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July 13, 2006

English placenames: the Cirencester Problem.

Enamel   [published on July 13, 2005 in "The Flatland Oracles"]

Don't kid yourself; they were laughing in their sleeves. Or if you were me, in your face.  Is it time for hapless tourists to take a stand?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  My bold and innovative campaign to impose logic where the English have simply let their love of confusing tourists go too far.

   While visiting here recently, an English friend  remarked on the difficulty of some of our Florida place names.  E.g.,  Octahatchee, Appalachicola, Lake Okeechobee, Withalocoochee State Forest, Alachua County, Lochloosa,  Chinsegut National Wildlife Refuge, Itchetucknee Springs, Weeki Wachee Springs, Istachatta, Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, Useppa Island,  Osceola County, Immokalee, Kissimmee, Spongeorama.  (He didn’t think the last was difficult to pronounce, he just didn't on general principles think there should be a place anywhere called ‘Spongeorama’).

                Please. This from an Englishman? 

I know it’s not exactly original for an American to complain about the wide gap between English spelling and English pronunciation for place names.   And I’m not including the Welsh ones.  And I am not complaining about all of them.  I only have a problem with one:  Cirencester.  Which is pronounced exactly the way it looks.  Which makes it a trap for the unwary, leading to the free-floating generalized sense of being quietly pitied/despised by the locals and the red, discomfited grin of the tourist caught out in being a tourist. 

                  I knew before I went over there because I read Bill Bryson and watch much British television  that Cholmondely is pronounced ‘Chumley;’ ‘Beauchamp’, ‘Beecham,’ and ‘Grosvenor’, ‘Grovenor.’  I knew that Magdalene College is pronounced ‘Maudlin College’ and that Gaius is ‘Keys.’  I knew that ‘Derby’ is “Darby.’   I knew that the ‘shire’ termination is pronounced ‘shur’ and that the ‘-bury’ termination isn’t ‘bury’ but a very truncated ‘bree.’  And I could handle ‘Billericay’, one of my favorite place names from anywhere ever, because of Ian Dury.   

But I was very timid about pronouncing the name of any city, town, or village until I’d heard someone else do it.  For some reason, it’s terribly hilarious to English people when an American does that, unless it’s only terribly hilarious to the English people I know when I do it.  I got burned anyway on Warwick and Norwich because I forgot that the ‘w’ is silent (good rule, that one).

And I had a problems with a few place names that aren’t particularly difficult but that I’d been pronouncing wrong in my head for years and years and had never had occasion to pronounce myself:  ‘Evesham,’ which I thought should be ‘Ev-a-shum,’ and ‘Bath’ which I could never pronounce in the English fashion because it looks like the word ‘bath’ and I feel silly pronouncing the word ‘bath’ any way but the American way, as if I were trying to sound like Madonna.   

And then there are the place names that are pronounced exactly the way they look, but if you’re American you wait till you make sure, because they look like they might be traps for the unwary.  E.g., ‘Weston-super-mare’, which I was concerned might turn out to be ‘Ware’ or ‘Leighton Buzzard,’ ‘Layzzard.’  After all, my apprenhensiveness about pronouncing ‘Mousehole’ turned out to be well-founded. Thankfully, something told me it  wasn’t actually going to be ‘Mousehole.'   

But whatever uncertainties I may have experienced, I was confident that I knew what I was doing with the –cester names:  Leicester (‘Lester’), Towcester (‘Toaster’), Worcester (‘Wooster’), Bicester (‘Bister’) and Leominster (‘Lemster’).   I was confident I had mastered the art of eliding syllables in words that end in –cester.

But then we visited Cirencester.  ‘Siren-sester’ to any of my fellow yanks who’ve never been.  You know, just the way it looks.

And so I ask you:  why?  Why isn’t it ‘Cirnster’?  It’s so obviously supposed to be.  You can’t blame me for thinking that it was.  I am still quite furious about the embarrassment that ensued when I repeatedly pronounced it the way I trusted was right and nobody said anything the whole time I was doing it, perhaps because they had no idea what place I was talking about (a thought that I cling to in my optimistic moments) but more likely, as Rumcove remarked, because they were slowly suffocating from suppressed laughter (which is what I believe when I’m tossing and turning over that recollection).

A different friend comforted me a little by telling me that there is an alternative pronunciation---‘Sissester’---but, frankly, I’ve been led astray too many times to have any faith in him.  I think it’s quite possible that this was a mere vile attempt to lead me into embarrassing myself further because ‘Sissester’ as an alternative makes no sense.  Lester, Toaster, Bister, Lemster and Sissester don’t make sense.  It has to be, it must be ‘Cirnster.’

In fact, I insist.  I am drawing a line in the sand:  me against the people of Cirencester until they realize that they’ve got it wrong and that they need to bring the pronunciation of their town’s name into line with the rest of the –cesters in England.   For them to insist on pronouncing it phonetically when that’s not right for any of the others is very self-centered.  It's not the right English way.  If they are allowed to carry on like this forever, Camberley will soon be calling itself Cambridgetown again.  That would be wrong.

And don’t tell me, as one friend tried to do, that English place name pronunciation and spelling are supposed to be arbitrary and capricious since they have evolved locally over centuries.  Enough is enough.  I am willing to yield and keep quiet about the many examples previously cited and you can’t say fairer than that.  If you are going to pronounce everything wrong, at least be consistent about it.   

I am in the process of composing a strongly-worded letter of protest to the Cirencester Town Council.  ‘Cirnster,’ people.  ‘Cirnster.’  Learn it.  Embrace it.  I would be willing to compromise on ‘Cister’, if necessary---I am a reasonable woman--- though I think it would be a mistake.

“They’re going to think you are….a looney,” said Rumcove, with great force and solemn emphasis.  “They’ll hang it on the bulletin board at the Council’s office and everyone will laugh at the stupid, delusional Yank.  It will get posted at websites where people compete over who has had the stupidest encounter with a tourist.  It will get circulated on the internet.    You will be remembered for the next several centuries as the most idiotic, presumptuous tourist in the history of Cirencester.” 

Cirnster,” I said sharply.  “Cister if you absolutely must. And I am willing to throw in a stipulation that no person from Cirnster will ever be required when visiting Florida to say 'Weeki Wachee' or 'Itchetucknee' out loud.”

“Everyone will think you’re mental,” he said.  "They will think you are a berk." He paused.  I  will think so,”  he added.

So be it.  I am acting not out of personal vanity or a wish for notoriety, but because I feel it’s the right thing to do.  And I am not going to be frightened off by the vision of the fine people who serve the town of Cirencester snickering at the water cooler over a proposal so obviously valid.  Yes,  English people are intimidating when they look at you coldly and say, “Quite,”  but even “Quite” cannot silence me on a point about which I feel so strongly.   

Nevertheless, Rumcove was right about my demand  seeming perhaps a touch presumptuous coming from a yank.   To avoid giving offense,  I have signed his name to the letter.

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