Whenever we hear the word “Gotham,” many of us probably think of Batman and the DC Comics universe, Gotham City serving as Batman’s home and first appeared in comic books starting in 1940. Gotham City, whose atmosphere and appearance were influenced by New York City’s infrastructure, actually takes its name from a store called Gotham Jewelers. As co-creator of Batman Bill Finger writes, “I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name ‘Gotham Jewelers’ and said, ‘That’s it,’ Gotham City.”
A later Batman editor noted that Gotham is like “Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 A.M., November 28 in a cold year,” contrasting with the description of Superman‘s Metropolis as “Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.” The more recent television show Gotham puts Batman’s early origin story in Chinatown’s famous Cortlandt Alley, where the young Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his parents. Next, we will see where the newest Batman movie will be set, starring Robert Pattinson.
The nickname also pervades the real New York. Gotham appears in the names of Michelin star-rated Gotham Bar & Grill, the Gotham Hotel, the Gotham Center for New York City History, and many other locations across the city. You can take in some laughs at Gotham Comedy Club, throw dangerous knives and axes at Gotham Archery, or get married in Gotham Hall.
However, the emergence of this New York nickname dates back to a November 11, 1807 issue of Salmagundi, a satirical periodical written by American writer Washington Irving, his brother William, and author James Kirke Paulding. Salmagundi satirized New York City culture, politics, and residents. In describing Gotham, Irving noted that Gotham was an “antient,” “wonder loving,” and “most enlightened” city whose “sapient inhabitants lavish their attention with such wonderful discernment!” Irving also took to satire in his A History of New York, whose narrator Diedrich Knickerbocker — who lends his name to the term for a New York native — mixes fact and fiction to poke fun at New York.
And it all goes back to the goats…
The term “Gotham” in Irving’s satire was not chosen from a phone book like Gotham City. Irving’s depiction of Gotham’s residents as “self-important and foolish people,” according to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, actually parallels the simpleminded and idiotic residents of the medieval village of Gotham in the English county of Nottinghamshire. The name Gotham actually means “goat home” in Old English, and the village still exists today, a home to approximately 1,600 people.
A collection of stories centering on the “Wise Men of Gotham” appear in the Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gottam published around 1565. Stories of the Gotham residents tell of their plans to drown an eel in a pool of water, to tumble cheeses down a hill to be sold in Nottingham, to paint green apples red, and to tie a purse of money to a hare to avoid paying rent.
Another tale tells of how King John, who signed the Magna Carta in 1215, wanted to travel to Gotham. The people of Gotham were opposed to his visit since they would need to pay to make the road in the village a public highway, since any road King John traveled on had to be made a public highway. When the royal messengers arrived, the people of Gotham pretended to act insane so that King John would put his hunting lodge somewhere else. However, their actions do hold some merit to them; after King John decided not to pass through Gotham, the Gothamites stated, “We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.”
According to Carmen Nigro of the New York Public Library, Gotham “no longer invokes a foolish village of goat herders, and sometimes invokes the darkened noirish version as popularized through Batman.” Although Irving’s satire painted New York’s residents as imbeciles like the Wise Men of Gotham, New York still treasures its nearly millennium-old nickname
Next, check out Batman Co-Creator Bill Finger Gets Bronx, NYC Street Named After Him.
Header photo by Michelle Young.