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Traveler's Journal: Britain

Why Nigel Can't Spell

Forget phonics, --just memorize your way through very weird names

April 26, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Asking my way around England, I've made myself the source of endless semi-innocent amusement. Chiswick? Might you mean Chizzick, laddie? Leominster? Oh, you mean Lemster, ha ha ha ha!

It turns out the Brits have booby-trapped their whole island with misspelled place names.

Phonics won't do you any good--there's no pattern at all. Aln is pronounced like Al plus an "n," but Alne is Awn and Alnmouth is Ailmouth. Meanwhile, Altrincham is pronounced Altringam but Bellingham is Bellinjam. Poughill is Powell if you're in Devonshire but Poffill in Cornwall.

Sometimes the mess gets to be too much even for the English, and they allow alternative spellings. You can write either Castlethorpe or Caistrup, Ludgvan or Ludjan and Wyrardisbury or Wraysbury. Thanks for the big favor.

The fact is, the Brits have been living in their island for 1,500 years, and a lot of their words have just been lying out so long they've spoiled. Locally, people pronounce Corringales as Skrinjels, Hung Rigg as Hewrick and Osbaston as Trospen (I'm not making any of this up).

G. M. Miller's 1971 "BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names" steers away from many of the really weird local pronunciations, but it does give the following:

Brewood: Brood

Brougham: Broom

Cirencester: Sissiter, though it can also be pronounced as spelled

Ercall: Arkle

Gotham: Goat-am

Greysouthen: Graysoon

Heather: rhymes with "breather"

Illogan: Iluggan

Iwerne: You-urn

Keighley: Keithley

Nechells: Neechels

Pontefract: as spelled or Pumfret

Prinknash: Prinnidge

Sawbridgeworth: as spelled or Sapsworth

Stivichall: Sty-chel.

Torpenhow: as spelled or Tripenna

Treryn: Treen

Trewoon: Troowan

Trotterscliffe: Trossley

Yealm: Yam

You get the picture. Now here's a quiz. Give accepted BBC pronunciations of the following:

1. Barugh

2. Bearwardcote

3. Haulgh

4. Stiffkey

5. Spadeadam

Answers:

1. Two possible pronunciations: Bark or Barf.

2. Barracot. Ha ha ha ha!

3. Give up? Hawf.

4. Not even close. Stewkey.

5. No, it's Spade Adam. Good one, that!

Perry writes for The Times' Food section.

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