Pud a bid of budder on the spuds

Among my many hobbyhorses is an abiding distrust of the way accents distort names. Kayhill and MahONy (that’s Cah-hill and MAhony to us in Ireland) are only two examples of how the broad Atlantic has preserved pronunciations among emigrants that died out back home. Both of the American pronunciations are closer to the original Gaelic Irish (Ó Cathmhaoil and Ó Mathúna) than our present Anglophone versions.

A nice cup of tay

There are lots of other examples. In standard Received Pronuciation “ea” now normally represents an “ee” sound. In Ireland, it has retained its old “ay”. So Tottenham Hotspur and England goal-ace Harry Kane is actually one of the Keanes of Letterfrack. (And so should be playing for Ireland). I’m sure he’s had many a  nice cup of tay at the relatives.  Other examples of the ea/ay shift are Keating (Kaiting), Deane (Dane), Kearney (Carney) and many many more.


In my own family, for years I couldn’t find my grandfather’s birth record. It turns out he was registered as “Grinham”, a pretty accurate phonetic version of the accent of South Roscommon, where eggs are laid by hins and babies use their fingers and toes to count from Wan to Tin.

Peculiarities like this and the slow changes that bring them about are usually so slow as to be invisible. But something is audibly happening at the moment to one of the most characteristic features of Irish pronunciation, the soft hissing “t” or “sibilant fricative” in phonetic terms: The cattt sattt on the matt.

At first I thought the changes I was hearing – Britain becoming “Briddin” and British “Briddish” – were individual newsreaders’ affectations but now I hear them everywhere on Irish radio and TV. And once changes like this start, they’re more contagious than Covid-19.

Alas. A very famous ad for Kerrygold involved an Irish guest-house owner inviting her French guest to “put a bit of butter on the spuds, André”, a seduction that depended entirely on her double-entendre sibilant fricatives. “Pud a bid of budder on the spuds” just won’t do it.

47 thoughts on “Pud a bid of budder on the spuds”

  1. I’ve had difficulty researching my ancestors from County Tyrone due to the variations in spelling of our surname, Duris. The spelling has apparently changed over the years from Duris to Dooris and now finally Doris. Interestingly, in Tyrone today, the surname Doris is often pronounced as ‘Duris.’

    1. My mother’s family name is Malone. When I was checking US Census, couldn’t find Malone,even though I knew where they settled. Finally found my grandfather, Michael Malone listed as “Mackel Maloon”, which is probably how he pronounced it!

    2. My collateral relative in NY chose Patrick Duris as best man in 1881 and as godfather for his child in 1882. Had never seen that name before but he was from Tyrone as I now assume Mr. Duris was .

  2. Interesting. I’ve noticed in the states one of the most annoying things to me is the upswing at the end of every phrase, making it a question. At first I thought this was just a Northwest thing… ‘but now? With our national? Instant connection? Due to high speed internet and so forth? I’ve noticed? That even news anchors across the county talk like this?’ Back to you in the studio, John.

    1. In the U.S. the young are dropping the “t” in the middle of some words. Mountain is now “mao – in” (mao, as in Chairman Mao!). Altho, it might just be a California thing, where I live. I even hear newscasters doing it!

    2. It annoys me to hear the upswing. A sentence is a sentence, not a question! When people around me do it, I say,” Are you asking me, or telling me something?”. It conveys a lack of confidence and is subtlety asking for permission to speak. Knock it off, people!

    3. The “upswing” you mention has been noticed by me in Australia, most particularly because it is a common infliction in Australia and has been for some years now. Here in Oz we call it the “rising inflection” and is considered by some people to indicate rather lower intelligence or learning. The is one example of Australia leading the way that I am NOT proud of.

  3. John Stuart Cochrane left Ballymoney in 1845 and arrived in the Port of New Orleans. From there, he went to Madison County, Alabama where he was sworn in by a local judge as an American citizen. After living with his uncle, William Alexander Cochrane, for a spell, he went to Brooklyn, New York to be near an older brother, David Cochrane.

    After the U.S. Civil War broke out, John Stuart apparently thought that his Alabama citizenship might be in jeopardy and in 1864, he went to a United States Federal Court in New York City to be sworn in again as a U. S. Citizen. This time, according to family lore, he was told that the “e” on Cochrane was no longer necessary and he immediately became John Stuart Cochran.

    Some changes happen immediately and without our consent.

  4. Then, of course, there’s what happened to the Scottish names that moved to Ireland. Mine: Benagh (today in the American South, not Appalachia, BAY-nuh). The original Scots may have been Badenoch. Haven’t a clue how the modern Irish pronounce Benagh Township or Sons of Benagh or the hill. Some folks in the US add a “u” after the “a”. Some double the “e” and sound a hard “g”, turning it into Been-aag or aug. The spellings–OMG! All of this makes it very difficult to trace our roots. All we think we know is that Samuel Benagh, Presbyterian, possibly born in 1760 and possibly married to Elizabeth Robertson, with a son James born in 1795, came to Virginia in the late 1790s.

