Once upon a time, the British were famous for speaking no language but their own and garbling foreign words and phrases in a marvelously chauvinistic way. Somewhere around the middle of the 19th century, their upper classes learned to speak French and immediately decided that anyone who didn’t speak French was an uneducated barbarian. Hence the wealth of books that are willing to translate the German or Latin quotes, but never the French.
Of course, one could argue that any people who pronounce the river of their capital, the Thames, as the “Tems” can hardly be expected to handle languages sensibly. (The Thames river in Connecticut, although named after the original, is pronounced the way it is spelled…an American version of homage.) One could argue that, but one could also argue that something far darker is at work here.
Although Britain hasn’t been successfully invaded by a foreign foe since 1066, she has spent a fair amount of her history under threat of invasion. I think a very good case can be made for the idea that the way British place names are pronounced is part of a canny, long-term plan to make it impossible for an invader to navigate once he had landed.
Napoleon planned an invasion. Imagine a sorry force of Frenchmen, map in hand, trying to find their way to Lympne by asking the way. How would they know it’s pronounced “Lim”? Or harder still, how could a sensible Parisian guess that the diabolical English would take a beautiful French word like Beaulieu and pronounce it “Bewley”?
At one stage of the game the French planned to invade via Scotland, allied with the clans loyal to the Stuarts. The command conferences between those two famously monolingual confederates must have been joys to behold.
Now imagine them agreeing to meet at “Affleck” with the French unaware the Scots spelled it Auchinleck. Or how about Hawick (pronounced “Hoik”)? Or even worse, from the French point of view, how about finding out that the consonant-laden Kirkcudbright is somehow pronounced “Ker-koo-bree”?
No wonder the Scots lost at Culloden.
But back to the English.
I mentioned that the educated Englishman is presumed to speak and read French. That assumption comes from their all sharing the English university tradition of places like Oxford and Cambridge. Which is precisely where much of the problem starts. To pass through either one means you must know how to navigate around places like Caius College (pronounced “Keys”) and Magdelen College (it’s “Maudlin”).
That which worked so well to confuse those phantom invaders does pretty well to confuse the modern tourist. I flatly defy anyone who doesn’t know in advance how to find “Chumly”, “Troslee,” or “Woolzy” on a map. (They’re Cholmondeley, Trotiscliffe, and Woolfardisworthy.)
But I suppose, to be fair, one must admit that our part of the English-speaking world has some oddities of its own. Like the British, part of the problem comes from the odd way we treat antique names for places, although for us they are mostly Amerindian. The idea that Mackinac is actually “Mackinaw” is pretty counter-intuitive. Likewise, you almost need to be a local to know that Natchitoches, Louisiana is actually “Nacketesh.”
Then, too, in the Northeast, we have places with Dutch origins, such as the impossible Schuylkill in Pennsylvania which is somehow actually “Skookel.”
But I think the greatest traps we lay for the unwary tourist lie in the Mephistophelian way we have peppered our landscape with words an innocent would think they already know.
Consider, for instance, Cairo, Illinois and Cairo, Ohio, both pronounced “Kayro.” Or Versailles in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio, all pronounced “Versails.” Delhi, New York is “Delhigh” while Riga, New York is “Rye-ga.” Verdi, Nevada is “Vuhdye,” Pierre, South Dakota is “Peer,” and both Calais, Maine and Calais, Vermont are “Kalis.” For some reason that eludes me, we have Milans in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington – all of which are “Mylin.” And just to stump the classically educated, Buddha, Indiana is “Budi” and Pompeii, Michigan is “Paum-pee-eye.”
But it is the South that has made something of a specialty of unique pronunciations. For the Civil War buffs, did you know that Virginia’s Aquia Creek is “Akwhya”? Or that the Shenendoah’s Luray is “Looray” with a heavy emphasis on the first syllable?
But for the South, these are but bagatelles. Lots of folks down there are named Taliaferro and there is a Taliaferro County, Georgia. But how on earth did it become “Tolliver”?
But my favorite bit of Southern nominal lunacy comes from the Virginia Peninsula. Seems that when McClellan invaded the Peninsula and Lee was trying to stop him, one of his generals, “Prince John” Magruder, was unaccountably late. He had spent an entire day trying to get his guides’ instructions to match his map. The map showed places and roads labeled “Enroughty” that went where he wanted to go, but his guides insisted he should be looking for roads that weren’t even on the map. Magruder, it seems, was cruelly confused by a bit of history.
We can understand many of the contributions to the way we pronounce things. But this is a case of sheer human perversity. How was Magruder to know that the Derby family (pronounced “Darby,” of course) had once faced an offer it couldn’t refuse: a much hated relative named Enroughty left a will that would give them a great deal of money…provided they changed their family name to his. After a great deal of argument, they finally agreed. Their name became Enroughty. But the will didn’t say anything about how they had to pronounce it.
So with true Southern stubbornness, they insisted that “Enroughty” should be pronounced ”Darby.” And their neighbors (Magruder’s guides) cooperated. Enroughty Road on Magruder’s map was called “Darby” Road. The Enroughty House landmark was the “Darby” House. And so on.
Poor Magruder. Lee fired him. He had been blindsided by a train full of human nature.