Milton Keynes - Or How To Concoct The Name Of A City (30 January 1976)
I sympathise with Gazette columnist Joy who complained recently about the length of addresses in these parts. It’s the place-names that are the main cause of the trouble. As she says, Milton Keynes itself is a bit of a mouthful. But no doubt she is thanking her stars she doesn’t live in Newton Blossomville.
She would have a job putting that on the back of the cornflakes packet.
It reminds me of the time when the area of the future new “town” was designated. And it was called “town” at the start, not “city”. Precisely when and how it became “city” I do not remember. It could be that we on the Gazette dubbed it “city” before it was one and that this gave the cue. Or it could be that legalistically it is still “town” for aught I know.
But then, I remember a former planning officer insisting that Bletchley was not a town when everybody else thought it was. So I shall let it pass. It would be a pity to have to spoil all those nice notice boards now.
Anyhow, when it was announced that the designated area would include both Bletchley and Wolverton, the question that immediately came to mind was: what should it be called? For obvious reasons, neither “Bletchley” nor “Wolverton” would do. It had to be some other name.
Here I mounted my historical horse. I noted how closely the boundary approximated to the boundary of the old Newport Hundred which the Saxons named Sigelai and the Danes re-named Secklo. There would be difficulty with the “g” in Sigelai, but there would be no doubt about the pronunciation of Secklo so I plumped for Secklo.
But there was another and equally important reason. This was the advantages that would accrue from a short, but distinctive name. In this respect I shudder to think how much the chosen name has already cost all of us in paint, ink, typewriter wear, paper, labour and all the rest of it, let alone what it will cost from now on. And all quite needlessly. Besides which, I foresaw the difficulty newspapers would have in getting a name longer than six letters into bold headings. In fact, I am not so sure the Gazette did not first call the place “city” to get round that problem!
Another idea mooted in the office was the possibility of concocting a name from the initials of constituent towns and villages. This was fun. I think that eventually we came up with:
B – for Bletchley and Bradwell
O – for Old Bletchley, Old Bradwell and Old Wolverton
W – for Wolverton, the Woolstones, Willen, Woughton and Walton
E – which, coupled with the W, makes Water Eaton
L – for Loughton and Linford
S – for the Stratfords, the Shenleys, Simpson and Stantonbury
Magnificent coverage with a mere six letters, but having a singularly unfortunate result, and one hardly improved by changing their order to “elbows!”
Almost the only place left out was the tiny one which has now given its name or initials not only to the designated area, and the wider area of the new borough council, but also to a vast postal code area.
When I heard the news I gaped, then I laughed. If there is anything I appreciate it is the eccentric and the idiosyncratic, especially when it comes from the usually cold, grey, humourless fount of officialdom, and here it was in full measure.
Someone at or near the head of affairs explained that it was a pleasant-sounding name. He also associated it with the poet, Milton, and the economist, Keynes. A “Paradise Lost” in the shape of English countryside, to be “Paradise Regained” in the shape of the new city, I supposed! I do have a soft spot for the Puritan poet, however, for he was permissive enough to be the first great champion of a free press.
Actually, Milton was formerly “Middleton”, which is said to mean the middle one of three formsteads(sic); while Keynes is the corrupted name of the Norman lord who later received the manor. Which the speaker probably knew, anyway.
But what a trouble the name was when it broke on the broadcasting scene. To the world at large – and historically too – Keynes is “Kanes,” and to a man the broadcasters first called it so. Then word got round to them that it should be called “Keens,” which was what the locals now called it. This led to at least one broadcaster pronouncing it both ways in the same paragraph. And am I wrong in thinking that the chairman of the recent Anglia TV programme on the new city also gave it a caning on one occasion?
Personally, I now like “Keens.” Not just for the hell of it, but because it is wholly right that a special place should have a special pronunciation – so let all furriners beware.
But “Keens” or “Kanes,” the name commends itself to me because it is also one of the very few in these parts which is open to limerick treatment. Bletchley, for instance, is pretty well hopeless. So far I have seen only one attempt to limericise it. This appeared on the George Street Community Centre notice board so long ago that it might have originated with the wartime wits at Bletchley Park. Namely:
There was a young woman of Bletchley
Who said “I am getting too fleshly.
Reducing’s a bore.
It makes me quite sore,
And I hate all that bending and stretchley!”
I offer no prizes for those about Milton Keynes.