25 Things You Should Know About London

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Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon, Notting Hill, Westminster Abbey, and the West End—none of these sights are in the City of London. Before you call us mad, consider this: While they are all in what we call London, which is technically Greater London, the City of London is actually a small city-within-a-city, squeezing 7400 residents [PDF] (plus some 300,000 commuters) into an area slightly larger than a square mile. The larger London area has 8.6 million residents living in its 32 boroughs (the City of London is considered the 33rd). Within its former walls, the City of London is home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Leadenhall Market, and the cucumber-shaped Gherkin Tower. It also has its own mayor, whose official title is “Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of the City of London.” Read on for more facts about England's capital city.

1. The original settlement of the City of London was formed when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 ACE and established Londinium, where the Thames River was narrow enough to build a bridge. Londinium replaced Colchester as capital of Britannia in the 2nd century, but was completely abandoned in the 5th century.

2. Many versions of bridges have spanned the River Thames connecting the City of London and Southwark, but an early medieval version of London Bridge, which lasted 600 years, really did fall down—in 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437. Although the rhyme has roots in a Nordic saga, “my fair lady” was added during this time, attacking Queen Eleanor for taking the tolls for her personal use instead of spending it on the necessary bridge repairs.

3. The site where the 828,821-square-foot Buckingham Palace stands today used to be a mulberry garden, meant to rear silkworms for King James I in the 1600s. (Unfortunately for him, his staff planted the wrong kind of mulberry bushes.) Now the Queen’s official London residence has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, 514 doors and 760 windows. 

4. Every single morning—even Christmas Day—gravel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace is “dragged” in order to clean and comb it. Two more inspections happen every day “just in case there is any rubbish.” The purpose? “To ensure the forecourt always looks spick and span.”

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5. Hidden underneath the city are dozens of lost rivers and canals. As the population grew, many were converted into sewers, including River Fleet in Smithfield, into which butchers had tossed the remains of dead animal. The banks of the former River Effra, however, turned into the The Oval, home of the Surrey County Cricket Club

6. The London Beer Flood took place on October 17, 1814, after a three-story high wooden vat of beer exploded at Henry Meux and Co. brewery. The tidal wave ended up killing eight people

7. The nickname Big Ben is actually for the Great Bell at the Palace of Westminster, not the tower or clock. The 13.7-ton bell chimes at the musical note E. Also in the belfry are four quarter bells, which ring at G sharp, F sharp, E and B. None of the bells swing—they’re all struck with hammers.

8. So what is the name of the tower? Victorian journalists called it St. Stephen’s Tower and most refer to it as the Clock Tower, but in 2012, the 315-feet tall structure was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee.

9. Harrods department store in Knightsbridge has 330 departments—including a “Perfumery Hall,” “Toy Kingdom,” and “Great Writing Room”—and hosts 15 million customers a year on its seven floors spread over 4.5 acres. 

10. Forget the GPS: For more than 150 years, in order to get a license to drive a traditional black taxi (also called a Hackney carriage) in London, cab drivers must pass The Knowledge, a test requiring them to memorize every route within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross [PDF], which includes 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. Typically, it takes cabbies two to four years to cruise through it.

11. The largest catering operation for any annual sporting event in Europe? Tennis’ grass Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon. During the two-week event in 2015, 28,000 bottles of champagne were supplied—only to be topped by the 150,000 bottles of water, 235,000 glasses of British Pimm’s, and 350,000 cups of tea and coffee. Also on hand were 190,000 sandwiches, 32,000 fish and chips portions, 142,000 servings of English strawberries, and 6,000 stone-baked pizzas. 

12. Charles Dickens’ “house in town,” which he called it, was at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury and is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum, housing more than 100,000 items related to the 19th century author. Special events include candlelight tours to experience the home the way Dickens wrote in—as well as taxidermy workshops which are, per a warning on the museum's site, “not for the faint hearted.”

13. All the world’s a stage, but William Shakespeare's favorite performance space was London’s Globe Theater. (His first play performed there was likely Julius Caesar, in 1599 [PDF].) But on June 29, 1613, a stage cannon misfired during a Henry VIII performance and the theater burned down in less than two hours. It was quickly rebuilt, but shut down by the Puritans in 1642. The current Globe Theater, also known as the Third Globe, opened in 1993, thanks to the persistence of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker [PDF].

