By Brian J. Pape, AIA
Greenwich is a fairly common place name, a city in CT, a village in upper NY, NJ, RI, and of course, Greenwich England. Place-names typically have meanings that were significant to the settlers of a locality. When talking about place names, there is a specific term, toponymy, whereas “the etymology (of a word)” means the origin of the particular word. (Etiology is the study of the causes, origins, or reasons behind the way that things are, or the way they function, or it can refer to the causes themselves.)
The place-name “Greenwich” is first recorded in a Saxon charter of 918 AD, where it appears as Gronewic, then as Grenewic in 964, and as Grenawic in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1013; it is Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086, and Grenewych in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291. The name in old English means “green wic” or “green settlement” (from “wik”, an old Germanic borrowing of the the Latin “vicus”).
In jolly old England, Greenwich was the site of a royal castle, but gained in importance when The Royal Observatory was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II, to “apply…… with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.” From 1714 to 1818, the Longitude Acts rewarded new discoveries of precision.
The Greenwich meridian, which was by convention considered to have longitude zero degrees, is the line between the eastern and western hemispheres (this convention was internationally adopted in the International Meridian Conference of 1884).
In the New World settlement of New Amsterdam, we see Groenwijck, one of the Dutch names for the village (meaning “Green District”), a rural, isolated hamlet to the north of the 17th century settlement. After the English overthrow in 1633, it was Anglicized to Greenwich in 1696. Then, as the city of New York grew to encompass all of Manhattan, the village named Greenwich became the neighborhood of Greenwich Village. (That makes the term redundant, meaning “Green-Village Village”.)
One can only imagine the political power that local residents must have applied when the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 imposed a grid pattern on all streets north of Houston, except for most of Greenwich Village. Encyclopædia Britannica’s 1956 article states that the southern border of the Village is Spring Street, reflecting an earlier understanding, but the newer district of SoHo has since encroached on this border.
New York New York, they say, is a city so nice, they named it twice. But if you name the city, county and state, you’d name it thrice, a distinction not shared with any other place in the 50 states, to my knowledge.
Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is a term originally referring to mean solar time at the Royal Observatory, which led to GMT being used worldwide as a standard time independent of location, adopted gradually from 1847. Most time zones were based upon GMT, as an offset of a number of hours (“ahead of GMT” or “behind GMT”).