December 17, 2019
by Graham


Cheops is the well-known name of the Egyptian Pharaoh whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. This is actually the Greek form of the name, and in modern times he has had his name ‘re-egyptianized’, if I may coin such a word, as Khufu. The pronunciation of the Greek version, in English as given by every one of the standard pronouncing dictionaries, is ‘key-ops’, as in “most important operations”.
Cheops is now the name of a satellite sent up today by the European Space Agency (ESA), from French Guiana, to study exoplanets. Every commentator I have heard mention the name so far has used the pronunciation ‘kay-ops’. Why? This is the French pronunciation. Does that mean that the ESA is now using French rather than English? Even so, why should English speakers use a French pronunciation instead of the one that has been familiar to English speakers for probably two hundred years? When I first heard it this morning, I thought the spelling must be something else, perhaps ‘kayops’, an acronym for some obscure project, and it was only when I saw the name written down that I realised what was meant (it does stand for some obscurely named project, obviously made up to fit the name “Cheops”).
I wonder if the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit has sanctioned the use of the French pronunciation, or whether BBC News has gone ahead with this ludicrous version without consulting them (which in my experience would be par for the course).

August 15, 2019
by Graham

Greta Thunberg

Since this teenager became world famous, I’ve heard her name pronounced in several ways by BBC journalists and announcers. I don’t know how she herself pronounces her name, as I’ve never heard her say it, and I’m no longer in a position to find out easily, but certainly, only one of the at least four ways that I’ve heard can be right.

I don’t expect journalists to be able to speak Swedish – the only one from the last quarter of a century who comes to mind as a Swedish speaker is Kate Adie, whose degree from Newcastle University was in Scandinavian Studies. There may be others. However, since they are unlikely to know anything of the language other than the imitation of it perpetrated by the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show, I should have thought that they would admit their ignorance and ask somebody – in the case of BBC journalists, the Pronunciation Unit. They don’t even have to ask any more, as the whole of the pronunciation index is available to them in a couple of clicks on whichever electronic device is their favourite.

I’ve heard the initial ‘TH’ pronounced as if it was English, as if the whole name was a portmanteau word composed of the first part of ‘thud’ and the last part of ‘fun’; or to rhyme with ‘boon’, again with the initial sound of ‘thud’. But Swedish has no ‘th’ sounds (and in this it is like the majority of European languages), so the ‘h’ is purely decorative – as it is quite often in English names as well: Thames, Thomas, Trentham, immediately come to mind.

Even when the ‘h’ is ignored, I’ve heard journalists make the first syllable rhyme with ‘fun’.

Perhaps Ms Thunberg has made her wishes known, and when she speaks Engish (which she does very well), she calls herself ‘thun-burg’, but that doesn’t excuse those who are pronouncing it differently.

I’m not advocating a totally Swedish pronunciation – this would mean pronouncing the second syllable with completely alien phonotactics, but consistency ought not to be out of reach. Ms Thunberg is going to be around for a very long time and it would be nice for broadcasters to respect her name a little more.

July 25, 2019
by Graham


As I sit sweltering in a heat of the high thirties Celsius, I’ve become very aware of the French word for heatwave – canicule. When a friend asked me its etymology, I turned to my trusty Larousse Dictionnaire étymologique. This is what it says:

“de l’ital. canicula, petite chienne, désignant l’Etoile (ou Chien) de Sirius, dont le lever héliaque coïncide avec le solstice d’été, calque du gr. kuôn, chien.”

Obvious, really – it’s what we call the dog days, which they’ve specialised to mean a heatwave. This is all very well, but when I told my local italian barista that I’d discovered a new italian word, she told me she’d never heard of it! The Italian for a heatwave is far more straightforward – ‘ondata di caldo’. And when I went to my bilingual Italian-English dictionary, there is no such word as canicula.

So, why does Larousse believe it’s Italian? I don’t know, but certainly what we’ve got at the moment is rather more than a “little bitch”!

April 5, 2019
by Graham

Hindemith and Violas

This is unusual – I’m not commenting on pronunciation or usage this time, but asking for help. I’ve been asked to provide a translation of the German-language instructions to performers for the programme of our local Music Club, where we are about to have a recital of viola and piano works. Mostly, it’s straightforward, because the terms used have their equivalents in Italian, and from there to English is a very small step.

