So, is it pronounced Nash-ville, or Nash-vul? Should Maryville be referred to as Murvil, Marvull or Mehrvul?
And do the good folks of Santa Fe, Tennessee, really think of themselves as living in Santa Fee?
I can no longer trust my instincts in these matters, even when it comes to places in my home state, Mississippi. Both it and Tennessee, it appears, are minefields for verbal gaffes.
This observation was precipitated by the popular local brewing company Yazoo. After biting my tongue on various occasions hearing it rendered incorrectly in Nashville bars, I drew the line when a radio voice delivered it the same way: Yah-zoo.
I envisioned serving up a withering riposte in these pages based on irrefutable firsthand knowledge: “Yazoo” comes from the river, county and city in Mississippi, and was so-named for the once-indigenous Indian tribe.
I had in mind something like: “It’s not Yah-zoo, you yahoos, it’s Yaz-zoo.” I can be a smart aleck.
Alas, when I went looking for supporting documentation, I instead came across the fact that Yazoo Brewing’s owner – Linus Hall, also an expat Mississippian – had T-shirts printed stating the proper rendering not as mine, but “yeah-zoo.”
Stubbornness – T-shirts have been known to mislead, if not outright lie – sent me to the Yazoo County Convention and Visitor’s Board, only to find my mistake further confirmed.
“Yeah-zoo is how it is pronounced and always has been,” Dawn Davis, the communications coordinator, said in an email. “We can always tell folks who aren’t from here when they pronounce it as you say you prefer.”
Davis, a Yazoo city/county native, went on to advise that “a lot of folks from here get quite upset at the mispronunciation.”
I ventured that they might avoid the upset feeling by spelling it “Yezoo,” but Davis had a comeback for that, too, noting that “we’re talking about English anyway. You know all rules go out the window (aka Gallagher: comb, tomb, tome, come, etc.).”
The Gallagher reference, I gather, was to the so-named comedian who, in addition to smashing watermelons with a mallet, apparently also offers observations on spelling/pronunciation inconsistencies.
In any event, this Yazoo business seemed to call for explorations of what Tennessee place names may be misspoken by the uninformed. (Like, say, me.) I opened the topic to Facebook friends, who contributed a few guidelines.
“Bogata,” one offered. “Buh-go-duh.”
“Wartrace,” said another. “Been there a few times and have never seen a wart race.”
From a third: “Su-mur-na, otherwise known as Smyrna. SHEB-vul,” for Shelbyville.
Among other offerings were Maury County, which I gather should be said as “Murry” (and also doubles as the home of Santa “Fee”); MY-lan, instead of the Italian Muh-LAHN; Lebnun; and La FAY ette.
A 2014 article in Tennessee Home & Farm on the topic also mentioned Poga (Pogee), Finger (Fanger) and Ooltewah (Oo-da-wah), none of which I was familiar with at all. Commenters added:
Mosheim (pronounced Moss-eim).
Scioto (Unicoi County) is pronounced locally as Sye-o-thee.
Elizabethton – elizzaBETHtun. “Furiners” most often say it like the name Elizabeth with a very quick “ton” on the end.
Medina (Muh-Die-nuh), not Muh-Dee-nuh.
Surgoinsville ... pronounced sir goins ville, not surgeonsville.
You may argue with any of those; I offer no testament to their accuracy other than the obvious fact that someone or other thinks it so or hears it that way.
Besides, as I said, the whole Yazoo experience has shaken my confidence in my ability to provide definitive answers to these sorts of questions, even when it involves my home turf.
But I do still hold fast to two immutable truths:
Biloxi is pronounced Buh-LUX-ee, never Buh-LOX-ee. And Real Mississippians, as I wrote long ago, never say Mis-sis-sip-pi. Too many syllables. We say Mis-sipi.
Trust me on those.
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.