Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

What does boffin, hooligan, leotard, nicotine, tarmac and wisteria have in common? Very little it would seem, except that they are all eponyms, words derived from a real, fictional or mythical persons. Most eponyms come from a person’s surname such as mackintosh from the Scottish chemist, Charles Mackintosh, or sandwich from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Conversely, eponym also refers to the person from whom the word is derived. The word eponym comes from the Greek epi meaning ‘upon’, and onyma meaning ‘name’.

There are thousands of eponyms in the English language. Many are so common that we don’t realise that they are eponyms, such as bigot after Nathaniel Bigot, an English Puritan teacher, diesel named after Rudolph Diesel, the German mechanical engineer, or teddy bear from the nickname for the USA president Theodore Roosevelt. And would you have any idea that Granny Smith apples are named after Marie Ana (Granny) Smith who in 1868 in Australia grew an apple from a chance seedling. 

decibel, bel, sound, alexander graham bell, eponym

The decibel, commonly used as a measure of sound levels, is ten times the power of a bel. The bel was named after Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the Scottish-born scientist and engineer who invented the telephone.

People who discover or invent things are a major source of eponyms, and a large number of astronomical objects (eg. Barnard’s star, Halley’s comet), chemical elements (eg. Curium, Titanium), diseases (eg. Huntington’s disease, Münchausen syndrome), mathematical theorems (eg. Fibonacci sequence, Pythagorean theorem), minerals (eg. Fergusonite, Herbertsmithite), and scientific laws and phenomena (eg. Avogadro’s number, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Newton’s laws of motion, Richter scale), are eponymic. 

And there are proprietary names that have become eponyms, though some would say they are not eponyms, just brand names that have come into general use. Some are still actively trademarked, the use of which manufacturers try to protect, whilst others are now defunct. Aspirin, blu-tack, coke (as in Coca Cola), escalator, filofax, frisbee, granola, heroin, highlighter, hula-hoop, ketchup, jacuzzi, jeep, pogo stick, post-it note, sellotape, shredded wheat, teflon, thermos, valium, velcro and zipper are eponyms in common use, though alka seltzer, brillo pad, celluloid, dettol, kleenex, linoleum, nescaf, polaroid, roladex, tippex, tupperware, walkman and xerox are now less well-known. Biro and hoover are eponyms in the United Kingdom for pens and vacuum cleaners respectively, but not apparently in the United States. 

garibaldi biscuit, giuseppe garibaldi, italy, jonathan carr, peek freans, eponym

The garibaldi biscuit was named after Italian patriot, general and politician Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), known as one of the founding fathers of Italy. It was invented by Carlisle biscuit-maker Jonathan Carr working for the Peek Freans biscuit company in Bermondsey, London, in 1861, the year the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed.

Spam, a product and trademark of Hormel Foods in the USA introduced in 1937, was originally used eponymously to refer to any brand of canned chopped pork and ham. It became part of folklore and humour through a Monty Python sketch in 1970, in which spam was portrayed as ubiquitous and inescapable. With the coming of email, spam was the ideal name for the unsolicited commercial messages that were sent indiscriminately to millions of people. 

Eponymous is the adjective and there are hundreds of eponymous adjectives in the English language such as herculean from Hercules of Greek mythology, machiavellian from Niccolò Machiavelli, or sadistic from Marquis de Sade. British monarchs have given their name to eponymous adjectives of time periods or fashions such Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian

The word eponymous is used to when referring to the title of a book that is named after the hero as in The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe or after the heroine in Emma by Jane Austen. It is also used when a band give their name to the name of their album, often their first, as in Roxy Music, the name of Roxy Music’s first album released in 1972. (more…)


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flannan isles, isle of lewis, outer hebrides, scotland, atlantic ocean

The Flannan Isles are 20 miles west (to the left) of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

St Kilda is well-known as the isolated archipelago 40 miles (64 km) west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Following crop failures and illness, the remaining population of 36 people on the only inhabited island, Hirta, was evacuated in 1930. St Kilda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 reflecting both its natural and cultural significance. However there is another much less well-known group of remote islands off the Outer Hebrides, which is the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three keepers of the lighthouse on an island there vanished without trace.