However, Hindemith poses me a problem. His Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 25 No 4, is in three movements, marked
1. Sehr lebhaft. Markiert und kraftvoll
2. Sehr langsame Viertel
3. Finale. Lebhafte Viertel

What does ‘Viertel’ mean in this context? It can’t be “quarter” as the work is in three movements, but might it have something to do with the speed of the crochets (quarter-notes)? I’ve translated the first movement as “Very lively. Emphatic and forceful” (I suppose the Italian would have been ‘marcato e con forza’), but even for that, if anyone can come up with a better version, I would be pleased to see it.

February 4, 2019
by Graham

Slivers or Slithers

I wrote about the confusion between these two words three years ago (here). From the evidence we appear to be losing the word ‘sliver’ completely. I recently offered a slice of cake to a very well-educated person who wanted to accept “just a slither, please”. And three separate examples from newspapers in otherwise well-written and spelt articles:
1. “At most, it should represent a slither of a broad investment portfolio” (recommending the purchase of a company’s shares)
2. “A slice of 1840 fruitcake for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding sold for £1500, while a slither for the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 …” (ignore the fact that she was still Princess Elizabeth in 1947)
3. (after suffering a cold) “you wake in the morning, and the nostrils are crusted and a slither of air has entered, light at the end of the tunnel.”
None of these three satisfies the definition of the OED’s “something smooth and slippery; a smoothly sliding mass”.

In my usage, sliver is almost invariably a noun (the most recent example given in the OED for its use as a verb is from Rudyard Kipling in 1896), while slither is almost always a verb, although I can live with a slither of snakes.

November 7, 2018
by Graham


Until about two years ago, I had never heard any pronunciation for this Greek name other than that given by all the current English pronunciation dictionaries: /bəˈlerəfɒn/ (with allowances for varying qualities of unstressed vowels). Then I went to a day’s series of lectures on Napoleon, and the lecturer consistently called the ship which took Napoleon into exile on St Helena, “Bellepheron” (and he spelled it that way too). Clearly he had a problem with the name.

Now, this week, in a radio programme about the ending of the First World War, the early twentieth century version of the ‘same’ ship was mentioned, and a reporter called it /bələˈrəʊfɒn/, which set me thinking. It’s well-known that sailors in the nineteenth century called the ship of that time by the affectionate nickname “Billy Ruffian”. Maybe this was because the Navy’s pronunciation was the one I heard this week – the stress pattern is the same, after all. Has this pronunciation ever been reported as the one accepted in naval speech? If so, should it be added to the dictionaries? With the proviso, of course, that it is only used in this context.

October 31, 2018
by Graham
1 Comment

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha

The tragic events of last Saturday in Leicester, when the owner of Leicester City FC was killed in his helicopter shortly after taking off from the centre of the pitch following the match with West Ham United, have also highlighted a discrepancy in BBC policy. While the coverage of Jemal Khashoggi‘s murder clearly led to a diktat from BBC management to use a single pronunciation in all the output (a diktat followed up to the present by the vast majority of BBC broadcasters), the same courtesy has not been accorded to Mr Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Although Radio 4 newsreaders are using one pronunciation – and managing consistency extremely well, especially given the apparent difficulty of interpreting the spelling – just about every sports commentator is using a different one.

I am no longer in a position to judge which of these is a better attempt at the native Thai (and neither is going to be that close), but is it just cynicism on my part to think that Mr Khashoggi was treated in a special way because he, like most of the BBC broadcasters, was a journalist, while Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was ‘merely’ a businessman? I think back to the death of Diana Princess of Wales, when all the evidence pointed to the pronunciation of Althorp being one thing, but the journalists insisted on ignoring the wishes of the Spencer family, when Earl Spencer had recently, including at the funeral, been pointedly critical of the treatment of his sister by the media. In that case, it struck me that the mispronunciation was a deliberate attempt to insult the family. All of the BBC hierarchy at the time will of course deny this as a case of sour grapes because my advice was not followed; however, in my absence on leave, my deputy was instructed by the then head of Libraries and Archives, whose qualifications were more suited to managing premises (which had been his previous post), to issue the ‘wrong’ pronunciation as our advice, with the not very veiled threat that she would face serious consequences if she refused, and a member of the BBC department of Editorial Policy asked me why we should take any notice of the wishes of a member of the effete (his word) aristocracy.

