Posted by: Jack Henry | August 18, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Worcester

Just the other day I received an email asking me how to pronounce Worcestershire, followed up with the question “Why is it pronounced that way?” Pronunciation questions are tough, since we do a blog rather than a podcast. I’ve been debating how I would handle this, and then the internet genie answered my wish in the form of an email article from Grammar Girl. Thank you, genie o’ mine!

From Grammar Girl’s podcast:

Why Is ‘Worcester’ Pronounced ‘Wooster’?

I lost the name of the person who asked me why we call the fermented sauce we use in Caesar salad, deviled eggs, and bloody marys “Worcestershire sauce,” but it turns out the answer is simple: it was first bottled in Worcester county in west central England.

If you’re only hearing me pronounce the word in the podcast, it would be nearly impossible for you to guess how it’s spelled based on the pronunciation. It’s pronounced “woo-stuh-sher” but it’s spelled W-O-R-C-E-S-T-E-R-S-H-I-R-E, so more like “whor-ses-ter-shire.” How did the pronunciation become so different from the spelling?

Well, first, it’s not the only place name to be like this. “Gloucester” and “Leicester” both also have the “-cester” ending that isn’t pronounced like “cester.” As some of you may know, in ancient times, England was part of Rome, and the Romans spoke Latin. That “-cester” ending comes from Latin and means “camp,” so it seems pretty likely that these were areas where Romans set up camp. Since that was in the 4th century, records aren’t perfect, but one map of the era does, for example, show a Roman army encampment in Gloucester.

Vowel Reduction

I couldn’t find an absolute reason that the pronunciations are so different from the spellings, but there is a linguistic phenomenon called vowel reduction that means that unstressed vowels tend to get dropped, and at least in some cases it’s more common in British English than in American English. For example, in American English we say “secretary” and “February,” but in British English, the words are more likely to be pronounced with vowel reductions so they sound like “secretry” and “Februry.”


And there’s another common way that words are shortened that’s at play with “Worcestershire.” It’s called haplology, and it’s the tendency for people to drop a syllable when it’s similar to the syllable next to it. For example, haplology is the tendency that caused the Old English name “Anglaland” to become “England” and the tendency that leads people to pronounce “probably” as “probly,” and linguists believe it may be why the middle “ces” in “WorCEStershire” disappeared, leaving us with “Woostusher.”

Place names in particular seem to be especially prone to shortening. The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics says that the pronunciation of place names is more likely to erode to an abbreviated form than the rest of a language’s words. And A Dictionary of London Place Names gives the example of how a street originally called “Candle-Wright Street” eventually became reduced to “Cannon Street,” although in that case it appears that the spelling eventually changed to reflect the new pronunciation.

Finally, going back to the beginning and thinking about the deviled eggs that I mentioned also made me wonder why we call them “deviled.” Is it like “french fries” where the word “french” means to cut something in long strips and is completely different from the country name?

Nope. Deviled eggs are about as straightforward as “Worcestershire sauce.” Deviled foods are made with hot, spicy seasonings such as pepper and paprika, and the name is just a nod to the idea that the devil is often associated with fire.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

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