The Flannan Isles (or Na h-Eileanan Flannach in Gaelic) or Seven Hunters lie 20 miles (32 km) west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not as far out to sea as St Kilda, but further north. And since the automation of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in 1971, no one has lived there, although the islands became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1983. The lighthouse, and a ruined chapel dedicated to St Flannan, is on the largest island, Eilean Mòr (Big Isle).

eilean mòr, flannan isles, lighthouse, atlantic ocean

A huge inlet on the north side of Eilean Mòr looking east towards the lighthouse. The walk to the lighthouse up the slope on the right is steep, but it is insignificant compared with these cliffs. © Chris Downer/Creative Commons Licence

The lighthouse was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 near the highest point of Eilean Mòr at a cost of £6,914. All the materials in the building of the 75 feet high lighthouse had to be hauled 150 feet up cliffs from supply boats. The lighthouse was first lit on 7 December 1899. There was no wireless communication, the only form of communication being a series of semaphore-style balls on posts which could be seen from the Hebrides on a good day.

Other than its relative isolation, it would be little different from most of the lighthouses built off the coasts of Britain were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned. In December 1900, the lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (James Ducat, Principal Keeper; Thomas Marshall, Second Assistant; and Donald Macarthur, Occasional Keeper), with a rotating fourth man (Joseph Moore), on leave on the Isle of Lewis.

On 15 December, the steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia in the United States to Leith near Edinburgh noticed as it passed the islands that the light was not working, and this was reported three days later on docking at Oban further south. The scheduled relief ship for the lighthouse, the Hesperus, which was based in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, had been due to visit on 20 December but it was delayed because of rough weather and did not reach Eilean Mòr until noon on Boxing Day, 26 December. When they arrived, ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore, the flag was not flying, and none of the usual provision boxes were ready on the landing stage for re-stocking.

When Joseph Moore was put ashore, alone, he found the gate and main door to the lighthouse compound closed, the beds unmade, the clocks stopped, and no trace of the keepers. He returned to the landing stage to tell the captain of the Hesperus, Jim Harvey, the bad news. Moore then carried out a further search with two of the crew. The lamps were trimmed and refilled, the lens and machinery had been cleaned, the washing-up had been done, and there were cold ashes in the grate. But a set of oilskins belonging to Donald McArthur was found suggesting that the keeper had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. Other than that, an overturned chair by the kitchen table was the only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse. Outside, on the rest of island, the three lighthouse keepers were nowhere to be found. They had vanished. (more…)

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secondhand bookshop, charing cross road, london, uncountable noun

There is a secondhand bookshop at 56 Charing Cross Road in London that bears the name ‘Any Amount of Books’. It is an acclaimed place to browse, but surely it ought to be called ‘Any Number of Books’ as a book is not an uncountable noun. The proprietor not doubt knows this. If he really liked the word ‘amount’, ‘Any Amount of Literature’ would have been more correct, but would it have been better?

Learners of English often struggle with uncountable nouns, that is nouns that cannot be counted. You can have ‘three squirrels, ‘six earthquakes’, or ‘twenty gargoyles’. These are countable nouns, but you can’t have ‘four weathers’, ‘eight pollutions’, or ‘eleven traffics’.  These nouns, also described as mass nouns, are uncountable.

