Summertime ripens fruit, vegetables and silliness.
Ah, summer. School vacations, swimming, sailing, strawberries, sunshine and silliness. This article sprang to mind one day while I was innocently minding my own business. While driving along, a red light summoned me to stop, and as chance would have it, I was behind a Hyundai Tucson SUV. As I waited for the light to change, the word Tucson caught my eye. Tucson. Take a fresh look at that word, that city name. We all know it’s pronounced TOO-sahn. But what’s up with the letter “c?” I mean, we’re all familiar with silent “e’s”, but whoever heard of a silent “c”? Why isn’t it pronounced TUK-sahn? But while ridiculing the fine city of Tucson, Arizona, I remembered that the Capital Region has more than its share of wacky place names and pronunciations.
Herewith, an examination of some of the more amusing, which may prove useful to visitors, newcomers and recently-arrived newscasters. For those of you who are long familiar with these, I suggest you look again at these names that you pronounce accurately despite the bizarre spellings. Most of these are either distortions of Native American names for various places or are legacies from the Dutch settlers who preceded us and who spelled things very strangely.
Feura Bush. My wife and I lived in this little town when we were first married, and the butchery of pronunciations our friends wrought upon us seemed endless. Nearly everyone got the second word right, but that “Feura” thing! The name comes from Moses and the famous fiery bush through which God spoke to him in the desert. The first word is pronounced FEW-rah. The second is the same as two presidents with the first name George. No, not Washington.
Cohoes. What’s so difficult about this, long-time residents may ask. And I would wager that if you have lived in the city long enough, you have heard someone pronounce the name KO-hose instead of the inexplicably correct, ka-HOSE. Although there is some disagreement on the derivation of the name, the leading candidate* is Iroquois for “a canoe falling”. Given the lovely falls in Cohoes, that name seems to fit pretty well. Ouch.
Coeymans. Everyone knows this is pronounced KWEE-mans, right? Locals do, sure, but look
at the word through the eyes of a visitor. Shouldn’t it be KO-ee-mans or KO-eye-mans? Where in the world does someone get the sound kwee from Coey? To make matters worse, the town name is actually a distortion of the name of a Dutch settler, Koijemans. So maybe Coeymans isn’t so bad after all.
Coxsackie. Sorry, but nothing in the spelling of this name hints at the sounds cook-SAH-kee. And there is no reason to lay the blame at the moccasined feet of Native Americans. Their name for the area, which means “owl hoot”, was pronounced by the French as cook-SAHK-ee. Nothing in my research reveals who the heck had the bright idea to spell the place the way we know it today, but I think it leans toward the embarrassing. But who gives an owl hoot.
Valatie. This is one of my favorites, and we can blame this one on the Dutch, too. The town name should obviously be pronounced VAL-a-tee. No question about it. But no, no. Are you ready for this one, new television newscasters? The correct pronunciation is (believe it or not) va-LAY-sha. Go ahead, use phonics, tell your young child who is just learning to read to try to “sound it out.” Good luck with that. And I think we should have stayed with the original Dutch spelling, “Vaaltje,” which translates as “little falls.” At least we’d know we couldn’t pronounce it correctly.
Sacandaga. Once, during the television show, “X-Files,” Special Agent Muldar traveled to a lake he called sa-CAN-da-ga. You can’t fault the guy. How was he to know it should have been SAHK-an-DAH-ga? This name is practically unsullied from the Mohawk name, which means “drowned lands”. Surprisingly prescient of them, since the lake wasn’t created until the Conklingville Dam was built in 1930 and drowned the valley.
Kayaderosseras. This one has got to be a joke. It’s as though someone got started and didn’t know when to stop. But in fact, the name does happen to be pronounced pretty closely to the way it’s spelled. If anyone can figure that out! Although imprecise, most people colloquially condense the convoluted name to KADE-er-os, most likely to save time. This name, too, comes from our Native American predecessors and means, “Valley of the Crooked Stream”, which may explain the crookedly meandering name.
And now for the Capital Region winner that will probably never be unseated…
Schaghticoke. Somebody must have been on coke when they dreamed up this beauty. At the beginning of this article, I criticized Tucson for using a silent “c.” But lo and behold, here we have the remarkably rare, silent “gh”. Our language is tough enough when “gh” is pronounced as “f”, but a silent “gh”? Why bother? It doesn’t look like it, but this town’s name is spoken as SKAT-i-koke. Even back in the early 1800s, Horatio Spafford, who compiled a Gazetteer of New York in 1813, wrote, “This name, so long, crooked, and hard that it puzzles everybody is said to have originated with the Mohawk Indians.”
Nevertheless, I suppose we can be grateful we don’t have to cope with Quonochontaug Pond in Rhode Island.
*Most Native American name references are from: Aboriginal Place Names of New York, by Dr. William M. Beauchamp, 1906, New York State Museum, Bulletin 108.
Ed. Lange writes “Guy Stuff” monthly for Capital Region Living. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.