The English Pedant – Mispronunciation? Blame it on Elvis


If your name is James Brown and you are routinely referred to as James Ground, does that bother you? If enough people do it, do you accept that that’s what the world wants to call you, and get it changed officially?

This issue has followed me throughout my adult life. My surname is Morvan, which is pronounced like Morgan. (Actually, it’s a French name and should really be pronounced in the French way, whereby the an at the end sounds roughly like oh, with no trace of the n. But that’s another story.)

Everybody can pronounce Morgan, so what is so difficult about putting a v in there instead of the g and retaining the overall sound?

But no, for some reason, people feel the ending should be stressed as much as the beginning, and that the name should sound like more than.

Being as I am, I have spent much more than half my life correcting people. After all, it’s my name.

The next generation, though, is not united in this. I have a nephew, now in his thirties, who not only accepts the mispronunciation, but apparently uses it himself.

There are other examples of this among famous people. The American statesman and general,  Colin Powell, must be the only Colin in the world whose name is rendered as coe-lin.

Of course, there is a difference between the American pronunciation, (kah-lin) and the British one (where the o is pronounced with a narrower mouth, somewhere between ah and oe).

In fact, Powell’s own story is that he was christened Colin with the traditional American pronunciation, but during World War Two there was a US air force pilot who became famous, and he pronounced his name Coe-lin, which apparently was an Irish influence. So, as Powell said in an interview on Fox News Talk Radio, “My family call me Colin and my friends call me Coe-lin”.

In the case of the legendary cricketer Sir Ian Botham, (boe-tham) the change in pronunciation from the obvious one, sounding almost like bottom, was probably sanctioned by the family at some point because, in the UK, bottom is a word that makes people titter. And botham sounds close enough to cause teasing in the playground.

It’s a relatively common occurrence, given our predilection for toilet humour. The famous house of Cockburn, producers of port wine, is pronounced Coburn, like James, the actor. The capital of Grand Turk, an island where I once lived, is Cockburn Town, and the pronunciation was explained to me by a grown woman as “Spelled c-k, pronounced coe,” thereby avoiding the dangerous word cock.

One name that has changed wholesale in recent years is Aaron, which, in the UK, used to be said as Airon. Suddenly, it isn’t like that anymore. Now it’s like arran. And the confusion is all Elvis Presley’s fault.

The path of this one is very complex, because it seems there was originally a Hebrew name Aharon, plus the English, Scottish and Irish Aron, Arun and Aran.

All of them were pronounced Arran, and so it remained until Presley was born. Elvis had a stillborn brother, Garon, which was supposed to be said as Gairon, and the boys’ parents pronounced The King’s middle name, Aron, to match that of his late brother.

Presley himself added the extra a officially.

To confuse matters, a typical American pronunciation of the ar sound does come across like air, so even if they were saying Aaron like barren, it comes out as bairren.

How it came back to the original in the UK is unclear, but that’s what happened.

So, if your name is Aaron and you have a definite idea of how it should be pronounced, you should be on the side of tradition – depending on when you consider tradition to start.


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