Why Gotham stuck as New York’s nickname

Washingtonirving1820It may have started out as an insult.

In 1807, Washington Irving was a young writer who ran with a pack of literary-minded pals, frequenting writerly haunts like the Shakespeare Tavern and Park Theater.

That year, he and his friends launched a literary magazine called Salmagundi, which ran satirical essays chronicling the “thrice renowned and delectable city of Gotham.”

Salmagundireprint1869Why Gotham? It was the name of an English village made popular in a series of stories from the Middle Ages about a town whose residents were all fools or madmen.

Translating into “Goat’s Town” (with goats not exactly being the smartest of animals), “Irving’s nickname was intended to mock New York’s culture and politics as he called out the ‘fools’ who had helped the city earn its new name,” stated museumofthecity.org.

Poking fun at the behavior and attitudes of fellow citizens is a time-honored New York tradition. But why would a nickname that could be interpreted as insulting stick?


“Many of the tales merely portray the simple-mindedness of the townsfolk, but some—and here perhaps is the reason Irving’s New York didn’t reject the nickname right away—cast their folly differently, as a kind of in-joke of their own,” writes Jesse Zuba in New York.

Gothamsheetmusic1899nyplNew Yorkers love to feel like they’re clever enough to be in on the gag, and that may be why Gotham has triumphed as a popular nickname to this day (helped along two centuries later, when Gotham City became Batman’s hometown.)

You can actually read an 1826 version of The Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, the book that started it all.

[Second image: Salmagundi reprint from 1869; third: Gotham Theatre, NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: 1899 sheet music, NYPL Digital Gallery]

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Why Gotham stuck as New York’s nickname”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    I I love this! Never knew that. It’s so true, we love to be in on the joke.

  2. Walk About New York Says:

    The Salmagundi Club, America’s oldest arts club, took its named from the “Salmagundi Papers.” The Club is located on Fifth Avenue’s Gold Coast. See it as part of our Greenwich Village Walking Tour (http://walkaboutny.com/the-tours/greenwich-village-art-and-history-walking-tour/).

  3. Burma Pilot Says:

    Ever met a hipster?

    They fancy themselves seals, “Art art art art”

    Yet are about as smart as a goat… if a goat had rich parents.

  4. A tasty Christmas menu from 1885 Brooklyn | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York was founded by Washington Irving and others, as an organization to commemorate the history and heritage of New York, and to promote […]

  5. The beloved city poet you’ve never heard of | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and […]

  6. New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] “A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving. […]

  7. The sad fate of these Lafayette Street columns | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Completed in 1833 (above) with amenities like running water, central heating, and bathrooms, LaGrange Terrace was occupied by Delanos, Vanderbilts, and Gardiners, as well as short-term residents like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: