Shrewsbury, Etymology and Mob Rule

[Updated 6th July 2015]

Rant coming up…

Quite a few English towns aren’t (locally) pronounced the way they’re spelt: Bicester, Wednesbury and Leominster spring to mind. I’ve never lived in any of those towns, but I have to wonder whether they give rise to the same acrimony as the evergreen controversy over the ‘correct’ pronunciation of Shrewsbury. The one in Shropshre, that is: I suspect that the residents of the other Shrewsburys to be found elsewhere on the globe have better things to worry about.

In my (by no means authoritative) opinion, it’s not really a matter of what is correct. In fact, I consider it offensive when people insist that the only ‘correct’ way is the way they say it, whichever pronunciation they favour. It’s a matter of common (but by no means universal) contemporary usage versus traditional/historical usage versus etymological probability. Anglo-Saxon speakers might, I suppose, have pronounced Scrobbesbyrig (not the only possible spelling in the 11th century, of course) with a long O (Oh) or short O as in ‘cobble’ – since the language was West Germanic (i.e. closely related to modern Standard German), I’m extrapolating from words like ‘Dom’ (long O) and ‘Sonntag’* (short O): a long U sound as in ‘Flug’ (or ‘rune’) seems less likely. But historical linguistics isn’t my area of expertise, and (apparently unlike some people in certain Facebook groups) I’m not old enough to remember how Shrewsbury folk (or Salopians) spoke in the 19th century, let alone the 11th.

darwin2

Darwin is keeping his own counsel on the topic.

Probably more people say ‘Shroosbree’ or ‘Shoesbree’ now than was the case when I was young and I don’t have a problem with that, even though I’m going to stick with the long O and ‘…bury’ rather than ‘bree’ myself. I have a soft spot for the traditional, and not only in music.  But words and names change over time, and it isn’t necessarily a ‘posh versus common’ thing, either. It’s just the way that language evolves over time. I notice that the BBC** doesn’t seem to insist on the ‘O’ pronunciation any more (for what that’s worth), and sometimes presenters use the ‘Shrosebury’ and ‘Shroosbury’ (or a close variant) in the same programme. (I also notice that railway announcers have also pretty much abandoned the long ‘o’, but I’m sympathetic to anyone English who has to cope with some of the Welsh placenames on the Heart of Wales line.)

However, the question as to which is ‘correct’ is a common thread in Shrewsbury-related Facebook groups. Sadly, it usually degenerates into name-calling. Despite my observation in the second paragraph, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone insist that the use of the long ‘o’ is the only ‘correct’ pronunciation since the 1960s I’m not sure if the BBC Pronunciation Unit still has a ruling on it, but the old Rowley’s House Museum did have an exhibit explaining the origins of the traditional pronunciation without, to the best of my recollection, insisting that it should be used. However, there are always people who insist that the only way is Essex – sorry, Shroosbury (or even Shoosbree) – and that anyone who disagrees is:

