A History Of Tavern Names And Their Clever Wordplay

By | March 16, 2021

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Charles Douglas Barr enjoys a pint outside The Last Drop pub in the Grassmarket on October 7, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Getty Images)

The White Hart, the Pig N' Whistle, Ye Old Fighting Cocks: Whether it's the liquid courage or the desire to stand out from the crowd, it seems that pub owners have no trouble using inventive and often humorous names and signs to hang over their fine establishments. But have you ever wondered why so many tavern names include such colorful imagery, very often having little to do with actual products being sold (you know, alcohol)? It turns out there's actually a rich history behind these wild and whimsical symbols.

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Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a public house in Nottingham which claims to have been established in 1189. (Immanuel Giel/Wikimedia Commons)

In Christ We Drink

The earliest drinking establishments in England were actually connected to the Catholic Church, as inns began popping up around the country to give shelter to the traveling clergy. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham boasts itself as the oldest pub in England, claiming to have been in service since 1189 for pilgrims seeking to join the Crusades back in the Middle Ages. Perhaps even older, however, is the pub of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Hertfordshire, which was supposedly connected by underground tunnels to the old St. Alban's Cathedral so that monks could safely pass back and forth to the wine cellar. Sadly, the tunnels don't appear to exist anymore, if they ever did.

Unfortunately, there's too little concrete evidence for historians to be sure which actually came first, but religious underpinnings are definitely apparent in many establishments of yore, which often featured images of a lamb, a common symbol of Christ. In fact, since the vast majority of the English population was illiterate during the Middles Ages, symbols on signage was kind of imperative, especially after a law was passed in 1393 mandating their use to help passersby better recognize what kind of venue they were entering. This was already a common practice in places like Rome, where vines were hung outside doors and over signs to indicate that wine was available, but as England is better known for beer, they used the evergreen hollybush as enticement.