Underground language

Jan 24, 2013 | Miscellaneous

London TubeThis month saw the 150th anniversary of the London Underground – popularly known as The Tube. It was the first of its kind and has become iconic in so many ways, from the map to the font*.

It seems “tube” was used before the underground railway was opened. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (to whom I give my thanks for the facts in this post) it was quoted in Queen Victoria’s journal from 1847; “We passed the famous Swilly Rocks, and saw the works they are making for the tube for the railroad.” Obviously it stuck!

In Paris, of course, they have le metro, which comes from the original operators of the railway – la Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, or ‘the metropolitan railway company of Paris’. Bit of a mouthful so quickly shortened and metro has became a common word for subterranean rail networks including those in such far-flung places as Algiers, Genoa, Rio and Xi’an.

In Glasgow, one of the oldest, and shortest, systems in the world is affectionately known as the Clockwork Orange (click here to see why!) although the locals tend to call it the subway. And possibly one of the most seemingly obscure names is the ‘L’ in Chicago. Not the shape of the network, the ‘L’ comes from ‘elevated line’, although it does go down as well as up!

One of the most infamous, and most filmed, networks in the world is the New York Subway – I wonder how many films you can think of which have featured it? The one that pops into my mind is Crocodile Dundee yelling, and then walking, across the crowds to his lady love. As with our tube, it does have overground sections as well as underground, despite the name.

Underground railway systems across the world conjure up many images and sounds, from the people sheltering in the blitz, to Japanese commuters being manually squashed into the carriages. They have entered the collective imagination in the form of iconic symbols, unforgettable scenes from film, TV and even song and have also carved out their own language. So don’t forget to mind the gap, and stand clear of the doors please, we’re off!

* Interesting font fact: the iconic ‘Johnston’ font used in all the Underground signage was initially called ‘Underground’ and uses a perfect circle to depict each letter ‘o’.

Inspiration and facts: Oxford Dictionaries