Soho

This is one word whose supposed origin seemed so fanciful that I at first dismissed it as uninformed folklore when it appeared in an internet discussion group I was reading. But, upon looking it up, I found that the London district of Soho does have an odd and true origin.

Soho was first used as a cry in rabbit hunting. It was yelled when the hunters had sighted the rabbit, equivalent to Tally Ho in fox hunting. The words Sohou, Sohou appear on a seal, bearing the image of a hare, dating from 1307. The following appears in the 14th century manuscript Kyng Alisaunder:

So ho! so ho! We ben awroke of dogges two!
(Soho! Soho! We’ve been avenged of the two dogs.)

The area where the London neighborhood now occupies was once pasture land where hunting took place. Mill’s Dictionary of English Place Names gives a 1632 date for the place name, but it is not clear whether this is actually the date of a citation using the word as the location in what is now London or whether it is a citation of the hunting cry. The earliest citation in the OED of the place name is from an 1818 letter by poet John Keats:

Then who would go Into dark Soho, And chatter with dack’d hair’d critics.

The origin of New York City’s Soho district is another story. The New York neighborhood got its name from an acronym, “SOuth of HOuston Street.” In the late 1960s, the city was redeveloping the area and used the acronym widely in its planning documents. From the New York Times, 19 October 1969:

What’s so special about the South Houston Industrial Area (known in planning jargon as SOHO), a 40-block district bounded by Houston St. on the north, Canal on the south, West Broadway on the west, and Lafayette on the east? For one thing, it coincides with one of the city’s finest architectural areas, the cast-iron district. And for another, the spacious loft buildings that once harbored mostly small businesses have been infiltrated by thousands of artists and their families.

The name stuck, undoubtedly because of association with the London neighborhood.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Dictionary of English Place Names, www.barrypopik.com)

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