Countable nouns can usually have a singular form and a plural form and they usually refer to things. Most countable nouns become plural by adding an ‘s’ at the end of the word (or in some cases, ‘es’ as in ‘boxes’). There are quite a few exceptions though. Nouns can be mutated: child = children, mouse = mice. Latin or Greek forms can be kept: criterion = criteria and fungus = fungi. And nouns that end in certain letters can have irregular plurals: a consonant and a y, as in baby = babies, an f or fe as in leaf = leaves, or an o as in hero = heroes. But this is to deviate, which is almost inevitable when discussing the ins and outs of the English language. 

lewis carroll, alice in wonderland, curiouser, english, uncountable noun

Chapter 2 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland begins “Curiouser and curiouser! cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)”. These days ‘curiouser and curiouser’ would more likely be used to politely express disbelief rather than a sense of wonder, and such might be the reaction of students of the English Language students wrestling with uncountable nouns.

Uncountable nouns are for the things or substances such as tea, sand, water, air, rice, that cannot be divided into separate elements, we cannot ‘count’ them. They are often collective nouns: equipment, furniture, luggage; or abstract ideas, concepts, or qualities such as anger, beauty, fear, knowledge, love. Uncountable nouns do not usually have a plural form. We cannot say sugars, angers, knowledges.

Why do we have these uncountable nouns? Many of these nouns are countable in other languages but not in English. This might be connected with the way English speakers picture these nouns as a single concept or one big thing which is hard to divide. But there are no rules as to when a noun is countable, and hence have a plural form, and when a noun is uncountable, and this apparent randomness makes it very difficult for people learning the language.

Whilst countable nouns can be quantified by saying ‘a meal’, ‘few holidays’, or ‘many books’, we can’t say ‘a rice’ or ‘a few milk’. We have to say an amount of something, that is quantify it: ‘a grain of rice’, ‘bottles of milk’, ‘a burst of sunshine’, or ‘a piece of research’. So where something is described in this way, it is a sure sign that you are dealing with an uncountable noun.

Uncountable nouns are usually preceded by: Countable nouns are usually preceded by:
some some money these or those, each or every, either or neither these plants, each day, neither game
a little, less, or least a little salt, less homework  few or fewer few cars, fewer students
enough, lots of, plenty of or much enough rice, lots of sleep, much sleep several or many several books, many changes

And uncountable nouns are only used with a singular verb, ‘the news is very worrying’, ‘your luggage looks heavy’. 

The wide variety of uncountable nouns is illustrated in the table below.  (more…)

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gérard de nerval, france, ,cliche, romantic

The French writer and poet Gérard de Nerval, who died in 1855, may have unintentionally defined a cliché when he said ‘The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet; the second, an imbecile.’

Salvador Dalí, the Spanish surrealist painter, was reputed to have said ‘The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot’, though something like this was first coined by the French poet Gérard de Nerval. What Dali was getting at was that a phrase can be striking at first but when overused it loses its force.

And when an expression or idea, which at some earlier time was considered meaningful or novel, is overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, then it becomes a cliché, a ready-made phrase. In private or informal conversation they are used all the time: ’24/7′, ‘absolutely’, ‘actually’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘basically’, ‘I hear what you’re saying’, ‘if the truth be told’, ‘I’m not being funny but’, ‘it’s not rocket science’, ‘literally’, ‘no problem’, ‘the fact of the matter is’, ‘to be perfectly honest’, ‘you know what I mean’. Clichés pop up everywhere: in the supermarket, in soap operas, in fashion, in sport, on dating websites, on book covers, with art critics and travel writers. And in organisations, the close cousins of the cliché, the jargon and gibberish of ‘corporate speak’, is omnipotent.

Though clichés should be avoided, in reality they’re not. The language of Britain is the language of cliché. The British people could speak in cliché till the cows come home. And it is in journalism where clichés stick out like a sore thumb.

newspaper, title, daily express, daily mail, daily mirror, the sun, the independent, the times, the telegraph, the guardianThey may be part of a seemingly unchangeable news culture, and we may like them, and they can be descriptive, but clichés show a lack of originality. And they’re not just over-used phrases. They can be used to disguise a lack of information, as padding, or as a code or euphemism to imply something that can’t be said or which can be left to us to work out. They are often cynical, and sometimes comical. Above all journalists want their stories to be more exciting, meaningful or profound than they really are. So, cynical or not, here’s some reading between the lines …


