Time to historically purify our names and the alphabet

BY David Butterfield   /  24 November 2017

Britain has seen several recent petitions seeking to rename institutions that bear the hallmarks of our problematic past. Such edifices memorialise the names of men whose actions and views emerge as distasteful when starkly illuminated under modern lighting. In recent months campaigns to rename Gladstone Hall at the University of Liverpool and the Wills Memorial Building at the University of Bristol have found traction: Sir William Gladstone has been called out as an apologist for slavery, Henry Overton Wills III as a tobacco baron exploiting American-owned slave plantations. Many have objected that Gladstone (yes, four times prime minister and three times chancellor) brought a passionate moral fervour to politics, transforming British justice and education and advancing Irish Home Rule; or that Wills was the crucial figure in founding and endowing the University of Bristol, where he served as its first chancellor. But such trivia merely distracts from the core concern: should the past be allowed to impose its misguided prejudices upon the present?

In both of these debates Bristolians and Liverpudlians have shown themselves alive to the issues. Bristol has been bold enough to rename Colston Hall, the city’s largest and oldest concert hall, in order to distance itself from Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century slave-trader. It will reopen in 2020 suitably rebranded. Colston Girl’s School, by contrast, has refused commensurate ablutions. It’s not year clear whether Colston Street (on which Colston Hall stands) or Colston Tower or The Colston Arms will respectfully change their designations. Liverpool, too, has rightly worried about Penny Lane, a street in the city’s Mossley Hill suburb that commemorates another eighteenth-century slaver, James Penny. Perhaps it will soon undergo the necessary amelioration: if so, it would be most crass and insensitive to continue celebrating that location in popular music. Should a song that has been voted in the top 500 songs ever (!) remain so conspicuous in our quotidian culture? Of course not. I am not saying that The Beatles should re-record ‘Penny Lane’. That would, after all, be impossible. In an ideal world ‘Penny Lane’ could be redubbed as (e.g.?) ‘Bemmy Lame’: but, failing that, is it too much to ask that this tune, which tacitly supports an abhorrent institution, be debarred from compilation albums, radio play and unrestricted streaming?

The problem extends far beyond this one awful aspect of our past. Being based in a mediaeval University town, I cannot turn a blind eye to the names of the institutions around me: Cambridge’s various colleges literally embody the names of unelected autocrats (King’s), rac(ial)ists (Darwin), imperialistic apologists (Selwyn, Churchill), religious extremists (Christ’s, Corpus Christi, Emmanuel, Jesus, Magdalene, St Catherine’s, St John’s), bribers of the electorate (Downing, Fitzwilliam) and feudalistic overlords (Clare, Pembroke). This makes any stroll through the city not just genuinely confrontational but ineffably depressing.

We should call these what they are: Macro-Aggressive Toponyms (MATs). Place names that cause aggression on a massive scale, by both their own sheer physical size and the far-ranging circulation of their triggersome names. I don’t want to live in a world where my fellow humans are ambushed, every day, by MATs – where MATs don’t just occur in speech but are literally enshrined by public signage. It could be so simple to emend this disrespectful situation. We need #DomesdayReloaded, a project that surveys with due care and sensitivity the names of all British places – buildings, institutions, streets, settlements – to see where real or potential problems lurk. With little effort, an ad hoc committee in each region could assess all local proper names against an appropriate source – the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, say – with a view to highlighting every case that acknowledges or echoes individuals whose beliefs would very probably be out of step with the views of our infinitely more enlightened age. Once identified, necessary changes could be constructively imposed. The process may have to start with activism (progressive vandalism) and end with legal decree.