  • From Off (as a Phil Rickman character might say – that is, not local): I’ve been told in all seriousness that the fact that I spent the first 19 years of my life in Shrewsbury didn’t mean I was entitled to an opinion, because I was born in a maternity hospital four miles or so outside the town. In any case, having spent most of my working life in the South (where the jobs were!), I am automatically disqualified. Besides, look at my name: the village of Harley is nearly ten miles outside Shrewsbury, so my roots are obviously foreign.
  • Stupid, because it’s spelt ‘ew’, so it ought to be pronounced like ‘shrew’, even though its etymology has nothing to do with those little creatures with no heads. At least, they didn’t have any heads when our cats used to leave their little cadavers on the decking. (Eeeeewwwwwww!!!!!) Mind you, they (the cats) originally came from Yorkshire: was that behaviour they learned in Shrewsbury? Perhaps there aren’t any shrews living oop in t’North.
  • Illiterate (2). It should be pronounced like it’s spelt. Like Bicester, Beaminster, Derby and Leominster, not to mention Kirkcudbright. Oh, wait a minute…
  • A toff or snob, because only the toffs pronounce it Shrowsbury. In fact, I was brought up on a council estate, but I pronounced it the older way, apparently, because I wanted to be a toff. Well, I guess no Labour leader is ever going to make me a life peer then. It never fails to fascinate me how much people who’ve never met me know about my psychological make-up. Or even my physical attributes: I remember with affection someone who commented on one of my blogs that the string of letters after my name – related to my now lapsed membership of several professional organizations – was probably meant to compensate for undeveloped genitalia. Well, you’ll never get the chance to check, sweetie.
  • A history teacher. Owwww!!!!! That really hurts!!! Not only a (yuk!) teacher but a history teacher. No, you can’t cause me much grief that way, folks. I work in the anti-virus industry, an occupation which seems to rank in status in the security industry as inferior to traffic wardens, tax collectors and politicians. I’ve been married to a teacher and a social worker. (Not at the same time.) I’ve been insulted by professionals…
  • Wrong, because no-one calls Dewsbury ‘Dozebury’. Well, I don’t suppose they do, but Dewsbury has a completely different etymological evolution. I haven’t heard anyone call Newbury ‘Nobury’ or Crewe ‘Crow’, either, but I’m not convinced of the relevance of that point, either.
  • Wrong, because if you really want to be archaic and traditionalist, you should call it Pengwern. Well, Giraldus Cambriensis does cite a tradition that associates Pengwern – as in the early seat of the Kings of Powys, though they later moved further westward – with Shrewsbury, but there’s no conclusive evidence that I’m aware of. In any case, I don’t think there’s a local preference for calling York Eboracum or Canterbury Durou̯ernon (or even Durovernum) either.
  • My favourite: wrong, because Americans pronounce it Shroosbury. With all due respect to my many American friends – who no doubt regard this idiocy with amused bewilderment, if it crosses their radar at all – I have to wonder if the UK inhabitants of Derby and Birmingham (not to mention the French inhabitants of Orléans) are now using the pronunciations Durby, Birmingham with the stress on ‘-ham’, and Awlins (as in Noo Awlins). I’m particularly doubtful of the last one, in the homeland of the Académie française.
  • Because there’s a meme around showing Homer Simpson saying ‘It’s Shrewsbury, not Shrowsbury’ (or something like that). Well, why didn’t you say so? If a fictional character unable to hold down a job and noted for his borderline alcoholism and addiction to doughnuts has spoken, who am I to disagree?
  • Because I say so. Because you are. Because it is. End of.

So which is ‘correct’? I don’t think the word applies, though I think it’s probable that the older pronunciation will continue to decline and perhaps be forgotten in a few years. And there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t. It seems a pity, though, that the process should be accelerated and by the sort of petty bullying that sometimes afflicts perfectly nice, respectable people when they start using social media, replacing not only simple courtesy and mutual respect, but logic.  The class war is alive and well and living in Shrewsbury. Which is why even though I’m not ashamed to have come from Shrowesbury (a legitimate older spelling, by the way, but then the standardized spelling is a fairly recent development), I’m sometimes glad that I don’t have to live there now.

I should also point out that I have many friends in Shrewsbury who may use either pronunciation (or even ‘Salop’ (an alternative name with a long and honourable tradition behind it) but wouldn’t dream of ‘correcting’ people who bat for the other team. And that Shrewsbury holds no monopoly on parochialism or reverse snobbery. (Some of the most parochial people I’ve ever met have been Londoners…)

I have considered skirting the whole issue by using the Welsh name Amwythig, but I suppose that would inspire general bewilderment and draw even more abuse down upon my head for mispronunciation. I admit to having lived for a while in Wales in the early 70s, but can’t claim to have mastered the language.

*Clearly any claim I had to have mastered – to the limited extent that A-level can be described as ‘mastering’ – the German language in the 1960s has long since expired. Well, even though I have visited Germany and Austria a few times in the last couple of decades for conferences, I’ve had very little need to exercise my extraordinarily rusty linguistic skills. Thanks to Geoff Maddocks, who pointed out that Montag is pronounced with a long ‘o’ and suggested that Sonntag was a better example.

**The BBC did recently (July 2015) report an attempt to ‘settle‘ the debate. Of course, it did no such thing, though a majority of respondents (58%) did vote for ‘Shroosbury’ (it’s not clear whether or how the ballot distinguished between Shroosbury and Shoosbury – 7% of respondents did vote ‘other’). That’s hardly surprising: those are the ways in which most people pronounce it nowadays. I don’t see people who prefer ‘Shrozebury’ being swayed by mob rule, though.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

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2 thoughts on “Shrewsbury, Etymology and Mob Rule

  1. Geoff Maddocks

    As a child growing up 16 miles from the S.-town and pronouncing it Shoosbry (or similar), I was repeatedly told, by different people, that it had to be one or the other of the ccompeting pronunciations. It doesn’t really surprise me that people are still arguing about it today. I agree with most of what you said. It doesn’t really matter and most of the arguments put forward don’t hold water. Just one point. Having lived in Germany for more than 30 years, I must say that the “o” in “Montag” is also long, as opposed to that in “Sonntag”.

    Reply
    1. David Harley Post author

      Oh dear. You’re absolutely right about Montag, of course. Shows how rusty my German is! Thanks for pointing that out: I’ll amend the article accordingly.

      Reply

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