How to pronounce London place-names

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 This is for everyone who has plans to travel to London! Even if you are English-speaking, you may be forgiven for not know how to pronounce many of the place-names, because there is often very little to connect the way a name is written with the way it is phonetically pronounced. There are no rules to follow, except perhaps to be on alert that even the simplest names may sound diabolically unlike anything a reasonable person would expect. To ensure accuracy I have procured a genuine Londoner, born within the sound of the Bow Bells (which, I’m told is the test of a true Cockney). Many thanks to Joe MacNaughton for lending her voice and knowledge to this post!

How do you say Marylebone?

Don’t be fooled by the way it is sometimes spelled ‘Mary-le-bone’. And don’t be side-tracked by the history of the name – it was originally named after a church called St. Mary’s by the Bourne. There’s no ‘Mary’ when you pronounce ‘Marylebone‘ – you say ‘mar/li/bone’ or ‘mar/li/bun’

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The district of Marylebone stretches from Regent’s Park to Oxford Street. Travellers to London may find themselves using the Marylebone Railway Station and Underground complex. Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street is in Marylebone, and Madame Tussaud’s and the Planetarium are right in Marylebone Road. In short, there are plenty of reasons for tourists to learn how to say this one properly.

How do you pronounce Madame Tussauds?

I can’t speak for Madame Tussauds in New York, but in London, despite the ‘Madame’, you do not say ‘Tussaud’s’ as you do in French. Why would you? The English don’t even pronounce their own words as they are spelled! In French you say ‘tew/soh’. To be perverse, the English say ‘Madame Tussaud’s like ‘Madam two swords’.

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How do you pronounce Leicester Square?

I honestly thought this was so obvious that it wasn’t worth adding, but after questioning a couple of my ‘The Queen’s English is not my First Language’ friends, I realized this is not the case.

If you go to London, you will almost certainly go past Leicester Square which is in the heart of the West End. Many film premiers are held at cinemas on Leicester Square, and there is also a set of bronze casts of the hands of famous actors to fawn over. Leicester Square has its own tube station. As an aside, let me mention that Leicester is also the name of a well-known English cheese, and a city in the East Midlands in the county of Leicestershire. You say ‘Lestə’.

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How do you say ‘Holborn’?

I realise that this one looks like a no-brainer, but again the British have applied their own unique pronunciation, and ‘Holborn‘ is pronounced ‘Ho/bən’. If you are going to visit the British Museum, Holburn is one of the closest tube stations. Dickens fans will be interested to know that he lived in Holborn, and some of the places in his novels are located there. You can also visit the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street.

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How do you say ‘Chiswick’?

Chiswick is an upmarket area in West London. It is best known for its boulevard style High Road, café culture, shopping, pubs, and magnificent homes, including Chiswick House which is open to the public. It is pronounced ‘chi/zick’. If you see any place-name ending in ‘-wick’, ignore the ‘w’ – the British are prejudiced against this letter for some reason, not even known to themselves!

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 How to you pronounce ‘The Mall’?

Scores of American visitors breathe a sigh of relief when they see this one – everyone knows how to say ‘mall’, don’t they? No! The Mall which is that fine stretch of red road which leads up to Buckingham Palace rhymes with ‘pal’. It was deliberately colored red to give the effect of a red carpet leading up to Buckingham Palace. It looks pink to me, but anyway…

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How do you say ‘Buckingham Palace?

Just had to add this one in – after last year’s Royal Nuptials, I was struck by how many American TV commentators said ‘Bucking HAM’ – this is incorrect: The ‘ham’ is a neutral vowel. Don’t say it in the way that implies that Her Majesty’s residence and charcuterie have anything in common. It’s ‘buckingəm’.

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How do you say ‘Southwark’?

Southwark is a gem of an area – home to many interesting museums such as the ‘100 Black Men’ museum, and the ‘Bramah museum of Tea and Coffee’, as well as the somewhat more gruesome attraction of the London Dungeon. It is as well to remember that it is pronounced ‘suthək’, and not as written, or you may find yourself thrown into the dungeon for mal-pronunciation.

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Here are a few more London place-names to watch  out for:

 Cadogan Square – is pronounced kah/DUG/gan

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Tottenham, most well known for Totteham Hotspur football club, is pronounced tottən/əm (no HAM, we’re British!)

