Sunday, August 19, 2007

Apple #261: Wilkes-Barre, PA

The other night, I was out with a few friends, and someone mentioned the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I don't remember why it came up, I just know that it did. And then -- well, I'll give you the details in dialogue form because the pronunciation is important.

ALBERTINA: . . . all the way to Wilkes-Bar.

BRIGID: It's Wilkes-BARRIE, you dolt.

ALBERTINA: ha-ha, (dripping with sarcasm) Wilkes-Barrie. I don't think so. It's Wilkes-BAR.

BRIGID: No, it's not. It's Wilkes-BARRIE. I've known two people from there, one my cousin's friend who was born there and moved away, and another was a friend of my brother's who was also born and lived there until he was five, and they both pronounce it Wilkes-BARRIE.


BRIGID: Yes. Really. It's the same way people from Lancaster pronounce it LANG-kustir.

Wilkes-Barre is in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, almost directly west from the pointy part on the NE edge of the state.
(Map from the Weekend Guide)

So I had to find out. Is it true what Brigid says? Because I have always thought of it as Wilkes-BAR. And why is the name hyphenated, anyway? Did it get married and choose hyphenation?

  • The American Heritage Dictionary says it should be pronounced Wilkes-BARRIE.
  • The website called "You know you are from Pennsylvania when" says that Pennsylvanians pronounce it Wilkes-BARRIE.
  • And the AP newswire says it should be pronounced Wilkes-BARRIE. That settles it. Wilkes-BARRIE, it is. The AP folks do their research.
Other "mispronunciations" by residents
    • Lebanon, Pennsylvania: Leb-a-NON
    • Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania: SKOO-kul
    • Ghent, West Virginia: JENT
    • Talladega, Alabama: Tall-a-DIG-ah
    • Louisville, Kentucky: LOU-uhvul
    • Des Plaines, Illinois: DEZ PLAINS (as opposed to the French DAY PLAHN)
    • Dumas, Arkansas: DOO-mus
    • El Dorado, Kansas: el dor-AY-doh
    • Moscow, Idaho: MOSS-koe
    • Spokane, Washington: spoh-CAN
Some pronunciations people might think are incorrect, but they are said this way because that's how the British said them to begin with:
    • Worcester, Massachusetts: WUH-stir
    • Reading, Massachusetts: RED-ing
    • Stoneham, Massachusetts: STONE-em
    • Greenwich, Connecticut: GREN-ich
However, the folks in Reading, Pennsylvania, pronounce their town REED-ing.

Here are some other towns with the same name that are pronounced differently depending on what state you're in:
    • Monticello (Jefferson's home in Virginia): Mont-ih-CHELL-oh
    • Monticello, Minnesota: Mont-ih-SELL-oh
    • Lafayette, Louisiana: Lah-fee-ET
    • Lafayette, Georgia: Luh-FAY-ette
    • Beaufort, South Carolina: BYOO-furt
    • Beaufort, Missouri: BOH-furt
    • Cairo, Egypt: KYE-roh
    • Cairo, Ohio: KAY-roh
But, I should say in response to all of this, that in the case of proper nouns, the correct pronunciation is that which the owner of the name wants you to use. So if the town wants to be called Wilkes-Barrie, then so be it. And if Brett Favre wants to be called Brett Farv, that's correct too.

Oh, and I found out the origin of the name Wilkes-Barre (pronounced Wilkes-BARRIE). It's actually kind of interesting: a thumb to the nose of the British king.
  • Wilkes-Barre was named after two people, John Wilkes and Isaac Barre.
  • Isaac Barre was the son of a French refugee (who probably pronounced his name BAR), and was a lawyer in Dublin, Ireland until he joined the English army in 1746. After various commissions, he was sent to the Colonies (the US, today) in what is now Pennsylvania.
  • John Wilkes was a politician in England who spoke up for the rights of the Colonists.
  • Barre liked what Wilkes stood for and when he went back to England, a Lieutenant-Colonel, he supported Wilkes in a speech to the House of Commons.
  • Barre got dismissed from the Army with loss of his rank and Wilkes lost his seat in Parliament for saying things unpopular with the British government.
  • Back in the fledgling Pennsylvania, the mayor of a just-forming town started referring to his residence in his letters as Wilkesbarre, in honor of his friend and his friend's sympathizer across the ocean.
  • People started writing letters back to England using the name Wilkesbarre, mainly as a way to tick off the English, and the name stuck.

Who knew that Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was the site of such controversy? Yeah, I know. Wilkes-Barrians.

American Heritage Dictionary, Wilkes-Barre
Palmyra, PA, You know you are from Pennsylvania when
City Data, General US Forum
AP News Pronunciation Guide, A-E, E-M, N-Z
Wilkes University, History, Naming Wilkes-Barre


  1. Reading, PA is pronounced RED-ing. FYI.

    Great post.

  2. Yep, it's true. Reading, PA is pronounced "Redding." Therefore so is the Reading Railroad in Monopoly!

  3. I'm moving to the Reading, Pa area so it's good for me to know how to pronounce these words! Here in Michigan, we have a few towns where you can always tell who is visiting by the way they say the names. Milan is said "MY-lan" instead of "Mi-LAHN" and Saline is said "SUH-line" instead of "SAY-line." My husband always laughs when I accidentally speak about my bottle of Suh-line solution.

  4. One of my favorites is Buena Vista, Va which is by the locals pronounced BEE-you-na VEES-ta. And it's the LOO-ray (Luray) Caverns not so far from there, not ler-RAY.

    How is Bala-Cywyd, PA pronounced?

  5. Yup, I know both those towns, Milan and Saline. I never thought much about Saline, but you're right, the emphasis is different.

    There's a public park I know of called Berliner Park, but during WWII they changed the pronunciation to Ber-LYN-er to make people worry less about the whole German thing.

    Bala-Cynwyd in PA is pronounced BAA-la KIN-wood. In Wales, the vowel sound in the CYN is closer to an O.

  6. This just in: Wikipedia has cited this entry as a source about the pronunciation of Lebanon, PA.,_Pennsylvania


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