Word Bites — More notorious British place names to pronounce

Previously, we have covered three of the British place names which do not seem to follow any pronunciation rule at all. This week, we are back with another installation of three place names to dissect — their etymology, possible evolution pattern, and what this place actually is. You might also want to keep a score on how many of these names you managed to pronounce correctly!


Cholmondeley Castle.jpg
Cholmondeley castle, Cholmondeley

There is a civil parish in Cheshire with a small population of about 150, but it is probably more famous (or notorious) for its name and its pronunciation. Its name origin derives from the Old English word meaning Ceolmund’s clearing, giving the name “Cholmondeley” we see today. Interestingly, Ceolmund is a forename that could be broken down into “ceol” and “mund”, meaning “ship” and “protection” respectively.

But we do not quite literally hear the word “Cholmondeley”. More rather, it has a bizarre pronunciation that is closer to “Chumley”.

Why is this the case? Also, since when has this been the case?

Cholmondeley was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Calmundelei”, and later in the 13th century, it was recorded in the Eyre Rolls of Chester as “Chelmundeleg”. However, by the 14th century, the pronunciation had greatly deviated from its written form, and also gave rise to variant last names such as “Chomley” and “Champley”. So we could pretty much answer the second question here with reasonable precision.

But why did this change occur? One theory for this really abbreviated pronunciation is the centuries of elision that happened in spoken English. This is the process where pronunciation is simplified over time through the smoothing over, or muting certain sounds to make some words easier to pronounce. It could be the reason why we pronounce “Wednesday” as “Wens-day”, and for some place names, why we pronounce “Woolfardisworthy” as “Woolsery”.

An alternate but more unlikely hypothesis is the addition of unnecessary letters by some British aristocrats, making it sound more “posh” and “fancy”. After all, Cholmondeley is an aristocratic surname used by some members of nobility. However, solid evidence supporting this is more scant, so take this with a pinch of salt.


Leominster Priory.jpg
Leominster Priory

Down by the junction of the rivers Lugg and Kenwater, in Herefordshire, lies the largest of five towns in the ceremonial county. With around 11,700 residents as of 2011, Leominster is larger than the other towns in its county, namely Ross-on-Wye, Ledbury, Bromyard, and Kington.

However, this is not to be confused with Leominster in Massachusetts in the United States. Unlike Leominster, Herefordshire, Leominster, MA is a city, though a pretty small one. With a population of around 43,000 residents as of the 2020 census, Leominster, MA is the second largest city in Worcester County. It is still pretty obvious where Leominster, MA got its name from, though it was initially founded as part of the town of Lancaster in the 17th century.

Another reason why these two Leominsters should not be confused is their two slightly different pronunciations. Leominster, MA has a pretty intuitive pronunciation — /ˈlɛmənstər/. Three syllables, which is what you would expect for this word. But not Leominster, Herefordshire.

Leominster, Herefordshire has two syllables, pronounced as /ˈlɛmstər/, or something like “Lemster”. Interestingly, there are some mileposts that reflect the latter spelling, Lemster, and can be found in Leominster Museum. But which came first?

This is the part where it becomes mysterious. The town has several conflicting theories put forward for its etymology, but most of them break this word down into its two constituents — “leo”, and “minster”. The latter is relatively easy to explain; a minster is an honourific title given to certain churches in England, and the royal foundation charters in the 7th century designated any settlement of clergy living a communal life and endowed by charter with the obligation of maintaining the daily office of prayer. 

But what does the “leo” part mean? Theories of its origin include the the miracle performed by Ealfrid involved a lion feeding from his hand; or that Leo is corrupted from the Welsh lei meaning to flow, referring to the river; or that Leo is a compounding of the names of two waters, the Lugg and the Oney (the old name for a stream there); or yet that it refers to Leofric of Mercia of Lady Godiva fame, a later landholder there.

Additionally, the fleece of the local Ryeland sheep was dubbed the Lemster ore. Leominster was then known for its sheep and fleece production, which could result in the pronunciations and the spelling Leominster being used together, despite the alternate “Lemster” spelling on some mileposts. Lemster could be an older spelling, which later evolved to Leominster today, making it seemingly more consistent in spelling with the other minsters, like Westminster, Warminster, and Ilminster.

Magdalen(e) College

Magdalen College New Quad and Founders Tower, Oxford, UK - Diliff.jpg
Magdalen College, Oxford

During my studies in the UK, I have made a couple trips down to Oxford and Cambridge to catch up with friends, or just to explore various places. I recall having some acquaintances who introduced me to Magdalen College in Oxford, and Magdalene College in Cambridge. These colleges are impressive in their respective rights, with Magdalen College being among the strongest in academics in the University of Oxford.

Academics aside, the most noticeable thing I caught when I first knew about these colleges was, you guessed it, the pronunciation.

Magdalen, or Magdalene, sounds like a girl’s first name, and you would be right. Derivatives from this name include Madeleine, Magda, or even Lena. However, these names still follow a rather regular pronunciation pattern, largely pronounced as “is written” (sort of).

But not the place name, no no. Magdalen or Magdalene, when referring to the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge respectively, is pronounced closer to “maudlin” , or “Mawd-lin” (IPA: /ˈmɔːdlɪn/).

So, you might be asking, why is this the case? While the college was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, early documents printed this name “slightly differently”, according to the webpage on the history of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Magdalene was spelt more like “Maudleyn” or “Maudelen” back in the day, derived from the Old French name, Madelaine.

It also turns out that Cambridge decided to peg on the extra “-e” at the end to distinguish the college in Cambridge from the one in Oxford. This change was done quite recently, with the establishment of the postal service in the 19th century.

The word “maudlin” derives from these origins, and could still be found in more historical or obsolete contexts. As a noun, “maudlin” could take the meaning of one of the two aromatic plants, costmary or sweet yarrow. As an adjective, the word could mean “excessively sentimental”, or “affectionate or sentimental in an effusive, tearful, or foolish manner, especially due to drunkenness”.

So there we have it, three more English place names you might have been pronouncing incorrectly, with each of their origins, and some bits of why they are pronounced this way. Perhaps soon, we would cover some typical patterns in pronunciations of some place names which might deviate from the “usual patterns” we see more commonly in English.

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