According to published reports We got scooped
Allegedly We know he did it but we have to protect our backs
Clamour We’ve written an editorial. If we write about it again, refer to a ‘growing clamour
Considering The all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story as in ‘the Minister is considering whether to ditch the policy’. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’re considering something
Couldn’t be reached for comment The reporter didn’t call until after 5pm
Deepened What happened to people’s difficulties last night
Exclusive We were the only ones who returned the press office calls
Exclusive neighbourhood/school/club The reporter couldn’t get in
Influential Any group that can get a letter printed in a national paper, or someone who has appeared on television twice in one week
Informed source Reads the newspaper
Momentum is building The story hasn’t changed since last night
Mystery surrounds Tomorrow the mystery might ‘deepen‘ but right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on
Outpouring of support, emotion We are with them, so long as things don’t get out of hand
Reportedly We stole this bit of information
Set to Might mean ‘will’, but if it turns out the story is wrong, you can say it only actually means ‘may’
Shocking revelation Leaked on a slow news day
Special investigation A normal investigation, but with a picture by-line for the reporter
Stunned Couldn’t give a decent quote
Uncertain, unclear, unknown No one will tell us
Uproar The reaction of the ‘Great British Public‘ to a mindless tweet
Well placed source Someone who will talk to us


About turn Any change of mind. May be followed by ‘it’s back to the drawing board
Activist Will talk to the press
Acolytes Supporters of someone with whom we disagree.
Arcane rules Ones we can’t be bothered to explain
Bolthole Place where a disgraced MP (or rock star) seeks refuge from the media. Never a house, flat or hotel room
Brutal dictator One who kills his opponents slowly. If he just had them all shot, use ‘ruthless dictator‘. If our government could easily ‘topple him‘, but can’t be bothered, use ‘tinpot dictator‘.
Concerned residents Residents usually are
Draconian The Government is proposing something with which we disagree
Embattled He/she should quit
Family values Right wing idiot (also Progressive Left wing idiot)
Hard-working people As opposed to everyone who hasn’t a job, except pensioners of course
Humiliating U-turn Any adjustment in policy, especially over parking charges
Landmark decision Not sure why, but that’s what the other papers are saying
Moderate Fence-sitter
Parking expose Editor got a parking ticket
Raft The standard unit of ‘measures‘. Under the imperial system, a ‘cocktail of measures
Red-faced What council ‘bosses‘ usually are after a ‘humiliating U-turn
Troubled Small country currently enjoying a lull between civil wars
Trusted source An MP out for revenge or a government stooge, but often someone vaguely connected with politics in a Westminster bar
Venerable Should be dead but isn’t


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Many words have opposites, and we learn many of them in the classroom. Blunt and sharp, odd and even, private and public, thick and thin. Some words have several opposites eg. modern, new, young are opposites of old. The literary term for these words are antonyms, though grammarians would say that some antonyms are not strictly opposites. For example, parent and child, teach and learn, doctor and patient, floor and ceiling, are only opposites when used in the context of their relationship.

There are also opposites formed by the use of prefixes such as dis-, ex-, im-, in-, irr-, non-, un-, eg. able and unable, conformist and nonconformist, discreet and indiscreet, fortunate and unfortunate.

wooster, p g wodehouse, gruntled, prefix, opposite

In The Code of the Woosters published in 1938, P G Wodehouse wrote ‘He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled’. Here ‘gruntled’ is used as an opposite to humorous effect, but in fact ‘gruntle’ by the end of the 16th century came to mean grumbling or complaining, so the dis- prefix intensifies the original word rather than creating an opposite.

Prompted by my sister-in-law who has an interest in such things, there are quite a number of negative words which when the prefix such as dis- or un- is removed, don’t have an opposite. Someone can be described as unkempt, unruly, disconsolate or uncouth, but we don’t usually say that they are kempt, ruly, consolate or couth.

