A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service.
—Henry David Thoreau

John McPhee had an article [archived] in the Dec. 15 New Yorker—not one in a seemingly endless series on the history of concrete or some damn thing, as in the alleged glory days of the magazine (stricter editorial standards then, combined with a much greater tolerance for dullness), but a standalone piece called “1839/2003” [but retitled “Paddling After Henry David Thoreau” online] about a trip he and a friend made recently to replicate (as far as possible) the famous one Thoreau and his brother John took in 1839, recorded in Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. (Note how in writing about McPhee I am insensibly drawn into interminable multipart sentences. McPhee is one of those writers whose style I admire in short passages but who put me to sleep over long stretches.)

All this is by the by; the question is: how do you pronounce “Thoreau”?

I had heard it was properly stressed on the first syllable, and McPhee had heard the same:

Obscured by the trees on the west side of the river was a Billerica subdivision called Rio Vista—its houses, bungalows, and cottages dating from the nineteen-twenties, its entrances flanked by concrete pillars raisined with spherical stones. I had wandered around in Rio Vista two months before, ingesting information. Billerica is pronounced as if he were one of three brothers named Ricka. John Ricka. Henry David Ricka. Bill Ricka. Rio Vista has a street named Thoreau, and I wondered how the residents pronounce that. Thoreau scholars generally accent the first syllable of his name. Elizabeth Witherell, the editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, had told me that people around Concord seem to say “THERR-oh,” as in “I gave it a thorough cleaning.” I knocked on the door at No. 22 Thoreau. Two slats of a Venetian blind came slowly apart. A woman of upper-middle years informed me that she was not about to open the door. I shouted back through the glass, asking about an island in the river behind her house. “I never heard of one!” she shouted back. Would she mind telling me how she pronounces the name of her street? “Thor-OH!” she shouted, with a bold stroke on the “OH.”

So do scholars, like “people around Concord” (but not the suspicious Rio Vista lady), say “THERR-oh”? And do any of my readers happen to know the evidence for Thoreau’s own use? I do so love knowing these things. (Coleridge was considerate enough to describe exactly how he said his name: COLE-uh-ridge.)


  1. I used to swim in Walden Pond regularly. Everyone I ever knew around there pronounced the name with an accent on the last syllable.

  2. Michael Griffin says

    Thoroughly disgruntled. McPhee at his most interminably multiplicitous has never been less than an abiding comfort. Threw me with that “…tolerance for dullness.” Though rows of geological data do get soporific, the rose of understanding’s worth the dullest thorn.
    (Throws log on fire, and retires.)

  3. Different strokes for different folks. I am in awe of McPhee’s ability to absorb massive quantities of information and turn them into long strands of carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs, full of nuggets of wit and wisdom; it’s just that I find the end result soporific in large quantities, and large quantities are what McPhee specializes in. I had no intention of defaming the man, and for what it’s worth, the “dullness” was not aimed at him in particular — I find a varying but usually large percentage of any given “classic” New Yorker dull as dishwater, including the famed fiction. (And, to toss on my own log, I’ve always thought the cartoons utterly unfunny, with a few exceptions like Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson — and of course the sui generis genius Saul Steinberg.)

  4. Michael Griffin says

    though rows
    the rose

  5. Whem I visited a friend in Gallup, N.M. ca. 1967, he assured me that the residents of Thoreau N.M. (or maybe AZ.) pronounced as as if Kanga Roo had a a brother named Thor, with an accent on the family name: Thor-ROO.
    On the other hand, my friend was quite the liar.
    Making up a fake correct pronunciation of a name to impose on helpless students does sound like something that the English lit professorial pack might very well do. On the other hand, after my ancestors left New England ca. 1850, a lot of riffraff seem to have started moving in, so the present locals might just be barbarians.

  6. It’s pronounced like “Thorough” according to 30 or 40 sources I just knocked off writing a paper on Thoreau. Interestingly enough for you linguist types, did you know that Thoreau never actually used the term “Civil Disobedience”? The book with that named was renamed by Emerson after Thoreau’s death.
    Perhaps more interestingly, the book was not very well known until a young student in England in the first decade of the 20th c. (named Gandhi) came across the text. He had been unable to find a suitable translation for satyagraha, and the term “civil disobedience” seemed to work.
    So now Thoreau, who is, by all accounts, a lying tax-evader who felt violence was sometimes justified (witness his actions to rescue the slaves in Boston in the 1850s), gets credit for the non-violent actions of guys like King (who read Gandhi, of course). Among the strange claims in Civil Disobedience are the “Why are you not here?” quote that Thoreau told Emerson when Emerson visited him in jail (Emerson claimed in letters that he could hear Thoreau whining like a baby from the front room); the claim that his tax evasion was a response to the Mexican-American war and slavery (he first avoided taxes in 1842 and the taxes he skipped on were Concord municipal taxes anyway); and the lack of citations (various groups in Boston Thoreau learned about in college refused to pay taxes to resist govt. policy as early as the 1830s, and it was known in England in the 1820s).

  7. Hey!
    I goofed and posted on my own post in my delight that you, too, are out there! I just raved about your site to my cousin, who is a word savourer par excellence. So here’s what I posted (to myself, I suppose):
    Delighted to hear from ewe tu! I have an utterly unexpected segué coming up–I will be teaching in Istanbul, starting very, very soon. Interestingly, I spoke to Randy Weston recently and he says there are several jazz luminaries teaching at the Istanbul conservatory. Byzantium or bust!
    Tell me about Turco-Altaic (do I have that anywhere near right?

  8. ktschwarz says

    people around Concord seem to say “THERR-oh,” as in “I gave it a through cleaning.”

    “Through”? Shouldn’t that be “thorough”? That’s what it is at the linked article. I’m guessing that in 2004 there wasn’t an online version to copy-paste and you had to retype it.

    Since then, Wikipedia has added a section on the sources for pronunciation, although the quote from Edward Waldo Emerson is confusingly worded:

    We always called my friend Thó-row, the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable.

    The h sounded? I guess he meant Th was pronounced /θ/ as in Thor, not /t/ as in Thomas, but it’s a bizarre way of saying it.

  9. “Through”? Shouldn’t that be “thorough”? That’s what it is at the linked article.

    Woops! Fixed, thanks. Nobody noticed that for twenty years — it fits right in with the latest McPhee post about “Gulf of New Mexico.”

  10. Nobody noticed that for twenty years Also fits right in with the Hat Drinking Game in the post’s comments

  11. David Marjanović says

    “THERR-oh,” as in “I gave it a thorough cleaning.”

    That makes it look as if thorough had a DRESS vowel. I got confused enough to look it up – it doesn’t…

  12. Just bad phonetic spelling, I’m afraid.

  13. Rodger C says

    The h sounded? I guess he meant Th was pronounced /θ/ as in Thor, not /t/ as in Thomas, but it’s a bizarre way of saying it.

    I wouldn’t call it bizarre as coming from someone innocent of the science of phonetics.

  14. Keith Ivey says

    It’s parallel to saying “g dropping” for pronouncing “-ing” as “-in”.

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