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How do you pronounce Marylebone?

October 28, 2018

I was on the tube last week, on the Bakerloo line, and the announcer announced that the next stop was… Marley-bone. That’s how she pronounced it: Marley bone. Is that right? I have always pronounced it more or less as it is spelt: Marry-le-bone. But I know that a lot of people say it like the announcer.

The etymology comes from two place names stuck together: the Mary bit comes from a local church, St Mary’s, and lebone is a corruption of Tyburn, named after a nearby stream (burn). For a long time it was called Marybone, and it’s not clear how the le got in there. (I owe this information to the website British History online).

Anyway, it settled down as Marylebone, and I would guess that my way of pronouncing it was the accepted one at first. But something happened which linguists call metathesis – that is, the swapping round of two adjacent sounds or letters. This is not that uncommon: the word bird was spelt brid in Chaucer’s time, and changed to its present form by metathesis of R. Another example is the way the word pretty is pronounced purty in rural areas of the American south. Many speakers of Caribbean forms of English use arks instead of ask – that’s metathesis too, as is the pronunciation of the Suffolk village Hoxne (it’s pronounced Hoxen).

Writing this has helped me decide to update my pronunciation of Marylebone. From now on it’s Marleybone for me. The metathesis has already occurred and it would be silly to ignore it. Besides, I think there’s something rather charming about it.

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11 Comments
  1. Ian Palmer permalink

    Very interesting. I’ve always gone with Mary-le-bone as it’s a lot funnier. I wonder how long it takes for spelling to catch up with the metathesis. When will you start spelling it Marleybone?

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    I used to work with someone who always pronounced it Mar le Bun (we worked near there so it came up fairly frequently). I’ve always called it Marry le Bone.
    As an aside Daunt Books in Marry le Bone High St. is a lovely shop.

  3. Hi Simon. Yes, I know that Daunt Books. Great shop.

  4. Peter Dann permalink

    I’m a Marlebun Man myself and have been ever since we had an English text book at school which (in an attempt to explore regional accents) invited us to pronounce a range of odd words in a so-called ‘posh’ voice which then turned out to be London place names. My favourite was Mob Lodge (geddit?) but Marlebun or something similar was also on the list. Can’t remember the others, probably just as well.

    As a further aside, I’ve noticed the guards (or are they Train Managers?) on Chiltern Railways have also started pronouncing it my way, so I think the tide is turning in our favour.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    There were a few of these in the 80s when some areas were supposedly undergoing “gentrification” so Clapham – Cla Palm, Battersea – But Ter Cia , Streatham – Saint Reetham, Balham – Bah Larm.
    People of a certain age can never hear the last without thinking of Peter Sellers – Bal Ham Gateway to the South.

  6. We mustn’t forget St Ockwell, of course.

  7. Simon Carter permalink

    Or St. Oak Newington.

  8. John Dunn permalink

    If I may be allowed a moment of pedantry, I don’t think this is metathesis, but something different, namely the elision of the second syllable: to attempt a crude phonetic transcription, four-syllable ma.ri.lə.bon has become three-syllable ma:.li.bon with consequent changes to the surviving vowels. It only looks like metathesis because of your chosen transcription: you could equally well have written what you heard as Marlibone. I also think that there is an explanation for what has happened here. As a stress-timed language, English is uncomfortable with sequences of more than two unstressed syllables. This is why in four-syllable words that traditionally have their stress on the first syllable (e.g. kilometre, controversy, lamentable) there is a tendency to move the stress onto the second syllable. That option doesn’t appear to work here, and so the alternative expedient of dropping a syllable is adopted instead.

  9. OK. Very erudite commentary. You’re probably right.

  10. Mark Brafield permalink

    In case it helps, I was on the X90 coach coming back from Oxford last weekend, and I noticed that it stopped at ‘Marlebun’.

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