Pronounced HOW?!?

On August 23, 2012 · 25 Comments

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.

On August 23, 2012 · 25 Comments

25 Responses to “Pronounced HOW?!?”

  1. One of the villages in my valley is also named Fauquier, pronounced ‘FOE-kier’. As a lifelong resident of the Arrow Lakes, you can imagine the variety of mispronunciations I’ve heard. The most common seem to be ‘FAR-quar’ and ‘FUK-yay’ (the former is just people who don’t bother trying to read, the latter is a favourite because it combines the F-bomb with a ‘cultured’ French syllable). Even my hometown of Nakusp gets butchered all the time (it’s ‘NUH-kusp’, although outsiders will frequently say ‘NAH-kusp’ or ‘nuh-KOOSP’). That said, British Columbia’s all-time mispronunciation champion is easily Osoyoos (‘oh-SOO-yoos’, not ‘oh-SOY-oos’). It gets butchered constantly, even by people who live just a few miles away.

    P.S.: Is it bad I read the entire article in my head with a Tidewater accent?

  2. wangi says:

    You know, a few of those are quite sensible 🙂 and reflect pronouciation over here in Scotland (Fauquier like Farquharson; Buchanan the same way in Glasgow’s shopping street). What surprises me in the US is like the original poster – when you know the pronunciation from the “original” but are way wrong locally…

    Delhi, LA…
    Montpelier, VT
    (and a few others which escape me at this late hour!)

  3. AF says:

    I love the pronunciation variances that occur in US place names.

    I especially like when the place name varies in local pronunciation from even the English version of the foreign name.

    Cairo, IL = Cay-ro (see here http://www.forvo.com/word/cairo%2C_illinois/#en)
    Versailles, IN = Ver-sales (see here http://www.forvo.com/word/versailles,_indiana/)

    Then, of course, there is the Oregon split. Northeast coasters tend to say “Ore-gone” while native Oregonians, midwesterners, westerners, and all the Canadians I know say “Ore-gun” or “Ore-gin” (like this http://www.forvo.com/word/oregon/#en).

    Near me there is the delightful Rhode Island accent which accounts for the variable pronunciation of the city of Pawtucket, RI. You would assume it was “Paw-tuck-et” but around here it is “Puh-tuckit.” (You can hear the difference here http://www.forvo.com/word/pawtucket/#en even the one from Connecticut pronounces it “wrong”)

  4. Scrub says:

    I can think of a few more for Virginia: Buena Vista, not far from Lexington, is pronounced BYOO-na Vista. And I’ve heard locals pronounce Luray, as in the Luray Caverns, as LOO-ray, with a hard emphasis on the first syllable, like an exact rhyme with Blu-Ray discs. Pearisburg is pronounced like Paris, France, with -burg appended.

    My family still lives in Virginia Beach (I’ve since moved away), but on flights home I’m always surprised by the number of flight attendants, who presumably spend a lot of their time in Norfolk, who aren’t even close to getting the local pronunciation down. A lot of people have been inspired by the potential for obscenity in the pronunciation of Norfolk–for instance, I’m pretty sure FM99 WNOR (98.7), the oldest and most well-known hard rock station in the area, does its station IDs by saying “FM99 W-N-O-R, nor-FUCK!” And I had a high school teacher who told me that in his day, when Norfolk High School existed (it’s now called Granby), their cheerleaders had a chant about the team: “Our boys don’t drink! Nor smoke! Norfolk!”

    • Oh wow, I can’t believe I forgot Luray. One of my very best friends comes from there, and indeed pronounces it LOO-ray. My brain has been so conditioned to think that this is a normal pronunciation that I completely overlooked it.

  5. > Fincastle is pronounced as one would expect — no weirdness there

    So, it’s pronounced “Finksle”?

    At least, that would have been my first guess if it had been a placename in England. (Perhaps based partly on “forecastle” = focksle, sometimes even spelled “fo’c’sle” because of this.)

  6. Randy Clark says:

    Leaving Virginia briefly can you pronounce Meagher (County, Montana)?

  7. Pfly says:

    This is a classic topic. Madrid , NW, is famously called MAd-rid. And there are others like that I understand. Nearer to where i grew up there is Corfu, NY, pronounced Cor-few. Here in WA things are mostly pronounced like they are spelled, but that doesn’t help with names like Mukileteo and Dosewallips. Of course none of this compares to how things are pronounced in England, or even New England. i had to be trained in the pronunciation of Newbuddy, MA. It’s not just that it’s a single syllable, there ‘s a non-intuitive way to stress the accents. And don’t even mention Glouster, MA.

