ASK DR. BOLI.

Dear Doctor Boli: I have a question for a language expert like yourself who is also an expert on all things Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I was at my local grocery store the other day and happened to pick up a bottle of bottled water. I was intrigued by its claim to be “Naturally Alkaline” water from protected underground springs, as alkaline springs such as those found in the Southwestern USA are generally considered undrinkable bordering on poisonous. And a “protected underground spring” is probably marketing-speak for “an artesian well”.

But stupid bottled-water marketing hogwash aside, what really intrigued and annoyed me was the fact that they claimed their source to be in the “Allegany Mountains” of the NY/PA border region. I’d always seen that particular bunch of hills as the “Allegheny Mountains”, to match the Allegheny River and Allegheny County, so I wanted to check with you.

Looking at the bottled water company’s website I linked above, I am amused and horrified to see them spell that mountain range no fewer than three different ways in the space of a single paragraph: Allegany Mountains, Alleghany Mountains, and The Alleghenies. Which if any of these is most correct or the preferred spelling for people actually from that region, and not from a marketing company based in L.A. or some other area that lumps everything between the Sierra Nevadas and the Catskills as merely “Flyover Country”? —Martin the Mess.

Dear Sir: Pittsburgh is the seat of Allegheny County, and the river is generally spelled Allegheny as well.

Cumberland, the Queen City of the Potomac and the metropolis of western Maryland, is the seat of Allegany County. Belmont (New York) is also the seat of an Allegany County, although the river is still usually—but not always—spelled “Allegheny” in the Southern Tier of New York State.

Covington in Virginia is the seat of Alleghany County, and Sparta in North Carolina is also the seat of an Alleghany County.

The pronunciation of all three spellings is the same, and all three spellings are derived from the same Indian name. One could construct a neat narrative to account for the different spellings thus: Pittsburgh began as a French outpost, and the spelling “Allegheny” is the best approximation of the name to French phonetic laws; the English simply took it from the French along with the smoldering ruins of Fort Duquesne. “Allegany” is the obvious English spelling of the same name, used in areas that were first settled by the English. “Alleghany” is a sort of compromise, in which the increasing dominance of Pittsburgh as the gateway to the West encouraged natural pedantry to insert an H in the local spelling.

All this may be true, but we should be less than honest if we did not note that the French are at least not responsible for the name of the Allegheny River. The maps they made of Fort Duquesne show that they considered the Allegheny and Ohio to be the same river, called “Ohio” or “La Belle Rivière” for its entire length, with the Monongahela flowing into it at Fort Duquesne.

We may therefore fall back on a simpler explanation: the correct spelling is “Allegheny,” but people in Appalachia are very poor spellers.

The label of your bottled water is perhaps some marketer’s attempt to please everybody at once. If one must choose a spelling, however, one might point out that the population of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania is about a million and a quarter, whereas the best any of the Alleganies and Alleghanies can muster is about 75,000.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the info! I shoulda guessed it was a French/English transliteration problem, coming as I do from Illinois, another place named by the English taking the French spelling of an Indian word neither of them could pronounce correctly.

    But speaking of odd French pronunciations, how DOES one properly pronounce Fort Duquesne? It’s one of those words I’ve seen written a million times, but never actually heard anyone speak aloud.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      We pronounce it “Doo-KAYNE.” The French would put a bit more effort into the first u to make it into a sound that no English-speaking mouth can form, but they would recognize it in the Pittsburgh pronunciation. The name “Duquesne” is much used around here—it is a bridge, a boulevard, a city in the Monongahela valley, a beer, a university, and so on—because it is one of our clever traps for foreign-born radio and television announcers, who tend to come out with something like “Doo-KWEZ-nee.” But it is not as effective a trap as the river Youghiogheny, which flows into the Monongahela at McKeesport. No outsider can guess the pronunciation of that name, even when we shorten it to “Yough.” If you promise to keep it under your hat (or locked in a bureau drawer somewhere), Dr. Boli will reveal that secret to you as well: we say “Yock-oh-GAY-nee,” or “Yock” for short.

      • Thanks muchly, I’d been mentally approximating it as something like “du-SCHAYNE”, which was fairly obviously wrong. Here in Illinois, we infamously mispronounce most of our French-derived placenames, such as Versailles (Ver-SAYLES), Des Plaines (DESS-Playnes), and Cairo (KAY-Row). I know the last one there is technically not French, but we manage to blame them for our mangling of it nonetheless.

      • markm says:

        I learned that “Duquesne” is pronounced “Doo-KAYNE” from the villian in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s book The Skylark of Space. More recently, the blond forensic technician on CSI Miami is Kelly Duquesne.

  2. Sean says:

    Now, if at every junction, we maintained the name of the larger river, all the way up to the smallest navigable waterway, both Pittsburgh and New Orleans would be on the Tygart Valley River.

  3. James says:

    Don’t forget: Du Bois, PA [DOO-boyce] and Charleroi, PA [SHAR-la-roy], both with very hard “Picksburgh” accents on the first syllable.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Dr. Boli remembers a story he heard from a visitor from Ohio who had become interested in the French and Indian War. She was visiting famous battlefields, and one of the ones on her list was Jumonville. But she could not find the place, and the locals were baffled by her inquiries, even though she pronounced the French with scrupulous exactness—until one of them lit up and exclaimed, “Oh, you mean Juh-MAWN-vill!”

  4. markm says:

    I’m a northern Michigander. While we have many names of French origin and dubious pronunciation, what stands out is the Straits of Mackinac, crossed by the Mackinac bridge, both pronounced MACK-i-naw. Most other references to this area are spelled and pronounced Mackinaw – the city, an island in the middle of the straits and the fort on it, the US Coast Guard ice-breaker, and a type of sailing canoe. But the older pre-revolutionary fort on the mainland by Mackinaw City is Fort Michilimackinac, pronounced MISH-il-i-MACK-i-NACK.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      What makes Mackinac as “MACK-i-naw” doubly odd is that C is an exceptional letter in French: it is almost always pronounced on the end of a word, as in avec or chic or Chirac or Québec. The Wikipedia article on Mackinac Island derives the name from a tribe called Mi-shi-ne-macki naw-go, which is the obvious ancestor of the name of the fort; one can easily see how different shortenings of that name would lead to both “Mackinaw” and “Mackinack” (with the C on the end pronounced). Without researching the history of the place (which would be work), Dr. Boli would guess that there were originally two pronunciations of the name, and that, after the spelling of Mackinac was fixed, the irresistible force of ignorant pedantry matched the pronunciation to that of nearby Mackinaw. Perhaps you, with superior local facilities, can sort out the mystery for us.

  1. […] the Mess writes, on the subject of French-derived place names, “Here in Illinois, we infamously mispronounce most […]

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