes from regular travellers obtaining reduced price tickets in the US called ‘commutation-tickets’, so-called because their cost had been commuted.

Similarly, vehicle congestion on the roads is today described using the phrase ‘traffic jam’, an American import that was first regularly employed in the UK in the 1920s. Before then, horse-drawn omnibuses, early motor vehicles and delivery wagons would be stalled in traffic ‘locks’ or ‘blocks’.

Back on the Underground, and we find ourselves traveling eastbound or westbound on the Metropolitan line because of American managerial preferences. Before their involvement, people had travelled ‘up’ towards the City and ‘down’ towards Paddington.

Not all loan words come from across the Atlantic. The word ‘bus’ has a much closer origin across the English Channel. In 1828, a horse drawn carriage service began operating on the Nantes to Paris route. It stopped outside a shop owned by Monsieur Omnes who proudly displayed the punning slogan ‘Omnes Omnibus, the Latin for ‘everything for everyone’. Soon, the itself began to be referenced by this slogan, becoming known as the ‘omnibus’. This would be shortened even further to the now familiar ‘bus’.

And, after this etymological tour of the Underground, it is time to mop up some of the other promised factoids from Mr Martin’s excellent book. Marc Brunel was a renowned engineer, but he was also the Frenchman who can be said to have beaten Napoleon. In the early 19th century, Brunel set up a boot making factory which mass-produced proper footwear for the British army. The Duke of Wellington considered these boots played a large part in Britain’s ultimate victory against the French. Brunel’s boots are not, however, to be confused with Wellington Boots, which were ‘foppish articles [that] came from the Duke of Wellingotn’s boot-maker in St. James’s’.

Marc Brunel would go on to create the first tunnel under the Thames, the same tunnel that now carries the London Overground service (and the explanation for why the London Overground travels beneath the London Underground at Whitechapel).

Finally, it is worth noting that the London Underground has carried Prime Ministers both alive and dead. The funeral train carrying Mr Gladstone in his coffin was brought to Westminster Station by way of the District Line. It is hard to imagine a similar service being employed for a state funeral for any of the 20th or 21st century Prime Ministers, but this may reflect Victorian sensibilities rather than our own aversion to the Tube.

The facts quoted in this article are sourced from Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube by Andrew Martin.