Through a Glass, Berkeley – Frank McNally on eccentric English pronunciations

What’s in a name?

As you may have heard by now, some students in Trinity College are campaigning to change the name of Berkeley Library in protest at the eponymous bishop’s ownership of slaves. But in one way, at least, they have changed it already.

Berkeley is one of those English names that, by obscure tradition, are supposed to be pronounced with a vowel they don’t contain. Thus, for example, when Vera Lynn heard a nightingale sing in London’s Berkeley Square, she insisted the address rhymed with “darkly”, not “berzerkly”.

And so it seems, two centuries earlier, did George Berkeley (1685 –1753), the slave-owning bishop and philosopher.

A better-known instance of this phenomenon is the town, county, and horserace known as “Derby”, which in England is said to rhyme with “Barbie”. Another example is “clerk”, which is – or used to be – pronounced “clark”, even by many people in Ireland.


This eccentric tradition extends to all English classes these days, although it did not always do so. The 18th-century novels of Henry Fielding (1707 –1754) are full of country bumpkins saying words like “sartain” for “certain”, and “parson” for “person”. It was clearly not the prestigious accent back then but it must have at least mildly contagious.

In this country and in America, meanwhile, the classic flat races run at the Curragh and in Kentucky respectively are pronounced “Derby”, to rhyme with “Herbie”. And so it goes with Berkeley too.

Not only does the philosopher have a library in Trinity named after him, he also has a whole city in California, founded by an admirer who remembered his line “westward the course of empire takes its way”. But if they ever did, natives in neither Dublin nor the Californian Berkeley now pronounce his name the English way.

We have our anomalies in this sphere too, it must be said. I have never heard anyone in Ireland pronounce “Sergeant” to rhyme with “detergent”, for example.

And even some Americans have been known to follow the English line on occasion, including Frank Sinatra. When he heard the same nightingale as Vera Lynn, he too agreed it was in a square pronounced “Barkeley”.

But those are the exceptions. Speaking of the Empire, these days not even Canada can be relied on to uphold the English tradition.

Hence what may have been the decisive blow to bureaucratic “clarks” everywhere, via Martha and the Muffins’ 1979 hit, Echo Beach: “From nine to five I have to spend my time at work/My job is very boring I’m an office clerk.”

Having lost Ireland and the Americas on this issue, the English upper classes – long a bastion of logic-free name pronunciations, turning “Cholmondeley” into “Chumley”, “Belvoir” into “Beever”, and worse, may now be losing the battle against popular at home too.

Only last year, a Yorkshire cousin of the royal family, Lord Harewood, conceded defeat on the centuries-long tradition of saying his name as if there was no “e” in the middle.

It was always officially pronounced “Har-wood”. But this had become an obstacle to his mansion’s promotion, and to the attempts of visitors to find it.

The ultimate authorities on the latter issue were Leeds taxi-drivers, who were unanimously of the opinion that the first syllable of the house’s name should be pronounced “Hare”, as in the animal. The earl himself was finally forced to agree.

Getting back to Berkeley, California, the university town is not the only notable place in the US so named. Although the philosopher may not be implicated in this case, there is also the notorious Berkeley Pit in Butte Montana, an environmental morality tale.

When Butte became the world’s biggest copper mining town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the metal was at first extracted via vertical shafts, 100 of them, which branched out horizontally in all directions, sometimes running into each other.

But in time, the industry had to resort to open-cast mining, digging out a massive hole that swallowed much of the original Butte, including the part named for its many Irish miners: “Dublin gulch”.

When even that became unprofitable eventually, the hole became a giant tailings pond, into which a century of chemical run-off has since drained. The result is now a perverse tourist attraction: a poisonous brown lake, with a viewing platform for paying visitors.

The Berkeley Pit was named for one of the individual mines that preceded it – I doubt there was any connection to the slave-owning Irish bishop. Even so, the more radical of Trinity’s students might consider it apt that a recent Washington Post headline about the Montana town described it as awaiting a “final clean-up of its toxic past”.