Here are some other words that use prefixes but which don’t have opposites.

defenestrate, dejected,  disdain, disgruntled, disrupt, impetuous, impromptu, inane, incessant, inchoate, incognito, incommunicado, indescribably, indomitable, ineffable, infernal, infinity, inhibited, innocuous, insidious, insipid, insouciant, intact, invert, misgiving, misnomer, nonchalant, noncommittal, nondescript, nonpareil, nonplussed, nonsensical, unbeknownst, ungainly, unravel, unscathed, unstinting, unswerving, untold, untrammelled, untoward.

And here are some words where the positive forms are rare or have fallen out of popular usage.

disarray, disconcerting, immaculate, impeccable, inadvertent, incapacitated, incorrigible, inevitable, innocent, inordinate, inscrutable, insensate, insufferable, interminable, unbridled, unflappable, unfurl, unmitigated, unrequited, unthinkable, unwieldy, unwittingly

These can all be described as unpaired words. Curiously, where the positive form previously existed, it is often the negative that has survived, as if we find negative words more useful and hence more enduring. Unkempt was derived from the Old English word kemb, ‘comb’, and its usual negative form was unkembed. But by 1580 unkempt was used to mean ‘inelegant language’; by the eighteenth century it meant ‘uncombed’ or ‘dishevelled’, and it took on its stronger sense of ‘not cared for’ in the middle of the nineteenth century. Unruly was formed as the opposite of ruly, an adjective from about 1400 meaning ‘law-abiding’. Then unruly meant ‘ungovernable’ or ‘disorderly’, whereas now it is ‘difficult to control’.

Ungainly came into use around 1600, and was derived from its opposite gainly. In 1300, gainly, not a common word, had meant ‘straight’ or ‘near’, but quickly took on a figurative sense when applied to people of ‘well-disposed’ or ‘kindly’, or ‘useful’ when applied to objects. Thus ungainly meant ‘awkward’ or ‘ungraceful’, but gainly fell out of use. Untoward was formed from a medieval sense of toward that was applied to young people of ‘promising’ or ‘moving forward’ (in ability), and it meant ‘stubborn’ or ‘disinclined’ (to work). It developed its modern meaning of ‘unseemly’ or ‘perverse’ from about 1630. The origin of a negative word is often therefore quite complex with the negative form sometimes coming to mean something quite different from its positive obsolete predecessor.

Sometimes because a prefixed word has come from another language, it only appears to be unpaired. In the case of dishevelled or dismayed, there never was shevelled or mayed, as the words come from the Old French deschevelé and desmaier. Similarlyinert has never had an opposite, ert, as the word comes from the Latin, ineptus, meaning ‘unsuited, absurd, foolish’.


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The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said in 1905 ‘those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it’. This concise thought (or aphorism) has been much quoted and has been re-phrased as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’. The meaning then is that one should look back in history to see the mistakes that were made and avoid repeating them.

But like many subjects such as science, sociology, archaeology and so on, facts are open to interpretation, and in the case of history, it is the job of the historian to research the facts and put forward an argument for the whys and wherefores of events from the past. But what if the facts themselves are distorted? Does this diminish the worth of history? Two quite different instances come to mind, of how history can be twisted.

first world war, joan littlewood, richard attenborough, musical film, satire, music hall, tommies

Oh! What a Lovely War was a musical film directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the stage musical of the same name developed by Joan Littlewood as a satire on the First World War at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. The title was a popular music hall song written originally in 1917. Many of the songs were the witty and cynical ones sung by British soldiers, ‘Tommies’, during the war. The film was released in 1969 and the cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article about the First World War published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove wrote of the government’s efforts to restore the importance of history in the school curriculum and give children ‘a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.’ and in referring to the war he said that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. He said:

‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled   Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

In particular Gove criticised Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian, for arguing that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think that they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom.Gove argued that whilst the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, it was a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the aggressively expansionist war aims of Germany and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. He said that it was also a noble cause, that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order. Gove added that:

