August 11, 2014
by gpointon

Confusing place names

We’re used, in the British Isles, to place names that have more than one pronunciation – Shrewsbury (/ˈʃrəʊzbÉ™ri/~/ˈʃruːzbÉ™ri/) is probably the best known, although those with long memories will recall that there was a veiled threat to my position over the pronunciation of Althorp 17 years ago (/ˈɔːltrÉ™p/ – as used by the Spencer family, or /ˈɔːlθɔːrp/ – as imposed by the anti-Spencer journalists of the news organizations). We are also quite used to place names whose pronunciation appears to bear little relation to the spelling – Happisburgh (/ˈheɪzbrÉ™/), Wymondham (/ˈwɪndÉ™m/), Kirkcudbright (/kÉ™rˈkuːbri/), and very occasionally there are place names with alternative spellings whose pronunciation remains the same. In fact the only one of those that I can quickly bring to mind is only a few miles from where I’m writing this – St Ippolyts~Ippollitts – or any combination of single and double -p- , -l- , or -t-. The pronunciation is always /ˈɪpÉ™lɪts/, despite the original Latin form of the name being Hippolytus, and therefore ‘correctly’ stressed on the second syllable: /ɪˈpÉ’lɪts/.

Now we have the more contentious question of a foreign place name that has three European spellings, and three pronunciations: Arbil~Erbil~Irbil. Should we be standardizing on one spelling and pronunciation, or leaving it to the whim of the individual reporter to decide from dispatch to dispatch which it will be? So far this last fortnight, the only one I haven’t heard is Arbil ?/ɑːˈbiːl/?.

I realize that compared to events on the ground, the pronunciation of this place name is very small potatoes, but the use of multiple forms of a name can confuse the audience when clarity is already in short supply.

July 19, 2014
by gpointon

Galilee and Galileo

I don’t usually watch or listen to the First Night of the Proms, but as yesterday evening’s concert was Elgar’s “The Kingdom”, an oratorio I have never heard, I decided to make an exception. Part way through, when the disciples are touched by the Holy Spirit and start speaking languages of which they had no previous knowledge, they are referred to as “Galileans”. Why not? they come from Galilee. The only pronunciation given for this adjective in the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is /gælɪˈliːən/, as one might expect. However, the word was sung twice by the choirs (the BBC Singers and the BBC National Choir of Wales – so they were taught by two separate chorus masters) as /gælɪˈleɪən/. To me this is the adjective one might form from the name of the Italian astronomer Galileo.

Some years ago, when I was still supposedly influential as the BBC’s Pronunciation Adviser, Radio Drama produced Ibsen’s “Emperor and Galilean”, for which my office provided (at their request) assistance with the pronunciation of proper names and other problematic words. The reason they gave for ignoring our recommendation for “Galilean”, and using the same anti-etymological version as the one I heard last night, was that “it sounded better”!

Clearly, the pronunciation dictionaries are out of date, and we must now accept that the “Galilean heresy”, pronounced identically, can refer both to Christianity seen from the point of view of 1st century Judaism, and the heliocentric ideas promulgated by Galileo and Copernicus, as criticized by the Roman Catholic Church.

July 7, 2014
by gpointon

A team of pronouns

When I was learning French, our excellent teacher gave us a mnemonic for learning the positions of the personal pronouns – other than the subject forms – in relation to the verb. It was in the form of a football team:

me nous te vous se

le la les

lui leur


(en was the substitute)

This was in the days before team managers developed their own theories of team structure – 4-2-4, 4-3-3, etc, and before more than one substitute was allowed, and then only in case of injury. The goalkeeper was number one, although he never wore a number on his back (I think Yashin, the great Soviet goalkeeper, may have been an exception). The other positions were right back (2), left back (3); right half (4) centre half (5), left half (6); outside right (7), inside right (8), centre forward (9), inside left (10) and outside left (11).

The pronouns are placed in the order of “forwards” first, then “halfbacks”, then “backs” and then the goalie. If necessary, the substitute follows the goalkeeper. So, “Chaque jour il me donnait les clefs” becomes “Chaque jour il me les donnait” when “les clefs” is replaced by a pronoun (forward before halfback); but “Il les leur donnait” (halfback before back) if he gave them to some other people; “Il s’en alla” (forward before substitute); “Il y en a” (goalkeeper before substitute).

