My wife discovered that the local library, the Athenaeum, was having a sale this weekend, and being the kindly soul she is, she not only told me about it, she dropped me off there on her way to the grocery store. I spent a very pleasant hour and wound up with ten books (for ten dollars); among them were classic works of history (Dumas Malone on Jefferson, the Parkman Reader), well-known biographies (Catherine Drinker Bowen on Coke, Troyat on Tolstoy), and a couple of books on language that might have been from different planets for all they have to do with each other: the original 1958 Channel Press paperback of Theodore Bernstein’s Watch Your Language and the revised MIT translation of Lev Vygotsky’s 1934 Thought and Language. But the book that most excited me, and that I’ve been poring over since I got back, is a drab little 1936 hardback (sans dust jacket) called What’s the Name, Please? by Charles Earle Funk. In case the title sounds like it might belong to a charming autobiography, the subtitle is “A Guide to the Correct Pronunciation of Current Prominent Names.” Needless to say, the Current Prominent Names of seventy years ago have largely vanished from the memory of man; opening at random to page 21, I see a “noted crime investigator,” a British educator, a journalist, a Brigadier-General (retired), an economist, an author, the president of Trinity College Oxford, an ex-president of the Cotton Cooperative Association, a minister from Haiti, an archeologist, and a baron, and the only one I’d ever heard of was the archeologist (Carl Blegen: “Seeking the pagan is Doctor Blegen“). But that doesn’t matter to me; I love correct pronunciations for their own sake, and these (which originally appeared in a regular column in The Literary Digest) were obtained by contacting the people in question. Furthermore, in the magazine “space could not permit the full publication of the choice bits of history, genealogy, wit, and humor that ever and anon popped up in response to a stereotyped request for information. Those bits are presented here, tho sometimes slightly condensed, for the enjoyment of others, and as aids to memory.” So for the president of Trinity College we find:

Blakiston, Herbert Edward Douglas—”I usually say bla’kiston (a as in cat), slight pause indicating no c. The name belongs to the North of England, viz. Co. of Durham, and tho the evidence is conflicting, the old pronunciation there seems to be with a long a—blay-kiston. In the South it has for a long time been usual to shorten the a so that it is practically the same as Blackiston.”

And the laconic entry for the baron:

Blyth—Baron—”The pronunciation is bly.”

Later on, the Earl of Liverpool says his family name, Fuljambe, “is pronounced full’jam, like the small boy when mother’s away,” and the actor Pierre Fresnay says “I think my name is to be pronounced fray-nay. At least, it is the way I pronounce it.” And the editor shows a pleasing wit in entries like this:

Kvale, Paul John—Congressman from Minnesota—Despite protests from readers, we must assert that he ought to know best. He wired: “Pronounced qually rimes with golly.”

Call me weird, but I could read stuff like this all day. And I probably will.
…And as I was about to hit Post, I noticed the following entry, at the bottom of p. 154:

Tolkien, John R. R.—teaches Anglo-Saxon at Oxford—”Perhaps more familiar in the German form Tolkiehn. It is thus dissylabic, pronounced tol’keen.”


  1. Looks interesting–and it’s not weird to read that type of stuff.

  2. James Crippen says

    Oh, I wish I had a copy…

  3. “Perhaps more familiar in the German form Tolkiehn.”
    Or perhaps not. 😉 Fascinating book, I share your love for this type of thing.

  4. I wish someone would start doing a column about name pronunciation again, but I suppose that TV and radio are thought to cover it (though as LH has shown, TV sports- and newscasters’ rendering of foreign names is rather hopeless). But since I live abroad, I know names only from print sources, and sometimes have no idea how they are pronounced. I’m embarassed to say that I first pronounced Dubya DOOB-YA and had no idea that it was the southern pronunciation of “W.” In fact, I couldn’t figure out what it meant at all!
    When I was back home I spent most of my hard-earned cash in used book shops, and hauled back, among dozens of other books, a 1969 volumne called American Place Names. It sounds similar to your book. It has charming entries like “Latah, Idaho. Rhymes with SAY, paw,” or “Lechemere (square in Boston). LEECH-meer. Boldton says, ‘Even the street-car conductors get it right.'”
    I’m with you, Hat; this stuff is great reading, though I have no idea why. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have occassion to pronounce Natchitoches, LA, but I’m delighted that I know how (like mackintosh, but with an N.)

  5. Somethng that has always puzzled me is the correct pronunciation of the “rap mogul” (pron. “Gangster”) Suge Knight. Is it supposed to be “Sugar”, “Sue-g”, “Sue Gee” or what?

  6. Somethng that has always puzzled me is the correct pronunciation of the “rap mogul” (pron. “Gangster”) Suge Knight. Is it supposed to be “Sugar”, “Sue-g”, “Sue Gee” or what?

  7. I always pronounced that the same as “Sugar” but without the “ar” , Andrew.

  8. one of my favorites to quibble over is w.e.b. dubois . i’m pleased that there is indeed a written record of dubois in fact explaining how to pronounce his name (‘duboyz’); nevertheless, i’ve heard countless times well-meaning francophile(?) americans say ‘dubwah’ (even heard in the skyscraping library at umass, which is named for him). as such, the dubois phenomenon might also fall into the subcategory of words that americans frenchify in a ‘misguided’ attempt to sound better educated (e.g., ‘homage’ as ‘homahj’, ‘forte’ as ‘fortay…’).

  9. I was hoping to find the copyright hadn’t been renewed, and I could ask you for scans to digitize it. Alas, the copyright was renewed in 1963, so the book is off-limits until 2817 or so. 🙁

  10. Cryptic Ned says

    I find it interesting to think about how street names are pronounced, living in a region of Pittsburgh where people are constantly moving in and out. Meyran Street is pronounced “Myron”, but it seems like just about everyone who moves in says “Meeran” at first, and then switches to “Myron”. I wonder how it was pronounced 80 years ago.
    There are a lot of street names for which I think the standard pronunciation, at least for students, derives from what the voice on the bus says when it is about to stop at the street. I heard several pronunciations for “Bayard Street” before I noticed that the automated bus voice always says “Bay-Ard”, accenting both syllables equally. Now I say it that way.

  11. Matt: thanks.

  12. Matt: thanks.

  13. dearieme says

    Is it true that the founder of the Boy Scouts said that his name was to be pronounced as in “bathing towel”?

  14. Dearieme:
    Baden-Powell’s name does sound like “bathing towel”, but that was a nickname given to him by schoolmates, and he never cared for it.
    I doubt he used it as a guide to pronunciation.

  15. tigger0039 says

    Language Hat! I had no idea that you were in the Berkshires! Are you a professor at Williams or what?

  16. No, no — I gave up my professorial ambitions decades ago, when I discovered I didn’t enjoy teaching college. I’m a freelance editor (bless the internet that makes it possible to live anywhere).
    Dearieme: It’s BAY-d’n POE-uhl. (The first syllable of Powell is “poe” in the UK as opposed to “pow” in the US.)

  17. tigger0039 says

    At some point, then, we must meet. How shall I recognize you on the street?

  18. tigger0039 says

    Should have mentioned that I live in Pittsfield.

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