Monday, March 5, 2012

Leicester Jeicesters

Yanks who visit Great Britain are forever getting their tongues tangled around the non-phonetic, counterintuitive pronunciation the Brits give to many names of places and people.  It’s not so hard to remember Berkeley is “Barkley,” Leicester is “Lester,” and the River Thames is “Tems.” And we all can dredge up from our reading of Macbeth that the ill-fated Scot was the Thane of “Glomz” (spelled Glamis). 

But it gets dodgier when you encounter names like Barnoldswick (“BAR-lick’), Cockburn (“COE-burn”), and Colquhon (“kuh-HOON”). 

Even some Brits throw up their hands in confusion when confronted with Cholmondeley, which is pronounced “CHUM-lee,” Woolfardisworthy (“WULZ-er-ree”), Belvoir (“Beaver”), or the seemingly unsayable Featherstonehaugh, until you know it is “FAN-shaw.”

Most of these weird ways of saying words stem from the Norman conquerors' attempts to wrap their French-speaking tongues around Saxon names—and vice versa when the English were confronted with French imports. To this day, there are some diehard John Bulls who insist the Belgian town of Ypres is called “Wipers.”

Of course, Yanks themselves have some pretty odd pronunciations, including the family name Taliaferro, which comes out “TAHL-iv-ur”; Achilles (“uh-CHILL-us”), Kansas; Skaneateles, the New York town that sounds something like “skinny atlas”; Schuylkill (“SKOO-kle”), Pennsylvania; and the Purgatoire River in Colorado, which is rendered “Picket wire” by most natives.

Arkansans Americanize El Dorado to “EL-duh-RAY-duh,” and I have been told that there are some folks who call it “EL DOR-uh-DOO.”

Then, of course, there’s all the mangling Anglo speakers do to Spanish names in Texas: Mexia (“muh-HAY-ur”), Refugio (“ruh-FURY-oh”), and San Felipe (“SAN FILL-uh-pee”), among many.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has enough trouble pronouncing his own name, especially after the sun has been over the yardarm for a while, but that doesn’t stop him from grappling frivolously with the arcana of other people’s nomenclature:

            I met a young lady from Cholmondeley,
            And thought her exceedingly colmondeley.
            I gave her solmonde rolmonde,
            And she burbled, “Yolmonde! Yolmonde!”
            As I stood there, watching her dolmondeley.

            I met a young lady named Taliaferro,
            At a matinee showing of “Oliaferro!”
            Her looks made me quiaferro
            From my lips to my liaferro,
            In fact I was quiaferroing alliaferro!

            A theatre critic named Featherstonehaugh
            Saw Pygmalion and rushed out to peatherstonehaugh.
            He declared, “I’ve no quamis
            To say his plays are all bamis,”
            And he urged the producer to beatherstonehaugh.


  1. What about Worcestershire sauce?

  2. And in the same mode, there are also Bicester, Frocester, Gloucester, Rocester, and Towcester.

  3. And there's also Mildenhall, which is locally [near my cousins' town of Marlborough in Wiltshire] pronounced "MY-nul" ... but elsewhere in England [Suffolk, which pronunciation I shall NOT attempt] it is pronounced more or less as it is spelled.