It works, but now that we have all the different formats of football teams, depending on the whim of the manager at the time, or according to what he perceives to be the need when playing against a particular opponent, how do you teach pupils the position of French pronouns?

June 18, 2014
by gpointon

-ed or not -ed

There was a time when, if you wanted to buy a complete set of some publication which came in its own slip-case, it was known as a “boxed set”. The OED records this from as early as 1895 (Chicago Tribune, 22 December: “The boxed set of three volumes”), and in the case of recorded music, from 1947 (New Yorker 22 March: “Columbia’s two-volume boxed set of Handel’s ‘Messiah’”). This usage has continued up to the present day (OED has “Though some of the films are available as singles, the boxed set contains added features on the bonus disc.” from the Montreal Gazette, 3 June 2006).

However, increasingly the form “box set” is used. I was surprised to find that the OED records this as early as 1969 (Appleton Post Crescent, 26 October: “Box set of 8–12 oz. Tumblers” – Appleton is in Wisconsin for those like me who were previously unaware of its geographical location).

I have always assumed that the shorter form came about because of phonetic simplification of the cluster /sts/, removing the /t/ from the middle, but now, in a single edition of a British newspaper I find three examples of similar phrases: terrace house, for which I have always said terraced house, and these: “[This company] offers ‘gigabit fibre’ broadband to select customers in London”; “online shoppers who buy through select websites”.

“Terrace house” appears in Jane Austen’s Sanditon and James Joyce’s Ulysses, so it has a very long pedigree, and in fact, the OED refers you to ‘terrace house’ if you first look up ‘terraced house’, which it can only date back to 1958 (Daily Express, 3 April: “Their tiny terraced home in the back streets of Horden, Durham”).

“Select” seems to me to have a different meaning than “selected”. A website, or a customer, is selected when it is chosen maybe at random, whereas a “select customer” or “select website” is one picked out for some special reason of excellence. The OED appears to agree with me. Are we witnessing a change in the language from adjectival -ed forms based on nouns to bare nouns, and also to the removal of the -ed from adjectives derived from verbs?



May 5, 2014
by gpointon

Potteries accent

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a long stretch of a genuine Potteries accent on Radio 4 before this – usually actors are attempting it from some other starting point, but here is the Real Thing, in a short story called “Pot Luck”. Final ‘ng’ is [Å‹g], intervocalic /t/ often becomes /r/ (for instance “not on” becomes /nÉ’rÉ’n/, /aɪ/ has a distinctly front open /a/, /ÊŒ/ and /ÊŠ/ are neutralised, and there is the ubiquitous term “duck” when addressing someone – anyone.

It’s available on the BBC iplayer for four more days:

I hope you can enjoy it.

April 13, 2014
by gpointon

An error in Domesday Book translations?

I talked about the etymology of the names Welwyn and Willian in an earlier post (here). I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

The earliest reference to Welwyn that is given in the English Place Name Society volume on Hertfordshire (1938), is ultimately from AD 944-6, in a copy of the 13th century, published by Birch in his Cartularium Saxonicum in the late 19th century. There it appears as “Welingum”, a form that goes back to the Old English dative of welig, with the -n- inserted by analogy with the many other names that regularly ended in -ingum. In Domesday (1086) the name appears six times – according to the published translations. Willian’s earliest appearance in the record seems to be in Domesday, where it is given the spelling “Wilie”, and, apparently, is mentioned once only. However, I think that some of these seven mentions have been mis-attributed, and that at least three more of them refer to Willian, which is one of the three ancient parishes that make up Letchworth Garden City.

Here are the entries as translated in the Phillimore edition of Domesday, which includes the Latin text as well as an English version:

1. “In Welwyn [spelled ‘Wilge’ in the Latin] the Bishop [Robert Bishop of Chester] also holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough. The value is and always was 3s. This land lies in (the lands of) Bygrave, the Bishop’s manor. Archbishop Stigand held it.” [but Bygrave borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

2. “In Welwyn [Welga] Robert of Pont-Chardon holds 1½ hides and 20 acres from Robert [Gernon]. Land for 3 ploughs; in lordship 1; another possible. 3 villagers with 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 1 cottager; 2 slaves. Meadow for 2 oxen; pasture for the livestock. The value is and was 30s; before 1066, 40s. Godric, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, held this land; he could sell.”

