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Building Names

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the names of buildings.

People spend a good deal of time worrying about what name they should afflict their child with. This is understandable – we like to think that names are terribly important things, and some people even believe that aspects of a name, such as whether it has a K or not, will affect the future of its owner. I don’t know that I have strong feelings on the matter – I think I find people interesting first, and then it follows that whatever name they’ve been saddled with becomes interesting as a result.

I can understand a parent wanting to give a name that is either common or uncommon, perhaps because they want the name to stand out or blend in, or perhaps because they just want to name the child after someone dear. What I have trouble understanding is the naming of some buildings.

The neighborhood of New York I live in, the Upper West Side, has no shortage of impressively named edifices – The Majestic, the Century, the Prasada – and the designers of these buildings have obviously named them so in the hopes that their designation would carry some of the same connotations we give to these words. It feels a bit silly that someone would be influenced to buy an apartment because it has a nice or noble name, but not outside the realms of human nature. But it does not feel nearly as silly as the fact that my neighborhood is filled with apartment buildings named after Oliver Cromwell.

There are the Cromwell Apartments (on 138th street and Riverside Drive), The Cromwell (a co-op on West 90th street), and the Oliver Cromwell (a former residential hotel on West 72nd street). And these are not the only New York buildings named after the English Lord Protector – there is another building called the Cromwell in Queens, and an athletic center in Staten Island with the same name.

Although my grasp of English political history is likely as firm as that of the average American (which is to say not very firm at all), what I can recall of Cromwell does not indicate that he would be a logical choice to name a luxury apartment building after (or a logical choice to name any sort of building after in a city that has such a preponderance of citizens of Irish descent). In fact, it seems a little like naming a labor union after Henry Ford, or an international aid organization after Genghis Khan.

Recent Comments

  1. John Goldsmith

    Cromwell was a hugely significant figure to the late 19th, early 20th C Protestant movement in the UK and internationally. The 300th anniversary of his birth in 1899 prompted Theodore Roosevelts biography amongst other things. I was aware of the building on West 72nd but not of the others cited. One of the leading Cromwell scholars of the 1920s-40s, William Cortez Abbott was American – might this have had any influence? Cromwell is also credited with allowing the re-admission of the Jes to England in 1656 – so there are at least two powerful constituencies that were pro-Cromwell. For interest there are also some settlements named Cromwell in the USA, so of which at least were named after the Lord Protector.

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