No Frigging Rules, Except For

As much as I love my job Over Here, reporting from behind enemy lines, there are certain things which drive me nuts. Chief among them is pronunciation, because while there are some rules, there are almost as many exceptions. Should any of my Loyal Readers find themselves in Britishland, here are a few tips which may prevent you from sounding like a mawkish ‘Murkin. Most are place names.

The town of Cirencester is pronounced “Siren-sister”, but the town of Bicester is not Bye-sister, but “Bister”, like mister. Similarly, Worcester is pronounced “Wusster” (like wussy), which makes the almost unpronounceable Worcestershire (the county) quite simple: “Wusster-shirr” (and not Wor-sester-shyre, as most Americans mispronounce it).

Now pay careful attention. A “shire” (pronounced “shyre”) is a name for county*, but when it comes at the end of a word, e.g. Lincolnshire, it’s pronounced “Linconn-shirr”. The shire is named after the county seat, e.g. the aforementioned Worcester (“Wusster”) becomes Worcestershire (“Wuss-ter-shirr”) and Leicester (“Less-ter”) becomes Leicestershire (“Less-ter-shirr”). Unless it’s the town of Chester, where the county is named Cheshire (“Chesh-shirr”) and not Chester-shirr. Also Lancaster becomes Lancashire (“Lanca-shirr”), not Lancaster-shirr, and Wilton begat Wiltshire (“Wilt-shirr”). Wilton is not the county seat; Salisbury is. Got all that?

*Actually, “shire” is the term for a noble estate, e.g. the Duke of Bedford’s estate was called Bedfordshire, which later became a county; ditto Buckingham(-shire) and so on, except in southern England, where the Old Saxon term held sway, and the estate of the Earl of Essex became “Essex” and not Essex-shire, which would have been confusing, not to say unpronounceable. Ditto Sussex, Middlesex and Wessex. Also, the “-sexes” were once kingdoms and not estates. And in the northeast of England are places named East Anglia (after the Angles settled there) and Northumbria (ditto), which isn’t a county but an area (once a kingdom), now encompassing as it does Yorkshire and the Scottish county Lothian — which I’m not going to explain further because I’m starting to bore myself.

And all rules of pronunciation go out the window when it comes to Northumbrian accents like Geordie (in Newcastle-On-Tyne) anyway, because the Geordies are incomprehensible even to the Scots, which just goes to show you.

Now here’s where it gets really confusing.

Villages used to be called “hamlets” (still are, in some places), so a village might be called Chesham (pronounced “Chezz’m” and not Chesh-ham), unless it’s the town of Horsham, which is pronounced “Whore-sh’m” (not whore-sham). In fact, Chesham might be an anomaly, because most villages where the name ends with an “s” create an “sh” dipthong — e.g. the lady in Great Expectations who’s called, Miss “Haver-sham” and not Havers-ham. Also, the “-sham” is pronounced “-sh’m” (or “-shim”), but let me not confuse you here.

The letter “l” inside a word is almost always silent. Palm and calm are pronounced “pahm,” and “cahm”, so the village of Calne is pronounced “Cahn” and not Cal-nee or Cal-nuh — similarly, the village of Rowde is pronounced “Rowd” (like crowd) and not RoadieRowdee or Rowd-uh.

Oh, and to end this thing: people are often confused by Welsh place names such as:


…but you needn’t worry. It’s just that the Welsh, like the Germans, run several words (and even phrases) together into a single word. The name of the above town, which is on the Isle of Anglesey, simply means “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio of the red cave”. It used to be called by a much shorter name, Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll (“The Mary church by the pool near the white hazels”), but that wasn’t confusing enough to the English and Scots, and the Welsh do love to take the mickey, so in 1850 the town was given its full name.

The rest of Britain got their revenge with the invention of computers, where the (English) programmers were not going to create a 50-character field just to accommodate the Welsh, so the place is now known as “Llanfair” (or “Llanfair PG”, to differentiate it from all the other places called “Llanfair” in Wales).



  1. I can sympathize Kim. Last summer I took my wife and kids to visit a foreign culture and Independence Day fell right in the middle of it. Despite this place being vehemently anti-American, someone still shot off fireworks over the bay, so we were able enjoy the fourth – even from Berkley!

