If you’ve never been quite sure how to pronounce the word ‘lido’, or even exactly what it means, rest assured that you are not the first to have this problem. In fact, these are – even now, almost 100 years after the name was first used on British soil – contentious issues that are still debated.
Lido historian Janet Smith notes that a BBC Radio 4 documentary referred to Brockwell ‘lie-do’, while using ‘lee-do’ for the original Venetian island. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the pronunciation as ‘lee-do’ (like the Italian), but there’s still no consensus.
On an online forum for recollections about Ruislip Lido in north London, one person wrote recently: “I can still remember the discussions we had on the pronunciation of the Lido [in the 1950s].
Many wanted to follow the style of other open-air swimming pools and call it ‘Lie-do’, but Dad insisted on ‘Lee-do’. I don’t know why, but I believe he had read about Venice Lido somewhere and thought that was right.”
For Ruislip Lido in particular, it wasn’t just the pronunciation of the name, but the name itself that caused problems. The lido became a flashpoint for a debate on the very nature of lidos when it opened in 1936. Some felt that the construction of an art deco pavilion and a designated bathing area did not justify using the name for what was essentially a reservoir. A leading article in The Times, entitled ‘Bathing Snobs’, thundered: “A vulgar age can hardly make any but vulgar additions to its vocabulary…[but] there is no excuse for calling a suburban reservoir by the name of an Italian seaside resort.”
But was it really so inappropriate? The Serpentine in London became the first pool to adopt the name officially in 1930, which may have been in part because it enabled the alliterative nickname ‘Lansbury’s lido’ (after George Lansbury, its founder) – but the use quickly spread across the country. When London County Council sanctioned its use for other pools in 1937, writes Janet Smith in Liquid Assets, a committee member excitedly scribbled a note saying “You can call them lidos now!”
The word’s use surely evoked such strong reactions because it symbolised a different way of life: sunnier, more relaxed – and foreign. Waterlog author Roger Deakin believed that borrowing the word, as with café or champagne, illustrated our “Anglo-Saxon awkwardness about the pleasures of the flesh” – something that has been commented on by others, too. Tracy Emin has said of visiting the lido in her youth that “it made Margate seem like the Mediterranean”.
If Ruislip’s lido inspired a similar feeling in locals, who were the editorial staff of The Times to deprive it of the name? In fact, as the article concluded, what mattered was not the etymology of the name, but that the lido was a “deserving effort to provide recreation for the people”.
Whether we Anglicise the pronunciation (underlining, perhaps, how lidos have become a part of our own culture) or preserve the Italian (stressing their exoticism), swimmers will surely be united in gratitude for the touch of continental glamour that the pools bring to our chilly shores – and in expressing that gratitude with a heartfelt grazie mille – ‘a thousand thank yous’.