24 October 2019

The Cherwell

We love to play confusing tricks upon foreigners with regard to surnames and placenames. One example of the former: there are people whose name is Fanshaw, but who sign themselves Featherstonehaugh. I sometimes wonder how they get on when entering America and facing those grim and defensive immigration officials.

With some regularity, a controversy arises every eighteen months about how the name of the River Cherwell, which joins the Thames at Oxford, should be pronounced.

Oxonians make the first syllable rhyme with bar (compare also the County of Berkshire ... I'm not sure about the Berkley, er, Hunt ...). But rustic folks living up the Cherwell valley make that first syllable rhyme with sir. Old maps, old documents, which vary the orthography between Charwell and Cherwell, make clear that the former is, historically, correct.

I have little doubt that explanation is to be found in Mgr Knox's words about the Barsetshire town of Greshamsbury. " ... the inhabitants no longer called it Greemsbury, but pronounced it as it was spelt; for with the coming of education they had learned how to write and forgotten how to talk ...".

In Devon, to give another example, Crediton is now called, as spelt, Crediton; but it used to be pronounced Kirton.

You see, in Oxford we have two rivers, and so it is often necessary to specify which is intended. But where there is only one river, it would be excessive to name it: one would just call it "the River" or, if tidal, "the Water". Similarly, if there is only one church, it is "the Church". Only if there is the possibility of confusion would one say "S Mark's Church" or "S Peter's" or "the Presbyterian Church".

This is why so many of our River "names" are simply 'Celtic' or even 'pre-Celtic' words meaning River (Avon ...).

Some river names on modern maps seem even to arise from mistakes by those busy and pompous people, Antiquarians (the Adur ...)!

14 comments:

Joshua said...

The Hobart suburb of Dynnyrne derives from a Scottish placename originally spelt Dunearn; according to the story I was told, an illiterate at the cartography office wrote it down wrongly, and the spelling stuck, though this amusing tale may well be invented; either way, the pronunciation remains, not /ˈdɪnɜːrn/ as Wikipedia lyingly suggests, but /ˈdʌnɜːrn/; having lived there, I should know!

Of course, Launceston in Northern Tasmania (one drives up to Launceston, but down to Hobart) is itself a shibboleth, being pronounced by its proud inhabitants as /ˈlɒnsɛstən/, and never ever so vilely as /ˈlɔːnsɛstən/ (Wikipedia again gets this wrong). I believe its Cornish namesake is pronounced differently again.

scotchlil said...

Wirksworth (in Derbyshire) is still known - to the older inhabitants - as Wusser; but woe betide anyone who renders Ashbourne as Ashburn....

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. Living in England has had a certain effect on you, especially for one who professes pedantry.

Presbyterian church?

No. Catholics have churches, protestants have buildings. For instance, ABS and The Bride oncet toured that huge empty building,St. Paul's.

Michael Leahy said...

As long as one can throw idols into them, that's the main thing!

Mike Walsh, MM said...

Not far from where I grew up, in Ohio, is a town named Mantua, after the one in Lombardy, Italy. But if seeking directions, ask for "Mannaway".

Et Expecto said...

Why do we have so many rivers called Ouse? Could it be that no river has learned to ask: "Ouse pinched my name?".

Tony V said...

'Spelling pronunciations' are often attributed to linguistic insecurity. The most offensive example is that manifested by the T-Pronouncers, who, in their profound ignorance, insist on saying often as "off-ten". It's absolutely rampant in England, and over the past few years I've heard it increasingly in the US, mostly by Democrats.
So far I've only heard one person ever say "soff-ten".
Eventually this madness will spread, just like the transsexual delusion, and the T-Pronouncers will take on hustle, bustle, whistle, mistletoe...when will this madness end?

vetusta ecclesia said...



Shrewsbury and Hunstanton are both places whose inhabitants name the town as spelled, unlike outsiders. In my neck of the woods the River Roding, and the villages in its valley, are a shibboleth in that the insiders know to call it “Roothing” , a pronunciation also confirmed by older documents and maps.

Marc said...

For some reason the name of the Ohio town Gallipolis recently came to my attention; you may pronounce it how it's spelled (or however you like) but if you live there you say, 'Gallipolice'.

PM said...

Generations of boys in the Scottish Marjoribanks line have been grateful that the pronunciation in Scotland is Marchbanks.

Those arcane pronunciations did not travel to Australia. The longest-serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, had to endure having the name pronounced as Men-zies. But he proudly announced that his favourite cocktail was a creation called 'Ming the Merciless'.

GOR said...

And you think you have problems?

Try living in Wisconsin with the plethora of ‘Indian’ names frequently mispronounced by ‘foreigners’… As in: Oconomowoc, Mukwonago, Manitowoc, Nasewaupee, Nepeuskun. Waukechon, Weyauwega, and on and on...

Éamonn said...

Didn't Wodehouse have an intrepid explorer named "Mapledurham" in one of his books? Pronounced "Mum", of course.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

Not quite. It's well known that his surname was actually pronounced "Ming-ez".

AvB

Banshee said...

In Ohio in settlement times, and in most US states, we did not have the luxury of Pronouncing Gazetteers (such as were often found in early 20th century dictionaries) or previous foreign language study. We just named towns for admirable people or famous places, and pronounced them however we felt like -- and frankly, if you can't pronounce Russia, Ohio as "Rooshie," or Versailles, Ohio as "Ver-sales," you shouldn't have moved there. (Newscasters in our area learn this stuff quickly, receiving instruction from colleagues.)

There are a lot of Indian names, too, but those usually accord closely with Native American pronunciation (of the local language or dialect of it, during settlement times), however they are spelled.

The real shibboleths are not being a newbie or having a different accent. It is stuff like confusing Beaver Creek (in the far east of Ohio, and in other states) with Beavercreek, stressed accent on the first syllable. It is easy to tell if an advertisement is not from around here.