3. “In Welwyn [Wilga] William of Eu holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough, but it is not there. The value of this land is and always was 3s. Alstan of Boscombe held it; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. In the same village, William Delamere holds 2 hides from William of Eu. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; 5 villagers have another; a third possible. 2 cottagers. Pasture for the livestock. The value of this land is and was 32s; before 1066 £4. Alstan of Boscombe held 1 hide of this land; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. Alfgeat, his man, held 1 hide; either could sell.” [but Weston borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

4. “In Welwyn [Welge] Roger holds 2 hides from Geoffrey (of Bec). Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 villagers with 4 smallholders have 4 ploughs; a fifth possible. 4 cottagers; 1 slave. 1 mill at 8s; meadow for 2 ploughs; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 20 pigs. In total, value 50s; when acquired 20s; before 1066 £6. Gode and her son held this land from Queen Edith; they could sell.”

5. “In Willian [Wilie] Geoffrey of Bec holds 5 hides and 1 virgate himself. Land for 9 ploughs. In lordship 2 hides; 2 ploughs there; another 2 possible. 10 villagers with 1 man-at-arms and 4 smallholders have 5 ploughs. Meadow for ½ plough; pasture for the livestock; wood for fences. In total, value £10 14s; when acquired £4; before 1066 £12. Leofric, one of Earl Leofwin’s Guards, held this manor; he could sell. A Freeman, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, had ½ hide; he could sell. A widow had ½ hide less 10 acres; she could not sell without Godwin of Letchworth’s permission.”

6. “In Chells Godfrey holds 1½ hides from Peter [of Valognes]. Land for 1 plough; it is there, with 2 smallholders and 1 slave. Value 30s; when acquired 20s; before 1066, 40s. Alwin held 1½ hides of this land. Apart from 10 acres and 1 plot, which Alwin Dod [son], Aelfric Little’s man, holds; they lay in (the lands of) Welwyn [Wilga]; he could not sell outside.” [but Chells lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn.]

7. “In Welwyn [Welge] a priest holds 1 hide, in alms from the King. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 2 cottagers. Meadow for 1 plough; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 50 pigs. In total, the value is and always was 25s. He held it himself from King Edward in alms. It lies in the (lands of the) church of this village. William Black, the Bishop of Bayeux’s man, annexed 12 acres of this alms land in the King’s despite, as the Hundred testifies.”

It looks to me as if the earlier translators have simply seen a ‘g’ in the spelling, and automatically thought “Welwyn”, without considering the geography. Neither have they  taken into consideration the modern spellings: each time there is an ‘i’ in the original, the land in question lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn. If the two names have always differed in their first vowel, as seems likely, why not take this evidence at face value?

There is another point: in ordering the various estates, the Domesday compilers tend to group them according to their location within the hundred, so that adjoining estates are listed next to each other. William of Eu’s holding in ‘Wilga’ is listed between Graveley and Weston (these two places are close to Willian, but not to Welwyn). Geoffrey of Bec’s first holding (‘Welge’) comes between Datchworth and Langley (near to Welwyn); his second (Wilie) between Chells and ‘Rodhanger’ (exact location unknown, but near to Norton in North Hertfordshire, another part of Letchworth Garden City). This would also imply that ‘Wilga’ referred to Willian, and ‘Welge’ to Welwyn.

February 22, 2014
by Graham


The present upheavals in Ukraine bring the pronunciation of its place names into prominence. Even the country’s name is now subtly different from what it was thirty years ago. Then the geographical area was always called “The Ukraine”, which was suitable for what was a part of a larger whole (cf. “The Midlands”, “The Algarve”)  but since its independence with the break up of the Soviet Union, the definite article has been dropped.

