Curious Questions: How do you pronounce Belvoir, Featherstonhaugh and Bagehot?

Even simple-looking names like Powell and Coke can trip up the unwary, while Belvoir and Featherstonhaugh are positive linguistic land mines. Eleanor Doughty (Dowty? Dockerty? Dotty?) investigates.

Embarrassment can scorch like boiling water and I was 18 when I made one of my worst faux pas. During my first year at university, I was talking about an author when my tutor cut in: ‘It’s Pole, not Powell.’ I was talking about Anthony Powell, but I’d pronounced his name incorrectly. I had no business writing about the great man if I couldn’t even get his name right, she snapped.

Just as most things in this country can come down to class, so, too, can language and whether or not we get it ‘right’, even down to the stress we put on words: ‘research’ or ‘research’? Knowing that the Marquess of Cholmondeley is pronounced ‘Chumley’ puts you in one camp; not knowing might put you in another. It has been 65 years since Alan S. C. Ross published his essay U and Non-U, laying out which words demarcated the upper class, yet language snobbery has scarcely abated.

For some, mispronunciation doesn’t merely represent ‘insider’ knowledge, but the awkwardness of the English language. With Doughty — variously pronounced ‘Dotty’, ‘Dougherty’ and ‘Docerty’ — I get off lightly. Former diplomat Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles fights a war on two fronts. ‘Cowper-Coles is often mispronounced “Cow-per”, not “Cooper”,’ he laments.

“Only people who think they’re being posh call it ‘Hokeham'”

Sir Sherard has been battling this for more than 60 years: ‘I hated it aged five when my name was mispronounced at assembly every day.’ Plus, ‘Sherard’ is pronounced ‘Sherud’ and, over the years, this has morphed into ‘Sherwood, Sherry, Gerard, Shiraz. I remember being introduced to the director of the FBI in Washington, who, mishearing Sherard as Sheriff, greeted me with: “Glad to meet someone in law enforcement, too.”’

The ancient Catholic family of Scrope (pronounced ‘Scroop’) has been around since the 12th century, yet people continue to get the name wrong. ‘Scrope has historically been spelt with two Os and the change to one was often to disassociate following new administration,’ explains Harry Scrope, a former Coldstream Guards officer. ‘I joke that it’s a vowel tax to go with the window tax and we couldn’t afford it.’ Mr Scrope was friends at Sandhurst with one Hugh Mainwaring, whose name, like that of the Dad’s Army character, is pronounced ‘Mannering’. ‘We all agreed that it would be a travesty if he was ever promoted to Major,’ laughs Mr Scrope.

Tom Coke, 8th Earl of Leicester, is the custodian of three awkward names: Leicester, his surname Coke, said ‘Cook’, and his Norfolk seat of Holkham: ‘It’s a hard L. Only people who think they’re being posh call it “Hokeham”.’ Coke has been pronounced ‘Cook’ as far back as ‘about 1150, when we were minor knights in Swaffham,’ advises Lord Leicester.

Holkham isn’t the only estate to trip people up. The Earl Spencer runs Althorp in Northamptonshire. ‘My grandfather always called it “Ultrup”,’ he remembers. ‘When I took over, the BBC pronunciation department said they hoped I’d call it “Allthorpe” and then I found a letter to my father saying they hoped he’d call it “Ultrup”.’ At Eton, he was Viscount Althorp, where he called himself ‘Allthorpe’. ‘The history master said: “How ridiculous, you can’t even pronounce your own name.” I have read that, if there are two commonly used pronunciations, neither is wrong.’

“So many assumptions about class and politics ride on that single syllable. How beautifully British”

There are at least two of these for Bagehot, the column in The Economist named after the 19th-century essayist Walter Bagehot. The correct pronunciation is ‘Badgit’, but ‘the problem is one of the banes of my life,’ admits Bagehot columnist Adrian Wool-dridge. ‘People gravitate to “Bag-hot”, “Bage-hot” or, most commonly, “Badger”.’ This poses a global issue. ‘Viscount Blakenham was chairman of the Financial Times (FT) from 1983 to 1993,’ recalls Mr Wooldridge. ‘The president of Italy visited the FT’s offices and declared that he was a great admirer of Bagehot. Blakenham replied: “Oh, I love badgers, too.”’

Incorrect pronunciation, believes Jane Setter, professor of phonetics at the University of Reading, ‘is a way of working out that you’re not one of us’. Or that you are. In Nicholas Coleridge’s memoir The Glossy Years, he remembers a job interview at Tatler in 1979: ‘On the table were 30 or so photographs, taken at the birthday party of the Duke of Rutland’s daughter, Theresa Manners, at Belvoir Castle.’ When asked for an accompanying headline, Mr Coleridge suggested ‘Saturday Night Belvoir’ and was hired. After all, ‘only in-the-know readers who realise that Belvoir is pronounced “Beaver” would get it’.

Some families are more bothered than others about pronunciation. The Earl of Shrewsbury verifies that his title is pronounced ‘Shrowsbury’ and the Marquess of Hertford explains that his surname, Seymour, should be pronounced ‘Seamer’ and his title ‘Harford’: ‘I often correct, but really I don’t care.’ A ‘St John’ acquaintance is equally laissez-faire. ‘People say, “Ooh, are you a St John or a “Sinjin”, but I’m not bothered. “Sinjin” is what rolls off the tongue.’

“It’s not “Fanshaw” for me and I don’t know that any other Featherstonhaughs say that”

In 1976, the late Marquess of Bath changed his surname from ‘Thynne’ to ‘Thynn’ to ensure that its pronunciation remained ‘Thin’ instead of ‘Thine’ and, last year, the official pronunciation of Lord Harewood’s Harewood House near Leeds changed from the traditional ‘Harwood’ to the local ‘Hairwood’. ‘Outside the house it was ‘Hairwood’ and inside we’d say “Welcome to Harwood”,’ explains Edward Appleyard, the Harewood House Trust’s director of engagement. ‘It was a bit alienating.’

Miranda Rock, granddaughter of David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter, confirms that Cecil is pronounced ‘Cissel, as in Thistle’. I checked with Lord Salisbury, a Gascoyne-Cecil, for consistency and he demurred: ‘As in all things, we follow the example of the Exeters.’

At least Cecil isn’t an urban legend. This much is apparently true of Featherstonhaugh, popularly thought to be pronounced ‘Fan-shaw’. ‘It’s not “Fanshaw” for me and I don’t know that any other Featherstonhaughs say that,’ assures Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC. ‘Everybody repeats it because they like to sound knowledgeable. If I’m in front of a judge who doesn’t know me, he’ll call me “Fanshaw” because he thinks it shows that he’s in the know.’ In fact, Mr Fetherstonhaugh’s name (which lacks the middle ‘a’) is pronounced as it’s spelt. ‘People always look slightly crestfallen.’

Georgia Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (née Powell) is Anthony Powell’s granddaughter. My undergraduate self is soothed to learn that even she isn’t completely sure. ‘All my life I have been battling with the problem of whether to pronounce my surname with an “ow” or with an “oh”,’ she wrote in 2016. ‘So many assumptions about class and politics ride on that single syllable. How beautifully British.’