14. The only fully independent market in London is Borough Market, with a history that dates back to the 11th century. A blue plaque hangs there, calling it “London’s oldest fruit and veg market” as “voted by the people” of the borough of Southwark.

15. Arguably the world’s most famous crosswalk, Abbey Road—where The Beatles posed for their iconic 1969 album cover—crosses an actual (busy!) street, where cars often have to wait for tourists to snap their photos mid-walk. Abbey Road Studios now has a live cam pointed at the intersection.

16. The London Eye on the south bank of the Thames isn't a Ferris wheel—according to a London Eye press release [PDF], it’s actually “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel.” Still, at 443 feet high, it would have been the tallest Ferris wheel when it opened on the last day before the new millennium (thus its nickname, the Millennium Wheel). Since then, taller Ferris wheels have gone up in China, Singapore, and Las Vegas. The Eye has been used as a filming location for movies like Wimbledon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and for $552 you can get a private ride in a Cupid’s Capsule, which includes a bottle of Pommery Brut Royal Champagne and a box of Hotel Chocolat Pink Champagne truffles.   

17. London plays an important role in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (after all, it's home to both the British Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley). Rowling herself, however, was born 110 miles away in Yate. A very different double-initialed female author hails from the British capital: 50 Shades of Grey scribe EL James.

18. In southeast London’s Shooters Hill district of Woolwich, there’s a street called Ha-Ha Road, so named, some say, because locals would laugh at people falling into the ditch that used to run alongside it. But the joke was on the locals when the road was closed from July 7 to September 19 in 2012 while the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks hosted the Olympics and Paralympics shooting events. 

19. Despite its name, only 45 percent of the London Underground, which opened in 1863 and carries 1.3 billion riders a year, is in tunnels. 

20. Teen genius 13-year-old Joseph Malin is credited for inventing fish and chips on the East End around 1860. He came from a rug weaving family who started making fries in their basement to supplement their income—until little Joseph decided to combine them with fried fish from a nearby shop. The business continued until 1970s. Now the longest running chippie (Brit speak for fish-and-chip shop) is Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, which opened in 1871, and where a regular-sized order costs $21.80.

21. Another young man who broke from his family’s weaving business: Thomas Twining, founded the Twining of London tea business more than 300 years ago. The shop he bought in 1706, Tom’s Coffee Shop, which stood apart from the competition by also serving tea, is still open at 216 Strand. 

22. Crime pays: Among the many dark attractions in London are The Clink Prison Museum, The London Dungeon and the Crime Museum exhibit at the Museum of London.

23. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who was born in London, sometimes pays the rent of struggling students in the city. “I get letters from people trying to go to drama school and needing to pay their rent,” he told GQ. “And so that's something I occasionally do. It's impossibly expensive to live in London." 

24. London was named 2016’s best city for volunteering in Europe, thanks in great part to Team London — Mayor Boris Johnson’s program, which has 120,000 active volunteers, half of them being children and youth. 

25. The famous blue door Hugh Grant invited Julia Roberts through in the 1999 film Notting Hill is at 280 Westbourne Park Road. But the original chipped one from the film was sold at a Christie’s auction for about $8000 in 1999. For a while, the door was painted black to deter tourists, but the current owners have painted it blue again—nearby shops even sell tote bags featuring “The Blue Door.”

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15 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

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People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
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If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
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As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
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Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
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Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
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Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
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As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
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For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
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When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
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Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
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Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
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Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

10 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history. 

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad, as well as the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain said Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood playmate whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” he wrote in Autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." 

However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain admitted it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn. In August 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884. 

4. Like Huck, Twain changed his view of slavery.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up. 

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and housed Frederick Douglass.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. A PENIS DRAWING ALMOST RUINED THE BOOK.

Twain, who ran his own printing press, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants. 

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.

7. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." 

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote. 

8. The end of the book is often considered a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

9. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachussets in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist.

In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offensive word with “slave.” Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with “hipster.” The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

10. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as librarian wrote Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply: 

DEAR SIR:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. 

If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

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