‘Evans’ case is more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

Unfortunately Gove in acting as the scholar shows his ignorance of history and his own preference for myth-making. In saying that the war was a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, which was ‘fought by men to defend the western liberal order’, he forgets that one of Britain’s main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, whose brutal autocracy was far more ruthless than that of Germany’s authoritarian Kaiser Wilhelm. And what was the western liberal order? Germany was certainly more democratic electorally than Britain. 40% of adult males in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918, whereas every adult man in Germany had the right to vote since before the start of the conflict, and the largest political party, the Social Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed annexations and the militarism of the German elites.

british empire, queen victoria, global power, london, exploitation, first world war

This map shows the British Empire in 1901 on the death of Queen Victoria. By this time, Britain had been the foremost global power for more than a century and London was the economic capital of the world. This was derived in large measure from the exploitation of the natural resources and cheap labour in its colonies. The empire reached its largest territorial extent in 1922, though because of the impact of the First World War it was no longer the only major industrial or military power.

The German elite was certainly expansionist, they envied Britain and France with their vast colonies overseas. By the early 1900s, Britain had become the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. It was ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Germany wanted its ‘place in the sun’. But were these British colonies, dominions, protectorates, and mandates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. For example, in the period 1896-97, about five million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain. In the period 1901-02 in British concentration camps in South Africa, 28,000 Boer people died from starvation, 22,000 of them children, which is about 10 per cent of the Boer population, and about 20,000 black people died in other camps. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in south-east Asia became part of French Indochina between 1887 and 1893, France’s motive being to exploit the countries’ resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations, with millions of people forced to work long hours for wages that were pitifully small in debilitating conditions for the benefit of their French overlords. Up until the First World War, and beyond, thousands upon thousands of native people died through malnutrition and disease on the plantations.


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henry wriothesley, 3rd earl of southampton, national trust, pronunciation

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624)
National Trust Collection

There are a lot of surnames that are pronounced quite differently from how we might say them if we saw them written down, that is the pronunciations – or the spellings – are counter-intuitive eg. Beauchamp is pronounced beechum, Cockburn is coburn, Fiennes is fines, and Fotheringay is fungey. The strange-looking surname Wriothesley (the family name of Shakespeare’s patron the 3rd Earl of Southampton) is pronounced in any number of ways: rye-oaths-ley, reeths-ley, rith-ley, rits-ley, and rots-ley. Some might see such pronunciations are archaic, eccentric, or even annoying.

People have changed the spelling of ordinary surnames to make it more prestigious, such as changing the respectable craft name Smith to Smythe. And what could be the reason, other than wanting to sound posh, for pronouncing one’s name  in cavalier disregard of their spelling, such as saying ‘Pole’ for Powell, and ‘Fanshaw’ for Featherstonehaugh. This hardly seems at odds with the social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket in the TV series Keeping Up Appearances who insists her name is pronounced Bouquet. But many ordinary English words have contrary pronunciations so are these vexing surnames any different?

ralph fiennes, actor, pronunciation

The name of actor Ralph Fiennes is pronounced Raif Fines. His full name is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

There are many town names with unexpected pronunciations (see here), but we seem more able to pronounce them correctly than their equivalent in surnames. This may because we often see town names such as Derby (pronounced Darby) or Leicester (pronounced Lester) on signs and maps, and then hear of them on the news, whereas we often don’t see and hear surnames at the same time. We may hear a surname without realising it is spelt quite differently, or we may see a name written down, but not know how it is pronounced.

There are some surnames where there used to be a mismatch between the spelling and the pronunciation, but the names are now usually pronounced as they are spelt. Examples are: Baldwin – bollden, Beals – bales, Costello – cost uh low, Hogg – hoag, McGill – mackle, Osbourne – oarsman, Reagan – reegunn.

There is a list of eighty (80) surnames below together with the pronunciation (using re-spelling pronunciation rather than phonetics). Many of the names are not that rare. Run down the list and see how many you can get right. (more…)

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