  5. Hi John,
    I greatly enjoy your postings, but me guess is that you’ve heard that before.

    I spent a couple of weeks in Ireland a number of years ago seeking my grandfather Mahoney family name, only to be told the “we have nobody here by that name”. In one local village I asked that same question only to be met with the same reply. As it happened there was a Mahoney Turf Accountant business across the street and I pointed out that there must be some Mahoney’s in the town and pointed to the shop. The response was, “ah, you mean MAhoney”. I had wasted the best part of 2 weeks asking the wrong question!

    1. Hi Jack: my Great Grandmother Mary Agnes Mahoney always pronounced her surname Mahaney. When he was young my Grandfather pronounced it Mahoney and he said he never forgot the tongue lashing from his mother that it was Mahaney! That branch of my family were from Cork City- at least some records were from Saint Mary’s Church in Cork City. Paula Kirkpatrick Goodale

  6. In names being registered depended on the registrar and the person giving the information, no more so than the name McCoy and McKay. Entries for the same family in County Antrim show this mix in the baptismal register.

  7. My mother was born in Northumberland County, Virginia and the watermen catch “feesh.” Is the word fish pronounced feesh in Ireland? My grandmother had a map of Ireland on her wall and I still haven’t found a record linking my French (surname) family to an Irish immigrant. The name sometimes is spelled France.

  8. My 2x great-grandmother immigrated to Quebec where her Keating name was made into Katin or Catin. The fate of O’Briens was even worse. They became Aubrey.

    Germans suffered also. My Ulrich 5th ggfather turned up as Holleri. Fortunately he could write and after several years I was able to translate his signature!

    1. OBrian/ Aubrey. I was chasing the name Eudaly once for a friend. Irishman moved to France. Then they went to Canada–the French speaking areas. Then to New York. In the process, Patrick O’Daley became Peter Eudaley. Did not make sense until an article mentioned the pronunciation of Eau/Eu in French. Has an “oh” sound. Triggered a memory of French perfume advertisements over the years. Eau de parfum or some such. Eau was pronounced as an “oh” sound. And it has been my observation that French often slurs the last syllable of a word, or drops it completely. So O, Bri an could become Au brey. Does that make sense?

      1. Yes Ted, indeed it would be common in the French language for the last letter to be silent, unless it has a accent on the last letter and the word for water is eau, though the u in French is very difficult for English speakers to pronounce correctly. I am very fluent in the French language and live in Eastern Canada, though I was born and raised in Ireland

        1. Hi Tony. I just thought I’d ask, do you have any Dolans, connected to Kehoes, we have so many surnames in our Irish lines, but struggling to find connections for the past 8 years. We have Dolan, s , wit Ghanans, different spelling of the name. Thankyou

  9. I am trying to break my habit of saying “wahder” for water. Also, I do not like to hear “now” like a meow.

  10. Thanks for this!
    I do like the sibilant T – there’s nothing wrong with it in a local accent. A sister married an Englishman who slagged her about it. (This from Home Counties people who can’t pronounce an “r” – as in “watah”.)
    Eventually a compromise was reached. It’s “buttah” when it’s hard, just out of the fridge, and “butsher” when it’s soft.
    The late Gaybo led an almost single-handed campaign against the soft T. I think that form of excessive articulation is alright for a national news broadcaster, where it needs to be understood by many with different accents or native languages.
    Apart from that, I think it comes from insecurity, a fear of sounding “common” in the old days (and/or too many elocution lessons).

    As long as the message is clear, I’m grand with it (or “grant” even).
    You’re so right – “putshing a bit of butsher on the spuds” just wouldn’t work any other way!

    (My in-laws in the States have to cope with their name being assumed to be Italian, so “KinSELLa” it has to be. Also, while trying to contact my sister through an operator years ago, I kept being asked how to spell “Anne”. Eventually they clicked – “Oh, you mean ENN!”
    I guess I did.)

  11. Thanks for this post, John. I have Miley’s from Roscommon whose name has been spelled a variety of ways in the United States: Mealy, Miely, Mily, etc. It seems to me that the misspellings occurred on documents with the ancestors who were illiterate so they couldn’t correct the spelling — Does this make sense?

    1. Agree Pat because you are a flaherty as is my Julia flaherty b abt 182o annanghdown Galway. That gggrandmother of my was I’m sure illiterate but defended that same spelling of her maiden name and always stressed her married name Burke was “with an e”.

  12. Hi John, My father was Donoghue but he dropped the g and I was born Donohue but went to school as Donahue. His grandfather was Donohoe. I went through life as Donahue in school, the army and two trips to Ireland with a passport saying Donohue. However, two years ago, I think, I could not get a real id because my birth name was wrong. The lady wanted me to become Donohue again in my 80s. A super-intelligent clerk in my home town seeing that my dad had died as Donahue said a mistake was made at my birth and gave me a new birth certificate as Donahue. I got my real id. Jack Donahue

    1. Hi Jack, we having the same problem with surname Donohoe, connected to Wheelan and Kehoes and other surname s. We were looking for the name spelling as your surname,in our Irish lines. Thankyou.

