U.S. Town Names You’ve Been Mispronouncing

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The United States is famous for being the world’s melting pot. With so many cultures occupying the same space, it’s no wonder that there are so many hard-to-pronounce town names around the country. Even towns that are close together can have entirely different cultural backgrounds. In a small, 10-mile range in New Jersey, there are Montclair (French), Kearny (Irish), and Newark (English). It’s nearly impossible to get a standardized method of pronunciation in the U.S. If you’re ready for a linguistic adventure, here are nine U.S. town names that you’ve been mispronouncing.

Worcester, Massachusetts

Downtown Worcester at sunset
Credit: Sean Pavone/ Shutterstock

The people of New England have their own special way of speaking. In addition to their strange slang terms, they also like to pronounce words differently than they might read. The best example is the town of Worcester, Massachusetts. Most people would say “Wor-chest-er.” Those people would be called tourists. The correct pronunciation is, for some reason, “Woo-ster.”

Des Moines, Iowa

Downtown Des Moines skyline taken from the capital building
Credit: Paul Brady Photography/ Shutterstock

Since it's a capital city, you’d think that more people would know how to pronounce Des Moines. Yes, there’s an “S” at the end of both words, but you’re not allowed to say them! If you say “Des Moyns,” people are going to make fun of you. The correct pronunciation makes each “S” silent and adds the Midwestern “duh” instead of “de,” so it's simply, “Duh Moyn."

Norfolk, Virginia

The view of Norfolk downtown marina at dusk in Virginia
Credit: Ramunas Bruzas/ Shutterstock

There are several “right” ways to pronounce the name of this Virginian town and “Nor-folk” is not one of them! Locals are very adamant about the exclusion of the “L.” The town’s name is based on the Saxon word “Norfoke,” which means “northern folk.” The pronunciation stayed the same, while the spelling was transformed into English. Acceptable pronunciations include “Naw-fuk,” “Nor-fuk,” and “Naw-fik.” Whatever you do, don’t say the “L."

Lafayette, Louisiana

Lafayette, Louisiana skyline at sunset
Credit: DenisTangneyJr/ iStock

In the 1800s, a woman named Mary Miller found coal on her property. After mining the coal and amassing quite a fortune, Miller decided to use her newfound wealth to establish a new town named Lafayette after her late husband.

Now that Lafayette is a major city instead of a small town, more and more people are saying its name. The problem is that nobody can agree on its correct pronunciation. Most people pronounce it like it’s spelled — “La-fay-ette.” To say the name correctly, you have to get in touch with your inner Cajun. Instead of the “ay” in the middle, use an “ee” sound. The correct pronunciation is “La-fee-ette.”

Helena, Montana

Street view of monument and capitol building in Helena, Montana
Credit: VDB Photos/ Shutterstock

The correct pronunciation of the state capital of Montana isn’t as much about sneaky sounds as it is about emphasis. When reading the name Helena, most people want to put the emphasis in the middle as either “Hel-EE-nah” or “Hel-AY-nah.” Both of these are wrong and Montanans will be sure to point it out to you. The correct pronunciation places emphasis on the first syllable — making the name indisputably “HELL-en-uh.”

Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

Wilkes-Barre skyline with river and bridge in front
Credit: DenisTangneyJr/ iStock

Wilkes-Barre was named after two people who supported the American Revolution: John Wilkes and Issacs Barré. In English, there are no accents in the alphabet, so when the city was named, it dropped the accent on the last “e” — leading to a mess of confusion when it comes to pronunciation. Most people say “Wilks-bar,” but to pronounce it correctly, you need to keep the original accent by saying “Wilks-berry.”

La Jolla, California

Aerial photo of La Jolla on the coast in California
Credit: Art Wager/ iStock

Like many places in California, the town of La Jolla has Spanish roots  — as if the “La” didn’t give it away. While other Spanish-named cities use English pronunciations such as Amarillo (Am-a-rill-oh) in Texas, La Jolla is pronounced like it would be in Spanish with the “J” making an “H” sound and the double “L’s” as a “Y” sound — making it “La Hoy-ah.”

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Aerial view of Sault Ste. Marie town and distant waterways in Michigan
Credit: DanaForeman/ Shutterstock

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan was named after the Virgin Mary by a French missionary. People who took French in high school might remember that Sault is actually pronounced “Soo.” As for the strange “Ste.” before Marie, that’s the feminine abbreviation for the word saint. The correct pronunciation is “Soo-saint-mah-ree,” but most people just call it “The Soo.”

Kissimmee, Florida

Aerial view of Kissimmee, Florida
Credit: Javier_Art_Photography/ iStock

Much like Helena, the city of Kissimmee, Florida is commonly mispronounced — not due to any tricky sounds, but because of which syllables to stress. Most people say “KISS-im-ee" and emphasize the first syllable. That’s a good way to make you stick out among the locals. Instead, place emphasis on the second syllable and use “Ki-SIM-ee."

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