October 16, 2018
by Graham


Until ten days or so ago, the only person with the name Khashoggi who was well-known was the rather dodgy Saudi Arabian businessman, Adnan Khashoggi, who according to Wikipedia was the brother of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s wife, and so uncle to Dodi Fayed who died with Diana Princess of Wales. So far as I can remember, his family name was always pronounced with the final to syllables rhyming with “doggy”.
Now, the tragic events surrounding the death of the journalist Jemal Khashoggi have brought the name to prominence again. What is surprising me is that not only are the BBC Radio newsreaders, almost without exception, pronouncing this ‘-shog-ji’, but so are all the BBC presenters and journalists, both Radio and TV, with one notable exception. This can only be because a directive has come down from on high. Newsreaders are very good at following the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit, so this is not unexpected, even though I understand that the 1974 ruling that staff newsreaders and announcers must follow those recommendations has now been loosened to a merely advisory situation, but for all the journalists (with one exception) to follow suit can only be because the Controller of Editorial Policy has issued an edict. The one exception is not really surprising – it is Edward Stourton, who doggedly stuck to ‘-oggi’ throughout the World at One on Radio 4, despite his colleagues’ usage. I say this is not surprising, because, as I have mentioned here before, in the 1990s, we used to send to the newsreader at Television Centre a list of names in the bulletin at one o’clock, with our recommendations, and he had someone ring us up to say that he didn’t need them “as he was a linguist himself”. So he speaks, or can at least pronounce, every language in the world, can he? For someone with such an unusual pronunciation as he has (‘sturton’, not ‘stowerton’ or ‘storton’) ought to be aware of the pitfalls that can arise through ignorance of the special circumstance.
I thought that the difference between Adnan amd Jemal’s pronunciation might be that Adnan was Egyptian, in which case, the -g- pronunciation could be expected (cf Gamal – not Jemal – Abdul Nasser, for example), but Wikipedia is clear that he was a Saudi, so the two names should be pronounced alike. Perhaps in the 1980s, we were misinformed, especially given Adnan’s connexion to the Fayed family.
The BBC Director of Editorial Policy could do with issuing more edicts like this!

July 14, 2018
by Graham

Thai cave rescue – some language notes

My regular correspondent in Thailand has sent me the following, which includes IPA script. I hope that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as other of my posts, where the IPA has become corrupted over time.

“Good old BBC. No sooner have they managed to get SE Asia correspondent Jonathan Head to stop saying ‘Pa-TAY-a’ instead of [pʰát.tʰā.jāː] for the world-renowned resort of sun, sea, sewage and sex than they parachute everyone and his mother in to join the media circus surrounding the cave rescue in Northern Thailand. Now the cave complex includes one section that was already dubbed ‘Pattaya Beach’. I heard Head say it once, more or less correctly (we will forgive lapses of vowel length and tone – he’s only been in Thailand for 18 years). Then Philippines correspondent Howard Johnson arrived to take us back to ‘Pa-TAY-a’.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, the consensus was that this was happening in Tham /lwang/ Cave. First, ‘tham’ means ‘cave’. Second, there is no initial cluster /lw-/ in Thai. It’s [tʰâm lǔaŋ]. This is in the province of Chiang Rai, which was occasionally pronounced to rhyme with ‘Ray’. As any fule know, it’s [t͡ɕʰīaŋ.rāːj].”

There is also an interesting myth to do with this cave system. See

July 1, 2018
by Graham


For anyone reading this who is not familiar with British TV, the heading is the acronym for the programme “The Only Way Is Essex”, a reality show featuring natives of that county. I have to admit that this is not a programme I have ever watched, but its title is relevant here.
Earlier this year I attended the giving of an academic paper on the subject of Essex speech, given by a PhD student who, I think, comes from Essex. I was rather taken aback to hear the speaker use ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’, and ‘was’ as the past tense of ‘be’ in all persons, singular and plural. Then this week, the subject of Desert Island Discson BBC Radio 4 was the crime novelist Martina Cole, who, although she comes of Irish parentage, was brought up in Essex. She too used ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’.
I am quite willing to believe that more English speakers, and more English dialects, use these forms than do the usual standard English ‘did’ for the past tense of ‘do’ and ‘were’ as the 2nd person and the 1st and 3rd persons plural of the past tense of ‘be’ (has anyone ever calculated the respective figures?), but, particularly in the case of the student giving an academic paper, I would have expected a bidialectal ability to suit the tone of the setting. I assume that Martina Cole has an editor who would change these forms, so we cannot know whether she writes in Essex dialect or standard English.
Maybe ‘the only way is Essex’, and within a few years these forms will be taught to learners of English as correct, and to forget what is given in older grammars.
And yes, I am aware that in the early 18th century, “you was” is to be found quite regularly in the writings of such literary luminaries as Daniel Defoe and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu indicating that at that time, this had to be considered part of standard English.