  13. Visited cousins in Ireland and they thought I pronounced Moore funny…like moo-er. They pronounce it as though it rhymes with purr. There you have it.

    1. Hi Cathy, Where I came from, right beside County Laois where the O’Moore/Moore family were the leading family a few hundred years ago, the name is pronounced Moo-er as well. I also went to school with Moores and one of my great great grandmothers was one as well.

  14. Then there is the Scots-Irish MacAvoy, my great grandfather’s name,
    McVey, McVoy, MacAvey, McKay, McAvenny, McEvoy, McEvay.


  15. Love it. Terrific post
    In Australia we say Cah-hill and MAhony now I understand why it is pronounced differently in America.
    I could not find my Keane immigration until I found them under Kaine ( and I have also found, kane and all the rest as well)

  16. Some of my ancestors were called Goan from Tyrone. When explaining the name to people I say pronounce Gowan with a Northern accent and they get it. Very difficult name to research as another spelling is Going or Goin and then they had a priest in the family and it changed to Smith and Smyth. The joys of genealogy. It would be no fun if it was easy.

  17. Hi John, I have the the same problem with the McDonnell name in my family. From the first generation down to my “mudder” it has appeared on Birth and Baptismal Records as McDonnell, MacDonald, MacDonnell and McDonnell.

    1. Hi Jack, we having the same problem with surname Donohoe, connected to Wheelan and Kehoes and other surname s. We were looking for the name spelling as your surname,in our Irish lines. Thankyou.

    1. Hi Mary, a rare name, a few families that I know of live in South Laois. I always heard it as Beg-a-dan or Beg-a-don, no emphasis on any syllable and rattled through quickly!

  18. I have Irish ancestors in County Armagh whose surname is Moan. I’ve been pronouncing it Mo Ann. My great-grandfather’s mother was Margaret (nee Moan) Irwin. On his marriage license, he wrote that her maiden name was Moyne.
    Other people in County Armagh spell their name as Mone, so which is it? HOW is this surname pronounced?

  19. I had a friend who worked in Tourist Information in Shannon Airport. It took her a while to figure out where people wanted to go when they said “Ken-appa-gooey Castle”. But the advent of The Pogues made that one easier, at least. An Irish lecturer I had in college used to decry the way we speak English like Irish here, and Irish like English, when the sounds for each are so different. His favourite example was “I was ating a bun”. He’d have loved your hins.

  20. Very interesting read. Raised in America, I do notice that our pronunciation for ” water” includes the “d” sound, not the “t” sound. Can’t (pronounced aunt) get rid of my Boston accent. Listening to a woman from Michigan who pronounces the word “root” like the “look.” On another note, I often wonder why some areas in Ireland drop the “h” in the word “think. ” Looking at language differences is fun!

  21. Nice post, Mr. Grenham. Thank you.

    An entirely new generation of my ancestral family was revealed with my immigrant ancestor’s US Army enlistment record when I did my best (stereotype) version of an Irish baroque to say the enlistee’s mother’s name, “Carl”, and realized it could be “Carroll”. Voila.

  22. We have in our oneil family from
    Galway the Dooley family. My father pronounced it Duhley so I assume those ancesters of mine did as well

  23. My children would say there is no d in potato Mom but it’s always been puddadas for me. The letter “a” has always challenged me and I have to repeat myself when saying bank, bag etc. I have ancestors on my Mother’s side (Shirley) and Father’s side (McParlan) .

  24. My g grandfather was born about 1836 in County Down, his surname in Wales was always Lindsay, would it have been pronounced any differently in Ireland?

  25. Thanks, John. Your Harry Kane example hit close to home, as I have Keanes in my line. It got me to musing about the sophistication of the various search engines, and whether my search for Keane is likely to return Kane, Cain, etc., or McDonnell will return McDonald as well. My guess is that there will be a high degree of variability across platforms. Any thoughts on this point?

    1. ‘Variability’ is an understatement. I always use wildcards where possible – just replace the vowels (where accents live) with *

  26. My Irish family was Mulholland . It morphed to McHallam, according to a Mulholland it had all to do with pronunciation. One group used McCallam for a few years. It is very interesting, my father grew up using both spellings.

  27. Was just wandering the “search engines” with variants of my ancestor’s name based on just that= phonetic deviations. Sarah Clea (looked at CLAY, Clee, etc.) But I’m leaning toward Clay as the variant that may help me to trace her… Appreciated the blog.

  28. I took me awhile to figure out how Barron was sometimes Barnes on records in the U.S. Then I thought of my ancestor, with his/her Irish accent, telling the census taker in New York their name and it came to me. Some of the family adopted the Barnes spelling. I’ve even seen the same person listed in Syracuse city directories twice, under both names.
    John your right, get rid of the vowels when searching even if the spelling seems obvious. I have to remember that!

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