If we are to treat these issues honestly and openly with the maturity they require, we should realise that there’s an elephant in the room. (N.b. I say this not as a pachyderm shamer but because this phrase precisely describes the problem.) I mean that most conspicuous badge of our verbal identity: the surname. Now, I’m not saying that we should abandon this core aspect of our selves: that would be stupid, not to say impractical. Instead, I’m arguing for a situation where we can objectively assess the names we bear: is the surname we have been given (without our consent, I grant: this is not to victimise the dysnamed) identical to that of a notorious Name Of Problem? If it is, we should be alive to the fact that such a surname could – when heard out of context, perhaps over a post office counter or a supermarket Tannoy – trigger offensive thoughts of an earlier wielder of that NOP.

If you think this sounds absurd, think again. Imagine someone has the surname James or Jones. For most people, this would indeed be unproblematic. For some, it may even conjure up admirable and approved figures from our history, such as Henry James or Tom Jones. But for others, it could be unimaginably different: images of violent gun-based crime or horrific mass suicide would cause instant disgust for those who can only recall the grim spectres of Jesse James or Jim Jones. Not only is this regrettable – in the 21st century we should declare this irresponsible. Nor should we be cowed by the scale of the problem: over half a million Britons are burdened by either of these NOPs; a handful yoke both together in a union of woe. And yet simple and inventive workarounds are at hand: for instance, why not have each ‘owner’ of an unapproved name choose a new surname? They could even form an anagram of their surnames, thus preserving each aspect of the genuine family heritage a surname conveys, but in an order reworked and realigned on twenty-first century principles. I honestly would be proud to meet a Mr Jesma or Mrs Sejon. Certainly, NOPs are a currency that should not be imposed upon spouses or children. Why correct part of our past and leave the rest flagrantly unchanged? It will simply not do so to say that the discordant views of our past inform us in the present about the evolution of ideas and the shifting sands of custom.

We can, I hope, go further. The English alphabet takes due pride in its 26 letters. Among that peaceable crowd, however, there’s a letter which – let us at last be honest – bears the heavy baggage of a controversial past. None of us has felt brave enough to call it out hitherto. Instead, we all (ab)use an abusive letter to make our everyday lives easier. I am, of course, talking about the letter K. Since its history is too well known to rehearse, a few flashpoints will suffice. K is the letter that begins almost every concept we universally disown: killing, kicking, kingship, Kardashianism, the Kraken and (notwithstanding the letter’s silent stealth) knives and kneecapping. K is the benchmark of thermodynamic temperature,  not only associating with material that is often incendiary but also memorialising the eponymous William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, an opponent of Irish Home Rule and Darwinian evolution. K is the chemical symbol of Potassium, the apocalyptic horseman of lethal hyperkalemia. K is the letter that has been cloned in triplicate to denote the most racist degenerates in the world. It gets worse: the letterform K evolved from the Phoenician kap, a stylised version of a human hand, the symbol of its probable hieroglyphic ancestor. In the current climate of unwelcome and wandering hands, this hardly seems an appropriate letter to sprinkle irresponsibly amongst our otherwise seemly graphemes.

So what to do? I suggest we remove so awkward and anachronist a letter from our contemporary alphabet. Let’s fight to #knockkout. We would not be the first to do so: the Romans, after several centuries of using K, duly came to their senses and ousted it: they found they could do all they needed to do with the letter C. Well, we can do the same. (If you are worried that this could become a free speech issue, don’t be: anyone still can say C*C or F*C!)

My anxiety throughout this think-piece has stemmed from the hypocrisy of those who successfully remove one or more NOPs but do not carry out – as they should – the full rebranding of their broader setting. I therefore demand that we phase out K entirely, not just from modern English orthography and usage but also from its irredeemably chequered historical record. It will be an easy business to remove it universally from digital databases; more concerted work will be required in other spheres, such as existing printed books and long-established place names. But, if the will is there, texts can be tweaked and signs emended. Are we really so small-minded as to object to naming our cities Blacburn, Yorc or Cilmarnoc? Are we really so precious as to throw down The Worcs of Shacespeare or abandon the novels of Philip C Dic? I humbly suggest that we are not.

David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.


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