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Authors’ surnames

August 21, 2019

Earlier this month I went (or we went, rather, en famille) to stay with an old friend at his home down in Cornwall, the genial and erudite Professor Bob Owens. Bob (who is probably better-read than anybody I know) at one point was talking about the poet William Cowper; and that was when I learned that it’s actually pronounced Cooper. For decades I’ve pronounced it as it’s written.

It got me thinking about how often one makes mistakes of this kind, for one normally encounters authors’ names in print rather than in speech. I remember being surprised to learn at university that the first syllable of Robert Southey’s surname is pronounced as in southern, not as in south. The children’s author Sylvia Waugh’s surname is pronounced woff. The surname of the writer of school stories, Angela Brazil, is pronounced brazzle. One that still puzzles me is the early twentieth century writer of supernatural stories, Arthur Machen. I really like his work, but I don’t like talking about it because I don’t know how to say his surname. Is it Matchen? Or Macken? Or is the ch pronounced as in the Welsh word bach, or Scottish loch?

I think all books should include a note on how to pronounce the author’s name, in the blurb, notes or introduction. Just saying.

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8 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Anthony Powell was a Pole (another Powell must be the only Coe-Lin). J.K.Rowling is often mispronounced.

    • Hi Simon. Yes, I knew about Anthony Powell – but again, I had been pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘towel’ for many years until I heard someone say ‘Pole’.

  2. I live in a ‘Poets Corner’ – all the street names are well known poets e.g. Milton, Shakespeare- and Cowper. I have given up saying Cooper – everyone locally says Cow- per. 😏

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    The only thing that surprises me about this post, Brandon, is that you did not mention who I regard as being the most obvious example, namely, Sebastian Faulks. I always pronounced his surname to rhyme with ‘walks’, until I recently learned that it rhymes with ‘folks’.

    Over the last year I have been reading the wonderful ‘My Struggle’ by Karl – Ove Knausgaard. I am just about to start the last volume in the series, number six, even though it has been widely pilloried in the press. I recently met him (star-struck) at a signing, before which I made sure to check the correct pronunciation; it rhymes with ‘Carl Orff House Gore’.

    (Dreadful joke alert; I recently went to a performance of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. My friend wondered whether he had a brother, ‘Piss’).

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    I wish Albert Camus’ publishers had followed your idea on pronunciation Brandon!

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