The Grammarphobia Blog

A tale of two rivers

Q: I’m from New London, CT, where we pronounce the “h” in our nearby river, the Thames, and rhyme it with “games.” We think the “h”-less British pronunciation, which rhymes with “gems,” is a corruption arising from the German accents of Hanoverian kings. Any truth in this?

A: No, there’s no truth to that claim. The “h” wasn’t even part of the original name of the river in southern England.

When the name was first written in Old English, in the late 800s, it was spelled Temes or Temese, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the name was around for many centuries before King Alfred used it in his c. 893 translation of the early Christian historian Paulus Orosius, and it probably has extremely old Celtic origins.

In Roman-occupied Britain, the name of the river was Tamesis or Tamesa, according to the writings of Roman historians.

In fact, in ancient Britain there were at least six rivers that were called Tamesa, according to a 1931 article by R. L. Dunabin in The Classical Review.

The spelling “Thames” didn’t appear until the mid-17th century, though the OED does have a couple of citations for earlier “h” versions of the word.

The “h,” which was never pronounced in Britain, was added erroneously, in the mistaken belief that the name was of Greek origin, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

“Such errors were common, and many words that had nothing to do with Greek were respelled to make them look Greek,” American Heritage says in a Word History note.

As an example, the dictionary cites the name “Anthony,” which was derived from the Roman Antonius. The “h” was added later in the erroneous belief that the name was originally Greek and spelled with a theta.

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