Regionally “Corrupted” Names

Tobacco Farm near Clover, VA (Historic Am. Buildings Survey)

Tobacco Farm near Clover, VA (Historic Am. Buildings Survey)

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks details the real life of a poor woman from rural Virginia whose cancer cells became an important tool for medical innovation. The titular woman hailed from a tiny, impoverished Southern town, which prompts the author to explain the colorful name of Lacks’ father, Day:

[His] name was David Lacks, but everyone called him Day, because in the Lacks country drawl, house sounds like “hyse,” and David sounds like “Day.”

The Lacks were a poor African-American family from a remote corner of southern Virginia. Although I’m not certain, I believe “hyse” references the Canadian-raising-type pronunciation of that word common in older “Tidewater” accents. “Day” most likely arose due to the tendency in African-American English (probably shared by several other Southern drawls) to drop voiced fricatives (i.e. /v/ and /ð/) in between vowels. (This was also common in Shakespeare’s time, hence all the “o’ers” and “e’ens.”)

Spelling “corruptions” that become proper names don’t seem uncommon in the American South. I recall obituaries of the late actor Ossie Davis (a Georgia native) mentioning that his original name was “R.C.” The origin of “Ossie” is explained in the New York Times writeup:

He became Ossie when his mother told the courthouse clerk in Clinch River, Ga., who was filing his birth certificate that his name was “R. C. Davis.” The clerk thought she had said, “Ossie Davis,” and she was not about to argue with a white person.

In other words, his name became “Ossie” due to a miscommunication thanks to his mother’s drawl (which presumably would have rendered the name something like ɒ:si, or “aw-see”). It’s notable that, as was the case with David Lacks, the change was accepted as the name’s natural evolution.

The actress Ginnifer Goodwin, who hails from Memphis, also allegedly received her unique moniker from a feature of her (now softened) Tennessee twang. Because the vowels in “Jenn” and “Gin” are undistinguished in many Southern accents, her name is spelled with an “i” rather than an “e.”

I’ve found few such situations outside of the South, alas; we might otherwise expect to find New Yorkers named “Motha,” from “Martha”. As is the case with the rural Virginian described above, many people in Northern Ireland drop /ð/ (th) in between vowels, yet I’ve met no one from Belfast named, say, “Hare” (from “Heather”). Of course, two of the examples I use above hark to a time when parts of rural America had third-world characteristics, so education and literacy may inform such peculiar spellings.

Can anyone think of other names the spelling of which have been “corrupted” by regional accents?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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26 Responses to Regionally “Corrupted” Names

  1. NemaVeze says:

    There’s a sort of legend in my family that my great-grandmother arrived at Ellis Island with a Russian or Yiddish name that was so difficult for the immigration official to pronounce, he just said “Fine, fine …” so her name became Rose Fine.

    I’m also familiar with the reverse of what you described happening with Portuguese-Americans: the pronunciation of their names changes to match English orthography. So Chaves is pronounced “Shaves,” Rodrigues “Rodericks,” Marques “Marx,” Teixeira “Tex-air-ah.”

    • Growing up in Southeastern New England, I encountered quite a few Anglicized Portuguese names. In particular, I remember a kid who was very insistent that his name be pronounced “Rod-rigs” instead of “Rod-ree-gez,” even though the latter is certainly closer to Portuguese ruðriɣɨʃ!

      • Spice says:

        In southeastern New England much of the Portuguese community, especially in decades past, had roots in the Azores rather than mainland Portugal. I wonder how much of those surname pronunciations represents pure Anglicization vs. the particular dialect of the Azores. For example I believe the Azorean pronunciation of _chorizo_ (sausage) is “churrice” which is still often used by New Englanders of all backgrounds today. I’m not an expert in this area, but the Chaves and Marques pronunciations strike me as particularly reflecting Azorean dialect, perhaps more than just anglicization.

        • Maine French names also shifted in pronunciation. There was a big family in the town I grew up in called Joliceur (dʒɑ`LɪKɜr) and another called Marquis (Mɑr’KWɪS)

  2. Laura says:

    I only know of spelling corruptions in our family. On one side there are Fitz and Fitts and I’m fairly sure there are Pitts in mixed in, too. On another side, the current last name spelling, and has been for @400 years is Ellen but it was recently discoverd to be a change from the original Allen. Literacy being what it was centuries ago it would make sense that changes happened when a person didn’t have the skills to know a mistake had been made and then they were relying on the official to even know how to spell in the first place!! :)

  3. Rodger C says:

    I had a high school friend named Kany, pronounced Caney. Her father, an American GI in Germany right after the war (her mother, incidentally, was a Russian refugee), told the German nurse to name her Connie, and the nurse dutifully wrote down what she heard.

  4. Hershele Ostropoler says:

    Something similar to what befell the Davises happened to Gramma Ostropoler (it wasn’t pronunciation, though, and her parents were Jewish immigrants but not black). It’s either common or apocryphal.

  5. Nick says:

    I have a friend from upstate New York (although I think it’s more widespread) who pronounces Graham as /græːm/ and was surprisingly resistant when I explained that even silent Hs create new syllables, thus it has to be /ˈgreɪˌəm/. (We were playing Trivial Pursuit, so there was a lot at stake.)

    • m.m. says:

      wait, isnt pronounced like ??

      woah. dictionaries list your pronunciation first, mine second. hmm… id imagine its common here in socal aswell. the other pronunciation sounds completely foreign

      • Rodger C says:

        I say “Alexander Grayum Bell” but “Gram crackers.”

