Pronouncing Surnames


There are a lot of surnames that are pronounced quite differently from how we might say them if we saw them

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

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-leyreeths-leyrith-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?

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.

This is an easier test than just hearing the name and then being asked to spell it, so you would likely have got fewer right if you hadn’t have seen the name and the pronunciation side by side.

Alleyne alleen
Ayscoug as-kew
Balfour balfer
Bayles bayluss
Beauchamp beecham
Beaufoy boffy
Belvoir beaver
Berkeley barklee
Bethune beeton
Blount blunt
Caius keys
Cholomondley chumley
Colquhoun car-hoon
Cowper cooper
Coylton culltun
Creamer craymer
Crichton cryton
Crough crow
Cruwys crews
Dalyell or Dalzell dee-ell
Darlingscot darscot
Death de-ath
De la Rue della-rue
De Ville daveel
Donne dunn
Eames aimz
Eyre air
Falconer fawkner
Farquhar farkwar
Featherstonehaugh fanshaw
Foljambe fool-jum
Foulis fowls
Greenhalgh greenholsh
Greig greg
Grosvenor grow-v’nor
Heathcoat heth-cut
Home or Hulme hewm
Hough huff or hoe
Iveagh ivah
Jacques jakes
Jameson jim-er-son
Kerr carr
Keynes kaynes
Lassiter laster
Le Mesurier le mezz-erer
Livesay liv-see
Lutyens luh-chens or lutchens
Lycett lisset
McGillycuddy mac-li-cuddy
McGrath mcgraw
McLeroy mack-ul-roy
Maclean mac-layne
Magdalen maudlin
Mainwaring man-er-ing
Marjoribanks marchbanks
Melhuish mell-ish
Menzies ming-is
Montgomery mun-gum-eri
Myerscough maskew
Nighy nye
Peirce purse
Pomfret pum-fret
Prideaux prid-o or pree-do
Ralph raif
Ruthven riven
St Clair sin-clair
St John sin-jun
Salisbury sauls-bree
Sandys sands
Scrymgeour scrim-jer
Stanhope stannup
Tarpley taplee
Tuomey too-mee
Tuthill tuttle
Tyzack tie-sack
Urquhart erk-urt
Waldegrave waldgrave or walgrave
Wodehouse wood-house
Wolseley wools-ly
Yeatman yaytman

Do you know any other surnames with unusual pronunciations?

And if everything you ever wanted to know surnames is just your thing, you should find a new book What’s in a Surname? A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker by David McKie and published by Random House, of great interest. It will even tell you where the surname Macghillesheathanaich comes from.


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