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Hainault – it looks French, but it’s pronounced hay/nolt

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Plaistow – plah/stow

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Greenwich, most famous for GMT, or ‘Greenwich Mean Time is pronounced grennitch (no ‘w’ – we’re British)

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Theydon Bois – thay/dən boyce. If you are in the UK, and the name looks French, rest assured it is not pronounced ANYTHING like you would expect. My theory is that this is the British way of exacting revenge on the Normans for 1066 and all that. See my article on UK place-names below for some more of these oddities.

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Ruislip – rye/slip

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Thames is pronounced tems. Don’t even think of saying it as it is written, or you will provoke gasps of horror, followed by eye-rolling, and even snickering from the British. 

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Do you have any others you aren’t sure about? Or are any of these contentious? I look forward to your comments! Here are more articles on pronunciation mine-traps in the UK:

How to pronounce UK place-names

Historical place-names with unusual pronunciations

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About the Author

Marie-Ora is obsessed with pronunciation, languages, food, wine, cooking, 4Foots. and chocolate. When she isn't working, she enjoys snacking, sipping on wine, reading and napping, and is currently researching methods to do all 4 simultaneously. Although Marie-Ora has absolutely no vices, she is easily provoked by mis-pronunciations, bad coffee, and unwarranted hype.

15 Comments

  1. Mark  February 6, 2013

    How would you pronunce Leucha Road please?

    (reply)
    • Marie-Ora  February 6, 2013

      Mark, give me time to check – will get back to you ASAP. Thank-you for your query :)

      (reply)
      • Marie-Ora  February 6, 2013

        Mark, the best my sources can do is say it is pronounced ‘Loosha’, but so far I’ve been unable to confirm with anyone directly. It sounds reasonable. If I do find out any more, I will update.

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        • Mark  February 6, 2013

          Thanks! :-)

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  2. http://www.londonrelocationservices.com/  April 13, 2013

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    (reply)
  3. Toby  March 7, 2014

    Marylebone is incorrect. All locals say ‘Marry-lebun’. Do you live in London?

    (reply)
    • Marie-Ora  March 7, 2014

      The person on the audio was born, raised and lives in London, in case you missed that. I’ve checked the various IPA pronunciations on Wikipedia, and none of them remotely indicates the pronunciation you suggest. Do YOU live in London?

      (reply)
      • Simon  September 6, 2014

        This is ridiculous, Toby clearly doesn’t live in London. Marie-Ora is absolutely correct, its Mar-li-bone/bun.

        Nobody from London would EVER say Marry-lebun LOL!! They would laugh at you.

        (reply)
        • Marie-Ora  September 6, 2014

          Simon, thank-you so much for your comments. Hugely appreciate you giving a definitive answer! I have checked this with a couple of people and all agree that they have never heard of ‘marry-le-bon/e’ – so I’m delighted to see that one put to rest finally.

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  4. Roger  March 13, 2014

    Maybe there’s more than one way to skin this particular cat? My parent’s families are from Plaistow (always makes me chuckle when “outsiders” have a crack at that one!) and Forest Gate and we lived in Walthamstow for about 10 years. The family and freinds/neighbours would refer to marry/lə/bən.

    (reply)
    • Marie-Ora  March 13, 2014

      Roger what you have said here does raise an interesting point – are there perhaps a sector of people who use this pronunciation? Joanne – on the audio is a Cockney, and she is adamant it’s either Marlibun or Marlibone, and definitely not marry/le/ben (forgive me, I can’t make neutral vowels in my comments section. When the previous commenter mentioned that, I thought maybe he was one of those who instantly disagree on any post, but maybe I’m not quite in the right. The Marylebone Cat seems to be cabable of being skinned a number of ways – which intrigues me – I must know more. Plaistow (pronounced plah/stow, agreed?), Forest Gate and Walthamstow – are those areas linked in some way. If you know more, please do post more – there are usually so many reasons for pronunciations to go one way or another. And are they aware of the pronunciations I give in the article, and if so, do they agree or disagree with those. Is there a notion one way is better than the other, does everyone agree that different people pronounce it differently , and accept that as the way it is, or are their factions who believe their way is better than any of the other? Please do comment back about this because it is so interesting – you are welcome to write up an article on it if you feel inclined. I’d love to get to the bottom of it. Toby, my belated apologies: it would seem your comments do have credibility and I was the monkey on a stick when I dismissed them!

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      • Simon  September 6, 2014

        Sorry, but in 35 year of living here neither I nor any of the other Londoners I know has ever heard anyone say ‘marry-le-bon/e’.

        It’s either an extremely rare variant used by people who’ve never been anywhere near it, or based on a faulty recollection.

        (reply)
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