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Why can't Missouri pronounce its towns right?

Moyan Brenn

  This week CoMo Explained explores some of the more "alternative" pronunciations in Missouri place names.

Missouri, it must be said, has some odd place names. But what's even odder, in our opinion, are the off-pronunciations. There's Nevada--pronounced nev-AY-duh. And there's Versailles--pronounced vehr-SAYLZ. Those are the obvious ones, but the list goes on.

For this week's show, I consulted with Margot Ford McMillan, whose book Paris, Peculiar, and Tightwad is one of the best, most definitive sources on Missouri's odd place names. While there are plenty of states with some funny place names, "we have the gems," said McMillan.

A lot of Missouri's odd pronunciations have to do with the diverse groups that settled here in the early years.

The earliest European explorers in Missouri used Native American guides. They drew maps and picked up a lot of the original Osage names for places, especially rivers. The Mississippi river was named from some of these early encounters. The state itself eventually took a Native American word for its name.

When the French settled Missouri, they founded many of its first towns. St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve and many others all hail back to these earliest times. Because these towns were originally French, the modern pronunciations tend to run true. Auxvasse is a good example of place name one might expect to be corrupted over time. Instead, its modern pronunciation is impressively close to the original French.

The towns with the really conspicuous pronunciations--Nevada, Versailles, and the like--are actually not French in origin at all. Missouri settlement really took off after the Louisiana Purchase when Americans from southern states like Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee migrated to the new state, bringing a lot of their own place names with them.  Some of these towns included Versailles and Paris. Their counterparts are in Kentucky, not Europe.  And in Kentucky, they're pronounced in the same, strange manner they're pronounced here in Missouri.

Then again, maybe we're a little bit harsh. Who can say what the right or wrong way to pronounce a town is? As McMillan recently told me, "Missouri names are pronounced the way they are pronounced" (emphasis most definitely hers).

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