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Oddball names reveal London's history

BLEEDING Heart Yard. Houndsditch. Spitalfields. Elephant and Castle.

London is filled with oddball place names, from pokey alleyways to grand thoroughfares -- and a tourism organization has launched a monthlong campaign to tell the city's history through its streets.

Visit London's "Street Stories" initiative includes an event at Buckingham Palace where tourists participate in a game of "paille maille" -- a 17th Century precursor to croquet that is believed to have given its name to the stately London avenue known as Pall Mall.

The origin of many of the unusual names is fairly straightforward: Houndsditch derives from the ditch where people dumped dead dogs in the Middle Ages, Bleeding Heart Yard from a legend that a noblewoman's still-pumping heart was found there after she was murdered in the 1620s.

In other cases, the names offer insights into how language -- especially English -- is an endlessly evolving thing that takes fascinating twists and turns through popular use.

Elephant and Castle, a south London neighborhood, purportedly comes from "La Infanta de Castilla," which in Spanish refers to Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who was Henry VIII's first wife.

The corruption of the name was likely just an accident of time -- reflecting Londoners' inability to pronounce foreign words rather than any malicious jab at Henry's legendary girth.

"Language changes and names don't make sense after a while. Elephant and Castle makes more sense than la Infanta de Castilla," said Ed Glinert, author of "The London Compendium: A Street-by-street Exploration of the Hidden Metropolis."

Spitalfields, the site of a famous market in east London, is a contraction of "Hospital Fields" -- where the early 12th century New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate was located.

Pall Mall, which cuts through the capital's center, probably got its name because British nobility was fond of playing "paille maille" on long, straight streets.

Mary Tucker, who leads tours of historical neighborhoods for the company, London Walks, said her clients want to see the city differently.

"Street names are often a clue to what went on in an area in the past. We point out nooks and crannies, the little details you can only see by walking," she said.


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