        • dw says:

          On some accents with heavy ae-tensing, those two pronunciations may be indistinguishable.

        • Blake says:

          They’re distinguishable in my American idiolect, but I have /græm/ for Graham (the name and the crackers) and also /’mæneɪz/ for mayonnaise.

  6. Ed says:

    Apparently Retford in Nottinghamshire was originally “Redforde” but assimilation devoiced the /d/ to a [t].

    This is usually referred to as “Yorkshire assimilation” but it does extend over the border to some parts of Nottinghamshire.

  7. B. Smith says:

    I know a Guyanese person named Bevily instead of Beverly, because they pronounce it sort of like the British people do. I also know 2 people named Tytiana and Tietiana instead of Tatiana, because with a country accent they’re pretty much the same.

  8. Nick says:

    Just thought of another one (no elided letters but this one does affect spelling):
    Ashleigh is an increasingly common variant of Ashley. But I read them as slightly different because the “Happy” vowel in my lexical set is the same as in “Kit”, [ɪ]; but I read -eigh as [iː].
    (This also makes it impossible for me to read Aimee as homophonous with Amy. Although for that one I tend to read it as the French name Aimée, /ɛme/.)
    But I’m not sure what to make of this as a regionalism: I have a cousin named “Ashleigh”. My father (jokingly) refers to her as /aʃ’liː/, so I think the same process is going on in his head as in mine. I think her own father calls her /’aʃˌlɪ/ despite the spelling, but it’s possible that he’s using a short [i] and I just haven’t been listening closely enough. I’m having trouble summoning my aunt’s voice in my head but my guess is that it’s her accent that conflates the two spellings (she grew up in rural Australia but the rest of us were raised in suburban areas).

  9. dw says:

    On the subject of dropping intervocalic /v/s, it may be of interest that the word “head” was “heafod” in Old English (where the orthographic F represents a [v] sound).

  10. zachary says:

    Looking for ahead to reading extra from you in a while!? I

  11. Laura says:

    Ok, my apologies first for not knowing all the technical aspects of sounds, accents, etc. I just have a long-standing fascination with regional accents of the U.S. as it’s a new country inhabited by people from all over the world yet none of those particular accents seem to have remained intact. I think I can detect aspects of them, but in my own limited experience I’ve never heard an accent that sounded exactly like it’s from another country.

    I did think of one pronounciation difference…here in California my name sounds like “Lore-uh” but my northern Massechusetts family pronounces it more like, “Lahw-ruh”.

  12. JL says:

    It’s relatively common in Australia, so-called bogan spelling.

  13. Tom says:

    Maybe this is not quite what you’re looking for, but I once worked with a young woman who had an American father and a Vietnamese mother. My co-worker had no trace of an accent whatsoever, but she once referred to a recipe of her mother’s that used “parsrey”. She insisted that this was an entirely different ingredient from “parsley”. I have no idea if anyone else would claim this to be the case!

    • Rodger C says:

      Maybe what her mother called “parsrey” really was different from the parsley you normally find in American supermarkets.

  14. Yehoshua says:

    Growing up, I didn’t quite understand that the family friend my parents called “maw-la” (halfway to “ma-la”) was a Marla.

  15. Meg says:

    As a kid in upstate NY, I read Little Women and called the mother Marmee as it was spelled. My mother, from Concord, NH, corrected me: Mah-mee, revealing that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy called their mother the same thing all my friends did– Mommy. My mother wouldn’t let me call her Mommy, though, because she didn’t like our local flat o sound, which she would’ve spelled Maamie. She would have said LAW-ra, too. She called my aunt DAH-ruh-thee (like Aunty Em does in Wizard of Oz) , whereas I say DOR-thee.
    In my area of NY state, place names are pronounced as spelled. We say (apologies for not knowing official phonetic spelling) LIE-ma, rhyming with Jemima for Lima, CHIE-LIE, rhyming with wi-fi for Chili, and RIE-ga for Riga. We also say sher-LOT for Charlotte. Lima was apparently named to reflect the Old Lyme, Ct. origin of settlers, but there seems to be no definitive explanation for the others.
    This may be an old joke, but my mother once told me she read about a family who called their baby girl Fem-AH-lee because the birth certificate said ‘female.’

  16. Nathan Brown says:

    French-Canadian names in the northeastern U.S. show an interesting variety of Anglicized spellings and pronunciations. The last name name “Jacques” is usually pronounced “Jakes” — except in cases where they started spelling it like “Jock” a few generations ago. “Desmarais” is usually pronounced “Dem-urr-ah,” with the last syllable stressed, but I’ve heard it with more of an “ai” (as in “bait”) at the end, and I’ve seen it spelled several different ways, too. “La Voie” is one name that, although it’s always pronounced the same, has numerous spelling variants — with or without a space; with “ie” or “y” at the end.

    Most people pronounce their names like English words, even though some of them are only a generation or two removed from French speaking ancestors. For example, “Rabideau” is always pronounced “Rab-ih-doo,” with a flat aesch in the first syllable and an /u/ in the last, so it rhymes with “have a few.” One exception I can think of is Le Blanc, which usually keeps an “ah” sound for the “a.”

    This is mostly based on observations in the Adirondacks, in northern New York.

  17. Joyceye says:

    My uncle ended up with the official middle name Raniel after his Scottish Gaelic speaking mother request the name Ranald be put on his birth certificate.

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