What’s in a name? Prague to explain rich history behind street signs

Photo: Kristýna Maková

Prague 1 plans to place blue plaques alongside iconic red street signs throughout the district, encompassing most of the medieval heart of the city, including Staré Město and the Jewish Quarter and, on the other side of the Vltava, most of Malá Strana and Hradčany, by Prague Castle.

Thus far, City Hall has selected 73 streets within the project. Many, naturally, are named after famous Czechs, such as František Palacký and Josef Jungmann, leading figures of the National Revival movement of the 19th century, or the poet Jan Neruda.

Vodičkova Street,  photo: Oleg Fetisov

But what were the streets called a hundred years ago, when German was the dominant language in Prague? Or in centuries past? Why have some names endured, and what were their origin?

Antonín Ederer, a retired archivist and chronicler of Prague with a dozen books to his name, has been called in to lend his expertise to the new project explaining how streets in the historic centre got their names.

Ederer, who wrote the lion’s share of explanatory texts, notes that Vodičkova Street, for example, has been some form of “Water Street” for over half a millennium. Or so it would seem.

Kampa,  photo: Magdalena Hrozínková

"The street names were in German throughout the reign of Maria Theresa and beyond. Czech did not prevail until the 19th century. Wasserstraße was sometimes translated as Vodní or Vodnická street, but it has stayed the same for 500 years. Mr. Vodička was a wealthy butcher who owned the house at No. 699, today Palác u Nováků. So, it was according to Mr. Vodička and not according to a water sprite, or any water.”

The explanatory blue plaques should start sprouting up this coming spring, just in time for, say, a picnic on Kampa Island – so named, according to Wikipedia, because in the 17th century Spanish soldiers set up camp there during the Battle of White Mountain, when it was an open field.

Not necessarily so, says Antonín Ederer:

"The word Kampa is probably from the Latin word for field or area. There were fishermen and fields. When Hradčany burned down in 1541, the charred remains were taken to Kampa, which was expanded by a metre or two. It was developed later in the 16th century. The name probably comes from the word field, but perhaps also from a nickname for Tycho Ganzeb, a relative of [the famous astronomer] Tycho Brahe.”

Antonín Ederer,  photo: Praha TV

Antonín Ederer says in tracing the more recent history of street names, he drew in part on the Royal Chronicle of Prague compiled by a fellow archivist named František Ruth a century ago – and works by folklorist and poet Karel Jaromír Erben, best known for his collection Kytice (Bouquet).

If you are wondering how so much history will fit on blue plaques – it won’t. Each will also have a QR code, which you can scan with your phone to get the full story.