  8. Bill Harris says:

    You would think that a name like Newark would be easy to pronoucne, but there are two distinct pronunciations: new-ERK (the city in New Jersey) and NEW-ark (the town in Delaware). There are several Newarks across the United States and apparently there is little agreement to the proper pronunciation.

    Since Newark, Delaware is a college town, there is a significant number of New Jersey and New York residents that reside in town. Its quite easy to separate the locals from the visitors.

  9. Miami, Oklahoma is “Miam-uh” and I think “Boise City” (which your marathon also went through) I believe is pronounced “Boyce”

  10. Kaye says:

    I’ve been surround by these all of my life. Grew up near the town Lafayette, AL. To most of the world who recognize its French influence it should be “lah-fee-ET” but to the locals, the one in Alabama is “la-FAY-et” – just as it looks. They go full out with phonetics of the English language on the French word.

    Then I lived in Mississippi and was exposed to Gautier, MS. Knowing the heavy French influence in that area of the country, I assumed “GO-tee-ay” or GAW-tee-ay” but it is actually pronounced “go-SHAY”. It took me a long time of hearing “go-SHAY” and seeing “Gautier” and realizing that those two places were in fact, one.

    And now I live in Savannah, GA and the one that locals have to correct visitors about if Beaufort, SC, just across the river. Most people want to say “BO-fert” but it is actually “BU-fert”.

    Great post…I love reading these!

  11. Rob says:

    One of the most widely mispronounced and never-corrected mispronounced names is Pierre, the Capital of South Dakota. Learned by nearly all grade school students, people just assume it’s pronounced the familiar-sounding French way. The problem is, there’s no one around to correct them, because when’s the last time you met someone from South Dakota? Also doesn’t help that it’s the 2nd smallest state Capital, and is one of only a few located far from an interstate highway, meaning hardly any long-haul travelers would stop there for a night.

    It’s actually pronounced “Peer” or “Pier” as I quickly learned from the friendly locals after spending a night there.

  12. Mr Burns says:

    Even the locals can’t always agree. My hometown (Wamego, Kansas – featured on this site some time ago) is pronounced “wah-MEE-goe” by most people, but a tiny minority say it as “wah-MAY-goe”. Just three miles north is the burg of Louisville, pronounced around here as “LEW-iss-ville”.

    One city that’s sure about it’s name is Salina, Kansas. It’s never pronounced like the city of nearly the same name in California. It’s “suh-LYE-nuh” here, not “suh-LEE-nuh”. But it is in Saline County, pronounced “suh-LEEN”, not “SAY-leen” or “suh-LYNE”. Exactly how they pronounce the name of Salina, Utah, is something I don’t know.

    Though it used to be separate, the Kansas City metro area has now grown out to include the city of Olathe. It’s “oh-LAY-thuh”, not “oh-LAY-thee”.

    Streets can be tricky, too. When I started working in radio in Lawrence, Kansas, one of my first lessons was in how to not sound like an out-of-towner (which I was). There’s a street there named Ousdahl Road. If you don’t say “OZ-dale”, you’re wrong.

    And of course, my favorite, which I’ve probably mentioned in a comment before (since it is, after all, my favorite): The Arkansas River rises in Colorado, where they pronounce it “AR-kan-saw”, just like the state. When it crosses the border into Kansas, however, it’s pronounced “ar-KAN-zus”. Downriver, it goes into Oklahoma, where it reverts to it’s original pronunciation for the rest of it’s length. (There’s a town called Arkansas City along the way, and of course it’s pronounced “ar-KAN-zus”.)

    Every part of the world has it’s pronunciation idiosyncrasies, I suppose. It’s fun to read your post and the comments. I’ve learned a lot!

  13. Christine says:

    Representing Pennsylvania:
    * Lancaster is pronounced LANK-ist-er, not Lan-cast-er
    * Lebanon is pronounced LEB-nin, not Leb-a-non

    As for Colorado… well, here’s a reference guide: http://www.usends.com/Explore/Colorado/placenames.html

  14. Katy says:

    Des Plaines, Illinois always receives a variety of different and incorrect pronunciations from people outside the Chicago area. The locals pronounce “Des” as “dez” and “Plaines” as “plains.”

