Scone with the wind – An Irishman’s Diary about a pronounced difference of opinion


Every time I order a scone these days, I find myself having to do a phonetic double-think. This is because I grew up in a part of Ireland that pronounces the word to rhyme with “gone”, whereas I now live, and have done for decades, in a part that prefers the “cone” pronunciation.

But I always forget this until the moment I’m ordering. Then comes a small wave of anxiety as I remember the social schism on the issue, while forgetting which side I’m supposed to be on.  

One pronunciation is pretentious, I know, perhaps even decadent. Unfortunately, by the time I remember which it is, I have often said the other. Then I have to add the proper one as a postscript, which feels fraudulent. Oh well. Such cultural dislocation is the price of exile.

The scone divide – long “o” versus short – is well known among linguists. But I hadn’t realised it was quite so stark until scholars in Cambridge University produced a map (hat tip to the Observer newspaper for drawing my attention to same) showing the front lines in the UK and Ireland.

Thus, across the water, the phonetic equivalent of the Great British Bake-off pitches Scotland, the England that is north of Leeds, and a corridor from Holyhead to Liverpool, against the rest.  

In all of the former, scone generally rhymes with gone.  

South of there, the long “o” sound is at least on level terms – although, interestingly, only in the north Midlands and around London is it dominant.

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But according to the map, Ireland is even more dramatically divided. Here, as you’d expect, Ulster is entirely gone (as it were) in its scone pronunciation, except for a mysterious chunk of east Cavan.  

Elsewhere, the tendency to rhyme scone with cone increases as you travel south and west, to be the norm in Mayo, Galway, and most of Munster.

The Irish demarcation is not unlike that of another famous boundary we’ve touched upon here before – the Whin-Furze line. This, you may remember, was the notional border drawn up by AT Lucas, a former curator of the National Museum, in his 1960 book on the history of the yellow-flowered plant.  

North of a line from Westport to Drogheda, Lucas suggested, most people called it “whin” or “whins”. South of that it was “furze”. He also mentioned a third tradition, but somewhat dismissively: “The Common English name ‘gorse’ is not used in Ireland except by those who have become familiar with it in England or in books.”

Of course that was 1960.  

Since when we have seen a tendency for “gorse” to feature in the names of expensive (and legally contentious) properties in and around the Killiney area of south Co Dublin. And then there is the mystery of why, when whins or furze are set alight anywhere, Irish news reporters invariably promote the results to the status of “gorse fires”.

There is no third pronunciation for scones, however, not even when they’re burning (the one rhyming with “gone” would seem to cover that eventuality). The choice is black and white. And despite the claims of either camp, there is no scholarly consensus about which is correct.

A little controversially, when describing the difference, the Oxford English Dictionary uses the word “tone”, rather than “cone”, as one of the rhyming possibilities, which looks a bit loaded.  

But the OED is otherwise neutral, suggesting scone’s possible origins in old Dutch or German, while also putting in a word for the Scottish town of Scone, synonymous with the “Stone of Scone”, on which monarchs were traditionally crowned.

The last origin, if proven, might clinch the case for the scone/gone pronunciation, since the town is spelt Sgáin in Scots Gaelic. Against which, I gather the local dialect renders it more like “skoon”, and I’ve never heard a scone called that anywhere, even in Killiney.

Alas, unlike the furze/whin issue, this one is not much enlightened by poetry. I would have had high hopes that WB Yeats, for example, might have rhymed scone with gone (or even with Maud Gonne) at some point. But like most poets, he appears to have been silent on the matter.

So reluctantly, I have to give the last word to a piece of doggerel published more than a century ago in Punch magazine. Like the OED, it dragged “tone” into the argument, thereby implying a prestige pronunciation, viz: “I asked the maid in dulcet tone/To order me a buttered scone;/The silly girl has been and gone/And ordered me a buttered scone.”