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The Olympics and Paralympics have come to a triumphant end, climaxing with a a concert, grand parade and a spectacular fireworks display which lit up the sky over the Thames and Tower Bridge. The sporting festival has been a golden summer for the city of London, which has gained new confidence after putting on a fantastic Olympic Games, followed by the most successful Paralympics Games ever. The city of London itself looked richly alluring, with its parks and gardens in leaf under the sun, or its historic buildings looking grand yet discreet in the grey drizzle.

I know many people who couldn’t wait to visit London, or visit it again, after watching the coverage of the Olympic Games, and it’s a city which has drawn many Australians to it, for holidays, to work, and sometimes to live permanently. Since the post-war era, it seems as if we have been sending Australians to Britain in droves, and most of them seem to end up in London. They give us a bunch of convicts, and in return they get Barry Humphries, Kylie Minogue and a ton of drunk Aussie backpackers. Whether this is a fair trade or not only history can decide.

London was first established as a town around 47 AD by the Romans, who called it Londinium. It is almost certain that they based it on a local name for the area, which may be Celtic, or perhaps even older. What that name may have signified has taxed the brains of etymologists for many years, with none of them coming up with a theory that has gained widespread acceptance.

The very first theory put forward was by medieval chronicler Geoffrey Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. He asserted that the name is derived from the name of King Lud, who once ruled the area. It would thus mean “Lud’s fortress”, although there is no evidence of Londinium ever being fortified, and in fact seems to have been built as a civic and mercantile centre; perhaps “Lud’s valley” would be more accurate. The name Lud may be connected to a mythological figure named Llud Llaw Eraint, who is the Welsh version of a British god named Nodens.

Nodens was a Celtic god of the sea, hunting, dogs, and healing, and a patron of amputees, and there is a ruined temple complex in his honour in Gloucestershire, while other artefacts connected to him have been found in Lancashire and on Hadrian’s Wall. He is sometimes identified with the Fisher King of medieval myth, who features so enigmatically in Arthurian legend.

J.R.R. Tolkien derived the name Nodens from a Germanic root meaning “acquire, own, utilise” from an earlier word with connotations of “catch, entrap”. This would certainly fit in with Nodens as a god of hunting, and at this point most scholars seem to be in general agreement with the meaning proposed by Tolkien.

Several places in Britain and Ireland derive their names from Nodens, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that London might too. The reason Geoffrey of Monmouth’s theory has been given short shrift is that like many medieval chroniclers, his work is quite fanciful, and riddled with errors in etymology. For example, he latched onto Lud as the origin of London because of Ludgate in the London Wall; most likely it’s a corruption of the Old English for “swing gate”. However, even though Geoffrey of Monmouth got a lot of things wrong, he may have been drawing on genuine traditions of London being sacred to Nodens in ancient times.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Romans built a temple to Lud, but if so, it remains elusive. There are statues of Lud and his sons, once adorning Ludgate, which are now on a church porch in Fleet Street, while a pub at Ludate Circus was once called Old King Lud. Although the building now houses a Leon restaurant, medallions commemorating King Lud can still be seen on its roofline and over its doors. So King Lud aka Nodens still maintains a presence in London town.

If I may stick my own ignorant oar into the debate, I can’t help noticing that names of places near a river nearly always have a meaning connected to it. As Nodens was a god of the sea, and the part of the Thames near London is a tidal river, this notion of mine does not cancel out the idea that it was connected to Nodens in some way. The Museum of London tells us that finds of prehistoric artefacts dredged from the Thames provide copious evidence that they were placed there as votive offerings, and that the deity presiding over the river was worshipped.

Could this hypothetical deity have been Nodens? Possibly, but it’s all getting very speculative, so I think we have reached the end of our investigations for now. In my uneducated opinion, London’s name is probably connected to its river, and quite possibly to the deity presiding over it, who may very well be Nodens. Apart from that I can say no more, except that Britain’s capital is a vital part of its ancient and rich mythology.

London has been used as a first name since at least the 17th century, and was first given to boys, most likely from the surname London, after the city. It’s possible that even early Londons were named directly in honour of the city, as many were born in London districts.

From very early on, London was used for both genders, and although I can easily understand it as a unisex name, I have slightly more trouble comprehending why it has become so much more popular for girls. While cities such as Paris and Florence have a certain “feminine” vibe, to me, London has quite a “masculine” feel – solid, serious, the seat of business and government. The name London also fits the pattern for many of our popular male names – two syllables, ending with an -n, such as Aidan, Mason, Logan or Nathan. In fact it’s only one letter different from a male name – Landon, while its last three letters form a male nickname – Don.

I have been told that the reason for this is the character of London Tipton, from the Disney TV series, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. However in the US the name was always more popular for girls, even before the show came on air – although its popularity as a girl’s name certainly increased markedly after the show started. I suspect that for many parents, London seemed like a more “classy” version of the name Paris, whose image had become slightly tarnished. Intriguingly, Miss Paris Hilton apparently plans to name her first-born daughter London; I wonder what effects that might have, if it ever happened?

London has charted as a baby name for both sexes in the US for over ten years, and currently it’s #560 for boys and #94 for girls. Although it’s not such a popular name in Australia (although it’s seen more use than you might expect), I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar gender disparity wasn’t apparent here too. Early this year we welcomed celebrity baby London Joy Polak, partly named in honour of the city, where her grandfather was from.

Despite its long history, London still seems a very “modern” name, and one that would be especially suitable for anyone who has a connection to the city. I think it works well as a name for both boys and girls, and matches nicely with a wide variety of middle names. Although the thought of your child sharing their name with Paris Hilton’s future offspring might give some people second thoughts.

NOTE: Not all Australian backpackers in London are drunk, at least not all the time, but that is the not totally undeserved reputation they carry.

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