The Grammarphobia Blog

Why are British names so odd?

Q: I once heard a theory as to why British names are so strange – Biggerstaff, for example. I’m hoping you can help me track it down.

A: We did a bit of poking around on the Internet, but couldn’t find such a theory – at least one that made any sense to us. If you come across that theory again, let us know.

We agree with you that some British names are indeed odd. We’re reminded of a New York Times article earlier this year about the amusing names of British streets and villages.

Here are some beauts: Crapstone, Pratts Bottom, East Breast, North Piddle, Spanker Lane, Crotch Crescent, Thong, Penistone, Tumbledown Dick Road, Titty Ho, Wetwang, Slutshole Lane, and Butt Hole Road.

You’re undoubtedly aware that some British surnames are not only odd, but also pronounced very differently from their spellings.

Examples: Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), Featherstonehaugh (“Fanshaw”), Marjoribanks (“Marchbanks”), Brougham (“Broom”), and Beauchamp (“Beecham”).

There’s a wonderful Monty Python sketch (which we’ve referred to before on the blog) about the odd pronunciation of odd British names.

A character in the sketch is named Raymond Luxury Yacht. As he explains, “My name is spelt  ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

But let’s not get too smug. The British like to poke fun at American names too.

A favorite author of ours, the British writer Angela Thirkell, did a lot of such poking in a series of comic novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

One of her offstage characters is a sexy movie star named Glamora Tudor, whose steamy productions pack ’em in at the Barchester Odeon on Friday nights.

Miss Tudor’s hunky American leading men have names like Hash Gobbet, Hastings Pond, Hank Hawksfoot, Crab Doker, Croke Scumper, Hake Codman, Washington Swop, Buck Pickaback, Hick Pilldozer, and Hank Pilsener.

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