  15. Richard says:

    Massachusetts:

    * Peabody (PEA-buh-dee)
    * Woburn (WOO-burn, as distinct from Waban, WA-bun, first vowel as in “watch”)
    * Haverhill (HAY-vur-ull)
    * Billerica (bill-RICK-uh)
    * Waltham (WALL-tham — unvoiced th, as in “think”; second vowel as in “ham”)

    And that’s all within only about 30 miles of Boston. (I didn’t bother to mention Worcester, on the grounds that that’s pretty well known — we pronounce it the same way they do in England, adjusting for local accent.)

  16. Rhodent says:

    The number of people from other parts of the country who try to pronounce Raleigh as either “ray-lee” (this one is understable) or “rally” (this makes no sense to me at all) never ceases to amaze me. It’s “rah-lee”. A few other gems from the Old North State include:

    New Bern – emphasis goes on “New”, not “Bern”.

    Durham – Although the “proper” pronunciation is the expected “DUR-im”, in practice so little stress is put on the second syllable that more often than not it actually comes out at “durm”.

    Beaufort – Someone commented above that the town of this name in South Carolina is pronounced “BYOO-furt”; here in NC it’s the more accurate “BOH-furt”.

    Chatham – “CHAD-im”

    Lenoir – Both the city and the county (which are nowhere near each other; the county is in the eastern part of the state and the city is in the mountains) are both pronounced “luh-NOR”

    Mebane – “MEBB-in”

    Bahama – “buh-HAY-muh”

    Kure Beach – “Kure” is pronounced like the word “curry”

    • Corey says:

      Nice list from NC. Another that comes to mind is the Outer Banks town Corolla, which is pronounced “cor-RAWL-uh”, not “cor-ROLL-uh” (like the car).

      And it’s not a pronunciation issue, but if you want to sound like an out-of-towner in the Triangle, just call it “Raleigh-Durham”. The local airport may be Raleigh-Durham International, but locals never lump the two together.

  17. steve says:

    Too many to mention from my travels, but the one closest to home that kills me – which is stupid because it’s phonetically correct – is the Thames River in Connecticut. Here it’s the THaymes, over “there” it’s the Tems. But the “Tems” is SO well known that it has just always bothered me.

    On the other hand, I always enjoy mispronouncing Mianus, CT.

  18. meggie says:

    I’ve lived in the small town of Norfolk, Connecticut my entire life. Everyone from the town and the surrounding area pronounces it Norfork. It always bothers me when people insist on pronouncing it Norfuk. It irritates me even more when people tell me I’m mispronouncing it!

  19. David Kearns says:

    I saw this in your year-end roundup and was very surprised that Texas seemed to be unrepresented. But Manchaca, TX is one of my all-time favorites since it’s pronounced MAN-shack and always seperates the newbies from the natives…

    • Mike Lowe says:

      Boerne will do that too.

      I excuse anyone having problems with Nacogdoches. Who expects a silent g and highest stress on a third syllable?

      I can’t think of other Texas ones but there must be some.

      • Dave says:

        Boerne (Bur-ney), Gruene (green), Mexia (muh-HAY-uh), and Refugio (ruh-FYOO-ee-oh, with a silent G), all somewhat track the original German and Spanish pronunciations. Dutch names didn’t fare so well in Texas. Harlingen comes out HAR-lin-jen, with a soft G, and Nederland NEE-der-luhnd, with a long E and a dead A. There’s also Manor (MAY-nor).

  20. Gary says:

    I lived in Rhode Island for almost 40 years, and some stuff here gets pronounced weird too. The best one is Pawtucket. People who live here pronounce it “P-tucket” (without saying the A or the W). When I hear on national TV some talk about the Red Sox’s AAA baseball team there (the Pawtucket Red Sox), it is said like it is spelled. Another one is Coventry. Usually is is said like “Cuh-ventry”, which is how the British say it. Here though, it is pronounced “Cah-ventry”.

    I grew up in a town called North Kingstown. Now there are towns called North Kingstown and South Kingstown, and two places called Kingston and West Kingston (both spelled and pronounced with no W and both oddly enough in South Kingstown). People would always leave the “W” out when saying or spelling North or South Kingstown.

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