Souls and Ghouls


Amanda Vickery, Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, from this month, recently presented a TV series on domestic life in Georgian England – At Home with the Georgians. Professor Vickery is a Lancastrian, and her accent is as might be expected from such a background. She had one very idiosyncratic pronunciation: entrepreneur as /ˌɒntrepəˈnɜː/, but the main reason for writing this post was her pronunciation of the eminent member of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton, whose family name she pronounced /ˈbʊltən/. This immediately reminded me of Patricia Routledge (another Lancastrian – from Birkenhead), whose pretentious character Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced /bʊˈkeɪ/) in the BBC TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances, was always talking about her Royal /ˈdʊltən/ with the handpainted periwinkles.

Both Boulton and Doulton are generally pronounced with /əʊ/ as are most words containing the orthographic sequence -oul-. A week or so after Professor Vickery’s programme, a series called Edwardian Farm, in which two archaeologists and a historian recreate life on an Edwardian farm through a whole year, dealt with chicken rearing. I was surprised to hear one of the archaeologists, Alex Langlands, call them /ˈpuːltri/.

There is clearly a problem with the -oul- spelling. Several other cases come to mind: David Coulthard, the Formula 1 racing driver, and now BBC motor racing commentator, calls himself /ˈkəʊlθɑːd/ (only with a Scottish accent, so [oː] rather than [əʊ]). I know this because when he was first engaged as a driver, one of my colleagues in the BBC Pronunciation Unit spoke to him by telephone. At the time, journalists were wanting to say /ˈkuːltɑːd/, but he insisted it was ‘first syllable as in coal, and the -th- as in thin‘. Everyone in the Radio Newsroom laughed at this, and said he was lucky he was being mentioned at all! but eventually the pronunciation has settled as /ˈkuːlθɑːd/, and I suspect that it is now too late to change it, despite his clearly expressed wishes. Coulsdon, in London,  swung back and forth in the course of the 20th century between /ˈkuːlzdən/ and /ˈkəʊlzdən/. Glenn Gould is always /guːld/, and yet I knew a family of the same name who were always /gəʊld/.

As I pointed out above, most words with -oul- are pronounced /əʊ/ – boulder, shoulder, mould, smoulder, soul, and many fewer with /uː/ – ghoul is the only example which comes to mind immediately, others, such as boules and moules (as in moules marinière) being obvious borrowings from French.


  1. Youlgrave/Youlgreave in Derbyshire has /u:/.

  2. And of course there is the unique(?) /aʊ/ in ‘foul’.

  3. And then there’s the fast-becoming-notorious Andy Coulson (David Cameron’s Press Secretary, and former editor of the News of the World), who is invariably referred to as /ˈkuːlsən/ by all commentators. But what does he call himself? What does the Pronunciation Unit recommend for him, and on what evidence? Those with long memories for British scandals may also recall John Poulson, an (unqualified) architect in the North East of England who served a prison sentence for bribing politicians in the 1970s. He was always known as /ˈpəuːlsən/ at the time.

  4. Patchouli (derives from Tamil) has /u:/, doesn’t it?

  5. Patchouli may also be stressed on the first syllable and then has short u in its second syllable.
    As for the etymology, here is what OED has to say: “French patchouli (1826), apparently from Deccan vernacular pacolī; the first part of the word is probably ultimately from a Dravidian language (compare Tamil paccai fragrant plant, fragrance), but the origin of the terminal element is unknown.”

  6. Still scraping the barrel: goulash has /u:/ too.

  7. Also doula, which is a loanword from Greek. Not yet in the OED, but anyone who has a child up here in Northern California is likely to hear the word.

  8. May I help scraping the -oul- barrel?
    Ampoule, Bernoulli, coulomb, foulard, joule, Moulin Rouge, rouleau.

  9. Hyacinth Bucket and her Royal Doulton: If I remember correctly, she kept saying /ˈdu:ltən/.

  10. Petr – joule (small -j) is /u:/, but with capital J – Joule, a brewing family from Staffordshire, from a member of which the unit takes its name, it is /aʊ/. All the new examples being given are loanwords (as is ghoul, as it happens), whereas my original specimens were native English words. Incidentally, I think you’re right about ‘the Bucket woman’, but both Boulton and poultry were /ʊ/. And nobody’s mentioned bouquet, which is often pronounced /bəʊˈkeɪ/, although LPD gives an 83% to 17% preference for /ʊ/ (or /u/, as it’s unstressed).

  11. soubriquet, boustrophedon (sometimes)
    Oh, is this barrel bottomless?

  12. @Graham:

    Would isn’t a loanword:)

  13. Graham – it wasn’t clear to me that you wanted non-native English words to be excluded.

  14. I bouzed a lot of souchong after the soufflé!

  15. Petr – I’m don’t think it’s wrong to include loanwords. Perhaps it’s the existence of so many loanwords with this pronunciation of the -ou- that it encourages its spread to native words. I was initially thinking just of those words with -oul-, and not anything with -ou-.
    Dw – would and should are slightly different because the -l- is silent. The -l- in could is unetymological, added by analogy with the other two.

  16. Stupid me! I had forgotten the discussion centered around -oul words.

  17. Well we know who to blame for these infelicities since your post of Dec 28, 2010. That did convince me that they are the producers’ responsibility, but it’s hard to see what any producer could do about something as weird as ˌɒntrepəˈnɜː without actually adding insult to the injury of trying to correct the pronunciation of the name of a historical figure by someone who professes History.

    I too was sure Hyacinth’s Royal Doulton was always ˈduːltən.

    The pronunciation ˈpuːltri might conceivably be a hypercorrection. Some speakers have various degrees of merger involving pool, pull, pall, and sometimes pole.

    Talking of dw’s Greek loanword, ‘aboulia’ is a funny word. I feel sure that that spelling used to be more current than the Latinate spelling abulia, and most online dictionaries do list it, but with the same pronunciations as ‘abulia’, i.e. with both uː and ju:. Did you have anything to say about this at the Pronunciation Unit?

  18. I too apologise for wandering off to a different barrel.

  19. No apologies needed – all comments are welcome!

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