Abergavenny, etc


John Wells was mentioning (here) the unpredictability of the pronunciation of British place and family names from their spellings, and some are recorded in the Dictionary of Blunders. The fact that they are mentioned at all must mean that in the author’s opinion they were being mispronounced, and this may be giving us an indication that in some cases the pronunciation was actually changing at the time he was writing (the 1870s or early 1880s).

ABERGAVENNY (family name) is pronounced Abergen’-ny. (This is also still, apparently, the pronunciation of the Marquis of Abergavenny, although it is not his family name.)

BELFAST is pronounced Bĕl-făst’, not Bĕl’-fast. (The author does not specify the exact pronunciation of ‘a’ the second time. Nowadays either stress pattern seems to be acceptable, and either /æ/ or /ɑː/ for the ‘a’.)

BERKELEY STREET is pronounced Bark-ley Street, and not as spelled.

BERKSHIRE is pronounced Bark-shire, and not as spelled. (There are some British dialects in which ‘er’ is still pronounced /ɜː/.)

CARSHALTON is pronounced Casehorton. (The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names acknowledges that this had existed, but by 1971 was no longer heard. The pre-war BBC publication Broadcast English II, which covered English place names, did not include it at all.)

CHOLMONDELEY (family name) is pronounced Chum’ley.

CINQUE (the Cinque Ports) is pronounced like sank. (Not today it isn’t. The BBC recommendation is ‘sink’.)

CIRENCESTER is pronounced Cissester. (Strangely, the BBC’s original recommendation, in 1930, was /ˈsɪsɪtə(r)/. Nowadays, the spelling pronunciation has prevailed: /ˈsaɪrənsestə(r)/, and I believe it is often shortened to /ˈsaɪrən/.)

COCKBURN (family name) should be pronounced Coburn, and not as spelled. (This applies to the port, and some years ago, an advert appeared in the London Underground:

Said King Charles to his court

“I enjoy a good port.”

Said a courtier game

“If I tell you the name

of the best will you make me a knight?”

The king nodded his head

and the courtier said

“Cockburn’s Port is the port for a king.

But remember to say it without the C K.”

So the court cried “Long live Harles the Ing!”)

COLQUHOUN (the name of a person) is pronounced Cǒ-hoo’n. (It still is.)

COWPER. The poet called himself Cooper, and not Cow-per.

CRICHTON is pronounced krī’ton, not krĭk’ton.

HELENA is pronounced Hĕl’-ĕ-na, not Hē-lē’na.

JACQUES is zhāk in French and jakes in English. (This is ambiguous, because the writer uses ā sometimes for /ɑː/ and sometimes for /eɪ/.)

MACLEOD is pronounced mak-loud, not măk-le’-ŏd.

MAINWARING (a family name) is pronounced Mannering.

MARJORIBANKS (a family name) is pronounced Marchbanks.

NAOMI is pronouncec Na’-o-mi, not Na-ō’-mi.

NASMYTH is pronounced Na’smith, not Naz’-mith.

PHŒBE (a female Christian name) is pronounced Fē’-bē.

ST. JOHN (a family name) is pronounced Sin’-jun.

ST. MAUR (Earl) is pronounced Sĕ-maur.


  1. What a pity the guy didn’t deal with Uttoxeter — not well known, I guess.

  2. Is or was that ˈʊtʃɪtə locally? I seem to remember something to that effect, but my internet searches produce off-putting results (of the feast or famine variety). I guess you, John, are having a bit of an inveigh against the UNspelling-pronunciations that such sources now deem “correct”.

  3. Perhaps I should first have addressed the question of Abergavenny. æbəˈɡenɪ is certainly what my mum taught me for the Marquess (1940s).

  4. Michael – coming from the Potteries, I was always aware that Uttoxeter could be /ˈʌtʃɪtə/ locally, but I and my family (trying to be posh?) went along with the BBC in saying /juːˈtɒksɪtə/.

  5. I have also heard /ʌtɒksɪtə/ and /ʊtɒksɪtə/. BBC PDBD (1983) has the first of these.

  6. Michael,

    Far be it from me to inveigh against any pron. I thought it might be interesting to see what people thought of the name way back then, seeing that there seem to be so many current-ish versions.

  7. John,

    What, not even prons which threaten my melancholy acceptance of all these spelling-pronunciations on John Wells’s blog? – “English pronunciation may eventually get back in synch with English spelling, and the spelling reformers will be out of a job.” They will be back in business if even the BBC espouses these UNspelling-pronunciations, of which juːˈtɒksɪtə is a particularly egregious oneǃ

    I guess “what people thought of the name way back then” was that that was an abomination, and that Graham’s family were silly asses to use that pronunciation. I take his Potteries ˈʌtʃɪtə to be authoritative. I shall adopt it. My ˈʊtʃɪtə must have been from further up North. You can hear sound files of both on the internet.

    The 1911 ed of Enc Brit says “The name of the town is locally Uxeter, or an approximate pronunciation” but it has mysteriously disappeared from my 80s ed. and from subsequent eds. They must have got cold feet. Wikipedia on the other hand has a stab at it (exclusively for rhotics, judging by the punctilio of the ɨ): juːˈtɒksɨtər.

  8. Then there’s the large city in northern England that the media seem to think is pronounced /ˈnjukɑsəl/, but anyone who’s ever been there knows it’s /njuˈkæsəl/. It’s amusing that the media-ese doesn’t even get the stress in the right place.

  9. Having never heard anyone talk about the Cinque Ports I have always pronounced them “sank”.

  10. I have never heard anything but sink, tho I was born and bred in one of the Cinque Ports, and even had a great-great-grandfather who was a “baron of the Sink Ports”, as the mayors were called that. I would suppose there have been sink of them pretty much from the start, and that sank ports is a typically hypercorrective Dictionary of Blunders blunder.

  11. BTW most of them have of course become sink ports since the sea sank.

  12. “Nowadays, the spelling pronunciation has prevailed: /ˈsaɪrənsestə(r)”

    Only by ignorant incomers or tourists that have never heard the pronunciation, only seen it written.

    The most common *local* pronunciations are “si-ren-ster”, “siss-is-ster” and “siss-i-ter”.


    [You left the thrid line out, so here is the full rhyme:

    Said King Charles to his Court,
    “I enjoy a good port,
    But it must be a wine that’s just right.”
    Said a courtier game, “If I tell you the name
    Of the best, will you make me a knight?”
    The king nodded his head,
    And the courtier said,
    “Cockburns Port is the port for a king.
    But remember to say it without the CK”,
    And they all cried
    “Long Live Harles the Ing!”

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