Saturday, June 14, 2008

Names That Stump

The Cat and Fiddle

Time and again we come across names, the pronunciations of which stump us. Things are made more complicated by the fact that the way they are pronounced bear no resemblance to their spelling.

According to Bill Bryson in his book Mother Tongue, the problem is so extensive, and the possibility of gaffes so omnipresent, that the BBC employs an entire pronunciation unit.

These orthoepists (professional pronouncers) spend their working lives getting to grips with illogical pronunciations so that the broadcasters don't have to do it on the air.

(Our electronic media - radio and TV stations - should take the cue. Atrocious pronunciations are aplenty on the local networks).

The English are among the biggest culprits, rues Bryson, citing names like Leveson-Gower but pronounced loosen-gore, Marjoribanks (marchbanks), Hiscox (hizzko), Howick (hoyk), Ruthven (rivven), Zuill (yull) and Menzies (mingiss), among others.

Bryson should thank his lucky stars. He is fortunate that he never had to contend with Thai names, or else he would have collapsed from exhaustion.

Thai names almost always had me floored. I learned this firsthand, as the PR consultant to the Malaysian office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) way back in the mid-1990s.

Take for example the name of the Thai king, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Contrary to the official spelling, the proper pronunciation is Bhumipon Adun-yaded.

Former Thai Prime Minister, Taksin Shinawatra is another case in point. His surname is pronounced Cheenawat.

My friend Somboon Cheansweaths, the current PR manager of TAT (Malaysian Office) has a surname that looks like a tongue-twister but the pronunciation is a lot simpler; it is Chernsawat.

Still talking about names, Bryson turned his attention to English pubs, the names of which range from the inspired to the improbable, the deft to the daft, to the faintly absurd with images bordering on the surreal.

What else can you make of The Frog and Nightgown, The Bull and Spectacles, The Crab and Gumboil? Or, for that matter, Tumbledown Dick, Romping Donkey, Ram Jam Inn, and Man With A Load of Mischief (the sign outside this one depicts a man with a woman slung over his shoulder!)?

According to Bryson, some pub names have been corrupted over the centuries. Thus The Pig and The Whistle, which is said to have its roots in peg (a drinking vessel) and wassail (a festive drink).

Funnily enough, The Goat and Compasses public house, it is said, originated from "God Encompasseth Us". More manglings below:
  • Elephant and Castle, originally a pub but now a district of London, may have been the "Infanta de Castille" (referring to Eleanor of Castille, the wife of Edward I);
  • The Old Bull and Bush, a famous pub on Hamsptead Heath, is a corruption of "Boulogne Bouche" to commemorate a battle in France;
  • The Cat and Fiddle, a well-known inn situated on a hill in the eastern fringes of Cheshire, started life as "Catherine la Fidele" (Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England and the first of Henry VIII's six wives).

    All these pub names are making me tipsy. I'd better quit before I get an undeserved hangover.

No comments: