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What do street names tell you about Britain?

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EGrapecant Lanes in England unusual. Not because of their names: in the Middle Ages, streets were often named after professions – after butchers, bakers and candlemakers – so it is not surprising that there were several streets in memory of the supposedly oldest profession. At Oxford he snuggled comfortably between University College and Ariel; in Shrewsbury it ran into Fish Street. Naturally, there were several of them in London.

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But what is unusual about these streets is that they are no longer there. In Oxford the citizens now walk along the more decent Magpie Lane; in Shrewsbury you can still enjoy Group Lane, but generally the dirtier street names are gone; Britain has cleansed itself of the old-fashioned filth.

Street names speak for themselves. Run your eye down a list of British streets and it quickly becomes clear that between Jesus Lanes and Queens Street, Trafalgar Square and Empire Road lie not just streets and lanes, but ideals: a cartography of ideology and aspirations. So it is significant that the University of Cambridge has announced that it will next year name new streets after black graduates and abolitionists after its research found that it was “in various ways implicated in slavery”.

People rarely consider street signs, says Maoz Azariagu, a professor of cultural geography at the University of Haifa, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. On the contrary: “It only means that they are successful.” Their task is to introduce “official ideology into aspects of everyday life.” The fact that they do this subconsciously is far from weakness. “That’s their real strength: we don’t pay attention to them.”

Politicians understood this a long time ago. In Berlin in 1945, at the end of the war, the mayor’s office, dominated by Russians, met for the first time. “The city was in ruins, bodies in the canals,” Mr. Azariagu says, but they discussed “what to do with the Nazi street names.” Walking around Europe, you walk along streets whose names have been rewritten so often that they are part place, part palimpsest. In Paris, the Place Royale became the Place République; Adolf Hitler Places spread in Germany – then disappeared; in Berlin, streets with one name went to the Berlin Wall, and on the other side came out of the other.

When scientists last year analyzed 4,932 street names in four cities (London, New York, Paris and Vienna), some national features emerged. While bohemian Parisians may stroll down Avenue Victor Hugo (artists are the most respected profession in Paris), the streets of London tend to pander to the monarchy and the military. London is also inward-looking: in cosmopolitan Vienna, almost half of the street signs commemorate foreigners; in island London, only 15% do; although in the melting pot of New York it’s only 3%.

Not all names are political. Many, like tombstones, simply commemorate what lies dead beneath: Meadow Street and Grove Road. Others are sheer quirkiness: in north London, a surge of classical enthusiasm has seen residents living in Achilles Road, Ajax Road and the decidedly inauspicious Agamemnon Road. Others were proudly imperial: Rudyard Kipling called London the Empire Way; in south London you can walk from Khyber Road to Cabul Road or walk along Jamaica Road.

But mostly the streets of Great Britain are characterized by stagnation: many street names in London date back to 1600. That doesn’t mean nothing has changed. By the 1980s, 40% of London’s streets were named after women — all of them, not just body parts. But change tends to be incremental rather than revolutionary: layer after linguistic layer is added, each layer almost imperceptibly hiding the last; an unbroken archeology of ideals. And next year, a new layer will be laid in Cambridge.

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