Why is London called London?

London has not always been London. Succeeding occupants have used their expressions for the city. Some are mythical, some are historical, and some are vaguely insulting.

Ancient names

People lived in the area of London long before the Romans came. For millennia, small tribes would have travelled across the land and fished in the Thames. Various prehistoric constructions have been discovered. It’s possible to see 6,000-year-old timbers during very low tide at Vauxhall, for instance. Yet no substantial proof of permanent settlement has ever been found.

With no settled population, the region would have had no name until the Romans founded the city around 43 AD. 

It’s unlikely, however, that the Romans would make up their Londinium name from nowhere. 

Some linguists say that they modified an existing name from the pre-Celtic words plew and nejd, probably Plowonida, which together indicate a wide This then became Lowonidonjon in Celtic times, and eventually Londinium. Another theory suggests a Celtic place-name of Londinion, either derived from the name of a local chieftain, or the Celtic word lond (meaning ‘wild’). There is no consensus and, in the lack of written records, we will probably never know.

Mythical founding

12th-century scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth played fast and loose with history and is responsible for one of London’s best-known origin myths. He tells us that the city was founded by an exiled Trojan called Brutus who named his new home Troia Nova (New Troy). Over time, according to Geoffrey, this became Trinovantum. There’s a whiff of non-fiction about this. The Trinovantes were among the pre-eminent local tribes that the Romans encountered. 

Perhaps our mediaeval cleric indulged in some imaginative wordplay, back-forming Trinovantes into Troia Nova and making up the whole thing of Troy roots (or otherwise repeating lost sources that did this). Geoffrey takes the story further. Trinovantum was at some point rebuilt by a pre-Roman figure called King Lud, who was ultimately buried beneath Ludgate, and hence its name. Lud’s city was known as Caer-Lud (fortress of Lud), and later Kaer Llundain. All this paragraph is entirely in the realms of legend, with no other source than Geoffrey. You can, however, view a statue of King Lud and his sons outside of St Dunstan-in-the-West, not far from Ludgate Hill’s foot.

statue of King Lud and his sons outside of St Dunstan-in-the-West
King Lud and his sons outside of St Dunstan-in-the-West

Roman London

We now step back into the verified historical territory. It was the Romans, pitching up in AD 43 looking for a place to cross the Thames, who decided to establish a fort and town called ‘Londinium‘. In 2016, archaeologists in the City of London discovered the earliest record of the capital’s Roman name, written on a tablet dating from AD 57.

But how did the Romans come up with the name? Er, nobody knows – according to Mike Paterson, director of London Historians. But a prevailing theory is that it derives from a Celtic name for the area based on the word ‘lond’, meaning ‘wild’ – which would have been a good descriptor for our (far grassier) capital a thousand-odd years ago.

Although the Romans buggered off in about AD 400, London’s name didn’t die. Paterson adds that when the Anglo Saxons resettled the area near Aldwych in the early seventh century, they named it ‘Lundenwic’: a variation on the Roman name that meant ‘London trading town’.

Roman wall in London

The name then evolved into both ‘Lundin’ and ‘Lunden’, before some funky medieval handwriting turned the ‘U’ and ‘I’ into two ‘O’s by Shakespeare’s day. 

Although London would have looked much different and a lot smaller back then, this name referred only to what we now call the City of London – the original square mile of the walled city founded by the Romans. What we think of now as London’s, capital of the UK, boroughs and villages, like Greenwich and Notting Hill, would have been entirely separate villages back then, rather than a small portion of the sprawling metropolis we associate with today.