Some British places are famous for their significance, like say, Brighton, or Manchester, or Greenwich. Other British places, however, are a bit more notorious for their wacky pronunciations, as with what is often regarded as the most difficult to pronounce British place name, Frome in Somerset, England. Among its ranks come Woolfardisworthy in Devon, and Rampisham in Dorset, both in England.
These place names definitely throw people off as they do not seem to follow any sort of English pronunciation rules at all. Even after living in the UK for three years, I still tend to mispronounce some of these place names. While town names of Scottish Gaelic or Welsh origin tend to follow the pronunciation rules of their respective languages, we also see place names of other origins like Anglo-Saxon or Norse wildly detracting from their phonetic rules. Centuries of language evolution, invasion, and other phonetic changes have resulted in the notoriety of some of these place names. And these permeate memes as well:
For today, we will take a look at some of these place names individually, and try to dissect their phonetic origins.
This village in Hampshire, England really seems French, and you would be right. Its etymology quite literally comes from the French phrase beau lieu, meaning “beautiful place”. This place does seem beautiful to visit, but its etymology extends a bit further than that. In the 13th century, the Cîteaux Abbey, or Abbaye de Cîteaux, known as the mother house of the Cistercian order, sent 30 Catholic monks to a Cistercian abbey in this county of Hampshire. This monastery was referred to in Latin as Bellus Locus Regis, or “the beautiful place of the king”. This would have been translated to French by the monks at some point, or vice versa. Historical evidence about this interchangeability seems scarce, but this might have been the most likely the case.
But this place has long lost its French pronunciation, and now is pronounced more like “Bewley”, not “Bo-lew”. It could be the case where people pronounced each and every single letter in this name of French origin, and dropped the “u” at the end for ease of pronunciation. Interestingly though, the Japanese transcription of this place name still retains the original French pronunciation, as ボーリュー (bo-ryuu). The Chinese translation, however, varies. Some follow closely to the English one, like 比尤利 (bǐ yōu lì, or 比利 (bǐ lì), while some follow the French one like 博利厄 (bó lì è).
There is one place name called Beaulieu House in Sembawang, Singapore, opened as a seaside restaurant. I am not sure how people refer to this place, but my guess is “bew-liao”, drawing from the literal pronunciation of each letter in Beaulieu.
There are two villages in Devon with this name, one Woolfardisworthy in Torridge in North Devon, and the other Woolfardisworthy in Crediton in Mid Devon. They still share the same pronunciation, and a rather misleading one at that. Any guesses?
It is pronounced…
Woolsery, or in IPA, /ˈwʊlzəri/.
One could only wonder what sort of phonetic changes happened along the way, and where half the letters went. Unlike some Irish or Scottish place names, which do have silent letters due to orthographical rules, where the letters in “fardisworthy” went to become “sery” is a relative mystery. Some sources point towards the adoption of the use of the shortened pronunciation “Woolsery” as early as the 17th century, while retaining the full written form.
This place is so misleading to pronounce, the village also stuck along a much easier to pronounce version of the name together with “Woolfardisworthy”, and that is, “Woolsery”. Hover along Google Maps in Torridge and you would find several place names going by Woolsery instead of the more cumbersome Woolfardisworthy. However, the Woolfardisworthy in Crediton retained the longer form, perhaps aiding distinction between the two place names.
Alongside the phonetic mystery, comes along the etymological mystery. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names suggested that the name means “Wulfheard’s homestead”, although no one knows who Wulfheard is, or if that person ever existed. There was a monk in southeast Devon who went by the name of Wulfheard, but any connection between him and Woolfardisworthy could not be established. Some also suggested that in the 7th century CE, a Saxon man called Abbot Wulfheard of Crediton was granted two manors, which may correspond to the two Woolfardisworthy’s mentioned.
And as for the “worthy” part, its origins trace back to the Old English word “worþig“, meaning “homestead”. It could potentially trace back to more ancient Anglo-Saxon origins, but this would be the furthest we can get.
Our final place name takes us somewhere in Lancashire, but with a curious place name, Quernmore. But how is it pronounced?
No. It is closer to “Kwo-mer”, or in IPA, /ˈkwɔːmər/.
This place name could derive its origins in Old English or Old Norse, split into two elements “Quern” and “More”. According to the book The Place-Names of Lancashire by Eilert Ekwall, published in 1922, Quernmore has undergone several changes since its supposed founding in 1228 as Quernemor. In 1278, it was written as Quernemore, and in 1323 it was written Quermore. A curious change occurred in the 15th-16th centuries, as it was written as Whermore. Several changes may have occurred down the line, to reach Quernmore we see today.
The element “Quern” traces back to Old English cweorn, and Old Norse kvern, meaning “quern”, “mill”, or possibly, “mill stone”. The second element, “More”, originates from the Old English word mōr, meaning “moor”, a tract of open uncultivated upland. This etymology may be evident by the presence of watermills, of which two survive to this day. Quernmore’s history stretches back much further than that, with evidence of Roman settlement being unearthed back in 1970. The slopes of nearby Clougha Pike was at a time, mined for millstone grit to produce quern stones. The presence of such industry in history could have contributed to the name we see today.
Today, Quernmore has about 560 residents, mainly containing farm houses nestled in the bottom of the valley of the River Conder. It does seem like a tranquil place to visit, and explore the countryside of Lancashire.
This has been a nice dive in some of the most difficult to pronounce British place names, but this is only just the beginning. There are patterns shared by some place names, like “-cester”, the mystery unpronounced “w”, and the pronunciation of “-erk” in words like Berkshire. We could cover these in a future post, or cover another trio of uniquely interesting place names with deceptively difficult pronunciations.