Q From Betty Thaeder, Toronto: I came across a reference in a newspaper last week to the Great Wen, which appeared to be London. Why that name and where did it come from?
A It is indeed a reference to London, an uncomplimentary one. It’s now largely forgotten other than by historians — Oxford dictionaries mark it as archaic — though journalists still occasionally find it a useful mock-eruditism with which to pepper their prose. Even more curiously, an archive of British newspapers that I consulted shows that it underwent a mild revival in the early 2000s.
It’s particularly puzzling to many people because they don’t know the meaning of wen, a word almost as rare as Great Wen. A wen is a type of benign tumour, a sebaceous cyst, most commonly found on the scalp. It’s an Old English word of obscure origin, though it’s known to have had parallels in several ancient Germanic languages.
From medieval times, people generalised the idea to refer to any sort of protrusion and used it figuratively as an insult.
I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.
Henry IV, Part 2, by William Shakespeare, 1600. Prince Hal is referring dismissively to the obese Falstaff.
In the eighteenth century, it came to refer to cities, London especially, that had grown hugely following industrialisation and changes in the rural economy. To many observers, their choked, noisome and polluted environments did seem like an outgrowth on the English landscape, which sucked in people and produce from their hinterlands.
If therefore the Increase of Building [in London], begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?
Four Letters on Important National Subjects, by Josiah Tucker, 1783. Tucker, an economic theorist, was then Dean of Gloucester.
You might be reminded of a comment by Prince Charles in 1984, when he referred to a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”. Two centuries earlier, he would most likely have called it a wen.
The origin of the fuller phrase Great Wen is usually attributed to the English writer and political reformer William Cobbett:
But what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, “the metropolis of the empire”?
Rural Rides, by William Cobbett; first published in Cobbett’s Weekly Register, 5 Jan. 1822.
Though the term quickly became accepted, it usually appeared as “the great wen of London”. It was only in the 1850s that it started to be capitalised as the Great Wen, with a reference to London being assumed.