A comment caught my attention recently on my Mainly Marathons article. "Mr. Burns" (hopefully not this one) noticed that one of the towns I mentioned was Ulysses, Kansas. He wrote, "Oh, and if you go, be sure to pronounce Ulysses as “You-liss-us”, never as “You-liss-eez”. The latter pronunciation peeves the locals."
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That’s good to know. No good can come from peeving the locals. That reminded me that there are a lot of odd placename pronunciations in my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia too. One gets used to local pronunciations that would simply confound people who live beyond the borders. I can always tell, for example, when one of the local television stations hires an outside newscaster who promptly butchers a bunch of nearby town names.
Growing up in Loudoun, I had no idea people might look at the word and not pronounce it in the intuitively obvious manner to people who lived there. The first "ou" is pronounced like "ouch." and the second part like "den." I remember my grandmother coming over to the house one day and calling it Lew-dune. She was born in Washington, DC and spent her entire life either in the city or in a nearby suburb, maybe no more 50 miles from Loudoun at any given time. Yet, she thought it was Lew-dune. She also thought the Japanese attacked a Chesapeake Bay beach town so she had her geographic challenges. Of course I forgave this minor transgression and let it slide without correcting her.
Fauquier County was our neighbor, just to the south of Loudoun. In spite of the slew of vowels — five out of eight letters — it has only two syllables verbally, something akin to Faw-keer.
My eyes really opened up during my undergraduate years at one of Virginia’s public universities where I had an opportunity to meet people from across the Commonwealth. Some of their hometowns had simply crazy counterintuitive pronunciations. I’m going to try to sound them out for you although let me put a little asterisk on that: I found it really difficult to describe them in writing. I know how to say them so if I mangle them it’s because of my inability to type them out well.
A big cluster of them can be found in the Shenandoah Valley and down into Southwestern Virginia.
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I knew several people who came from Staunton and environs. That’s "STAN-ton" Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States from 1913 to 1921 was born in Staunton. That’s their big historical claim-to-fame. A lesser-known fact is that Staunton is officially the county seat of Augusta County even though Staunton is an independent city (and not physically part of Augusta County). Over time, Augusta has moved most of their administrative offices to nearby Verona so maybe my little geo-oddity fact isn’t all that impressive anymore.
One good friend came from Fincastle, down near Roanoke. Fincastle is pronounced as one would expect — no weirdness there — however it’s located in Botetourt County. And how does one pronounce Botetourt? Well, Bot-a-tot of course. Botetourt has another town called Buchanan, pronounced Buh-cannon. Thus, 1,200 people can say they are residents of Buh-cannon in Bot-a-tot and claim a double-set of odd pronunciations.
The oddities continue towards the southern and southeastern corners of the Commonwealth.
Henrico is mispronounced routinely outside of the Richmond metropolitan area even though it has more than 300,000 residents. Did you guess Hen-rye-co? Henrico has the distinction of being one of the oldest counties in the United States. It has direct roots tracing back to 1634 as one of Virginia’s original shires. That’s a very long time for a distinct pronunciation to establish itself.
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Finally, it’s difficult to spell Norfolk phonetically. It’s something like “Nahfok” although imagine a minimal vowel at the end with the f-and-k kind of blending into each other to a degree. A Norfolk native may have to help me with this one. Norfolk is actually one of the largest independent cities in Virginia. It features the world’s largest naval base (Naval Station Norfolk) and serves as the home port for six aircraft carriers. This is a pretty big deal for a place with a weird pronunciation.
It’s funny how these verbal interpretations evolved.