If you’re a New Yorker walking the streets of Manhattan, you know there are a few things that tip you off immediately that you’re in the presence of tourists. No, it’s not that they’re the only ones looking up at the skyscrapers to take pictures—locals sometimes do that, too—and it’s not that they’re the only ones gawking at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The truth is that aside from being the only people carrying shopping bags from the Hard Rock Café, they’re the only ones who ask directions to “HEW-ston Street.”
In New York City, “Houston” is pronounced “HOW-ston,” and mispronouncing this vital artery’s name is akin to blasphemy.
Across the United States, cities have been named in other languages, for long-dead war heroes, and for reasons that have become so obscure, we can’t even remember them. The result of all this linguistic commingling is that you’re bound to make a phonetic faux pas just about anywhere you go. But before you go road-tripping this family-vacation season, read up on some of the worst offenders, because pronouncing these names correctly is the best way to not be branded as a fanny pack–wearing, camera-toting, map-reading tourist.
Helena, Montana: Pronounced HELL-e-na, not Hel-AY-na.
Spokane, Washington: Pronounced Spo-CAN, not Spo-CANE.
Worcester, Massachusetts: Pronounced WUSS-ter.
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: Pronounced WILKES-Barry, not Wilkes-BAR.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Pronounced LANG-caster, not LAN-CAS-ter.
Waukesha, Wisconsin: Pronounced WAH-kee-SHA, not Wah-KEE-sha.
Coxsackie, New York: Pronounced Cook-SOCK-ee, and not, um, phonetically.
Sequim, Washington: Pronounced without the e, like Squim.
Toledo, Ohio: Pronounced To-LEE-do, not like the Spanish To-LAY-do.
Sault St. Marie, Michigan: Pronounced SOO Saint Marie, not SALT Saint Marie.
Quitaque, Texas: Pronounced KIT-a-kwa, not KWIT-a-kway.
La Jolla, California: Pronounced not phonetically, but rather as La HOY-a.
Puyallup, Washington: Pronounced Pew-AL-lup, with a short a, as in cat.
In order to perfectly pronounce the name of every state, town, village, city, and person in this country, you’d need to know all the peculiar linguistic peccadilloes that plague our nation. Some cities with French or Spanish names, like Pend Oreille, Washington (pronounced “Pond Oray”), hold on to their original pronunciation, while others, like Amarillo, Texas, or Montpelier, Vermont, favor an Anglicized version. Some places with identical spellings pronounce things differently on a whim, as evidenced by the fact that you’d never go to Texas and ask for directions to “How-ston.” And some cities haven’t even settled on a proper pronunciation: Washingtonians still can’t agree whether to pronounce “Yakima” as “YAK-i-ma” or “YAK-i-MAW.”
Mispronouncing place names is an affliction that can be cured only with study and travel, but even if you make a terrible mistake and irrevocably brand yourself as a tourist, the locals will usually take pity on you and kindly offer directions to the nearest bar.