Ukrainian is a different language from Russian, so the old Russian forms of its place names have also, on the whole, been abandoned in favour of the equivalent Ukrainian forms. So we now have Lviv, which used to be Lvov (and before World War II, when it was part of Poland, Lwów), and Kharkiv, formerly Kharkov. The capital, however, has not lost what has become a standard anglicization – Kiev. However, I’m puzzled by the pronunciations for this that I’m hearing on both radio and television. The eponymous dish – chicken kiev – is always pronounced (in my experience at least) /ˈkiːef/, and I have always pronounced the city in the same way. Now, I am hearing /ˈkiːev/ or even /kiːˈev/. These are not the Russian pronunciation, nor the Ukrainian. Must we now start getting used to all Russian or Russian-like names having their final -v pronounced /v/? Moloto/v/? Prokofie/v/? Khrushche/v/?

January 25, 2014
by Graham

Railway Station

This is what I call the place where I catch the train both to and from London. Increasingly, what I’ve always considered to be an Americanism – train station – is being used, even by friends of my own generation. Until about 15 years ago, I had the feeling that ‘train station’ was current only among British people born since about 1965, but it is now seeping up the generations, and last week-end, I heard it on the lips of a 70 year old. Interestingly, the first line of Paul Simon’s song Homeward Bound is “I’m sittin’ in the railway station”. I know he wrote it in Britain (actual location disputed), but since when do Americans use British phrases simply because that’s where they are? Of course, “I’m sittin’ in a train station” wouldn’t scan.

Anyway, the OED inevitably has a section on the phrase. The first references are to the Morning Chronicle, March 1845 and the Daily News November 1856, both British, but then there is a long gap to 1955 (US) and then 1981 (New York Times Magazine) which is, like me, commenting on the usage: “When was the last time you heard a young, rich-affluent-wealthy type use the phrase railroad station? Upper-class use is now train station.”

I mention this now because I’ve just caught up with the first episode of the new series of “Mr Selfridge” on ITV, in which the (fictional) female owner of a dubious ‘gentlemen’s club’ gives a reading from her autobiography, and uses ‘train station’. Even though she had supposedly recently returned from the US, I don’t think that would have been right in 1914, especially given the circles she is supposed to move in, and the 1981 quotation given above. Film makers, whether for the big screen or TV, go to great lengths to get costume and set dressing correct. Why can’t they pay the same attention to the language their characters use?

January 14, 2014
by Graham


I wrote in an earlier post about regional variation in terms for lying snow. There are also phrases that belong to one part of the country rather than another.

My mother would look at a lowering sky, when dark clouds were gathering before a storm, and say “It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother’s”. I always assumed that this was simply a family saying, going back to a time perhaps when a family member or friend called “Bill” lived in the direction from which bad weather often came, but my partner, who was born thirty-odd miles away from me, and whose parents’ families were from Norfolk and South Staffordshire respectively, also uses it, so it obviously has wider currency. I’ve also established that it is known as far away as Blackpool. There is some discussion on various web sites about its origin, from which it also seems common in the East Midlands. Can we stretch it further?

Another one in use in Stoke on Trent is a phrase that means explain something in a long-winded way, or go a long way round for a short cut: “go all round the Wrekin”. The Wrekin (pronounced /ˈriːkɪn/) is decribed in Wikipedia as being a hill of volcanic origin in Shropshire, and so quite some distance from the Potteries, but visible on a clear day (in the old days there weren’t many of them, with hundreds of bottle ovens belching out smoke from being fired with coal!) from the hill tops. Obviously, the expression can only be used in those parts of the country where the Wrekin is a familiar landmark, but not very close by (photograph by Gordon Dickins). How far can we extend this phrase’s usage?

photograph by Gordon Dickins

December 14, 2013
by Graham

One sentence, two meanings

About a month ago, John Maidment wrote about an ambiguous phrase: here

Now here is a proverb that has two meanings, and they are quite difficult to distinguish even by their intonation:

“No news is good news”. When this means that the absence of news constitutes good news, it may be “\No /news is \good _news.” To mean that whatever the news, it is bad, it may be “\No _news is â—Ÿgood â—žnews.”

And another: “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”. Is this a wind which causes harm to everybody, or does it mean that in most circumstances, no matter how “ill” the wind, some one will benefit from it? Only the intonation can tell us: “It’s an ˈill \wind, that blows \nobody any good.” (harms everybody) or “It’s an \ill wind that blows \nobody any â—žgood.” (someone will benefit).