  2. You would think that such otherwise fine and cultured people, with such a long and storied history, would have finally learned to speak English. Hope you are enjoying the weather as much as the food!

  3. I always assumed their pronunciation was due to copious ingestion of intoxicants brought on by their closeted desire to live here in the Land of the Free.

  4. Sorry, but Chesham (the one in Buckinghamshire) is pronounced “Chesh-shum”. I lived thereabouts for the best part of two decades.

    Cheshunt, on the other hand, is pronounced “Ches-unt”…

    1. There you go, Simon. That only proves my point. When I asked one of the local worthies how to pronounce “Chesham”, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it’s “Ches-ham”.
      So they can’t even agree amongst themselves…

  5. Luckily my ancestors had the good sense to get out of England a long time ago,

  6. Thus far and no further Sir. You are exhibiting signs of scoldiness. So long as the Pommy blighters do not look down their noses at our attempts to pronounce their irregular nouns, then the collecting of names is an interesting ramble.
    May I add a few tricky ones? Beauchamp; Cholmodleigh;
    Arkansas; dinghy; buoy; router; kilogram.

  7. Miss Havisham came up in a conversation a few days ago. I thought it was pronounced hav-e-Shim. Is it hav-Er-shim? Is it spelled with an “r” in there or just pronounced with an “r” sound as in colonel?

  8. My undergrad major was English history and one of my challenges was trying to keep track of key personnel. Every lord, duke, or military commander had his given name, (say, Leftenant Colonel Brian Hughes-Kaye), and also his title (the 4th Earl of Glopwich) and the terms were used interchangeably and with no apparent rhyme or reason as to which one was used at which time.

    Military units are similarly confusing with names like The First Queens Own Hussars, The Black Watch, the Irish Guards, etc. For all their faults the Soviets military organization made an intel analysts job a lot easier with simple organizations like the 20th Guards Army and the 133rd Motorized Rifle Regiment, where each unit of a similar echelon had pretty much the same TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment for non-military types. 😉 )

  9. Having said that, we’ve got some oddball pronunciations here in the USA, too. Just a few off the top of my head: The state of Arkansas is pronounced as if it were spelled “arkansaw”, but the city of Arkansas City, Kansas, is pronounced “Ar-KAN-sas”, exactly like it’s spelled. The capital of South Dakota, Pierre, is pronounced “Peer.” New Madrid, MO, is New “MAD-rid”, and then there’s Beaufort, South Carolina and Beaufort, North Carolina where one of them is pronounced “BYEW-fort” and the other is pronounced “BOW-fort” (and I honestly can’t remember which is which.)

    And pity the poor Englishman who visits the Pacific Northwest and has to pronounce place names like Puyallup. 😀

  10. This explains several things, among them:
    The Brits drink heavily so to have an excuse for not being able to understand each other;
    Why it was so “easy” to kick their butts back in that Late-1700’s unpleasantness because they couldn’t understand simple place-names and got lost on the way to battle, thereby arriving late, after the issue had been decided./s

  11. When we lived in Ireland my mother and another expat American friend of hers went over to England for a week. Mum has this hysterical story of driving through someplace, getting lost, and asking directions at the local pub. The girl was quite definite that they had to go x miles and turn left at the sign for Near Munsley. My mother repeated Near Munsley and the girl said yes. At x+1 miles and still no sign for Near Munsley her friend started laughing and when asked “What?” told mum she’d missed the turn. “What turn?” “The turn at the sign!”

    The sign was for No Man’s Heath.

    Here in Southeastern Connecticut where most of the place names are English (when they aren’t Indian) we have Norwich, pronounced Nor-wich, though I believe in England it’s “Nor-ich”, and the Thames River, pronounced the way it’s spelled. At least Worcester in Mass seems to have the same pronunciation. Groton CT was named after Groton UK; I have no idea how they pronounce it over there, in CT it’s “Grott’n” with the first “o” as in “hot”, (most of the time the “t” is replaced with a glottal stop) while Groton MA seems to be pronounced “Growt-ən”.

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