One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 8, Number 1
January 2000

Years ago I ventured forth from the friendly confines of my native Virginia to seek more education, the result of which I hopefully anticipated, would lead to at least a modicum of fame and fortune. While the latter two consequences never really materialized, my education was broadened considerably, and I learned a lot about things that had never entered my mind. As luck would have it, I happened to be the only Southerner and Virginian among a group of fellow graduate students, all from the North or Midwest. My companions soon informed me that I talked “funny,” and they took great delight in encouraging the “Reb” in their midst to talk endlessly in his native tongue which they found very entertaining. Numerous late-night sessions over a plentiful supply of adult beverages greatly facilitated our conversations no end, and we all had a good time.

These encounters convinced me that Virginia speech and vocabulary did, indeed, differ significantly from other sections of the country, most notably the Northeast. The Virginia dialect was also distinctive in its pronunciation. In place of New England’s harsh, rapid, rasping, metallic whine, Virginia’s speech was a soft, slow, melodious drawl that came not from the nose but the throat. Virginians tended to add syllables where New Englanders subtracted them. Vowel sounds were prolonged, embellished, and softened as in ha-lf for half, gyarden for garden, posture for pasture, off-tah for after, and so on. To understand these unique speech and vocabulary patterns, on needs to know that the vast majority of the early settlers of Virginia originated in the south and west of England. As a consequence, when these folk immigrated to Virginia, they simply brought their culture with them. There are, of course, words and place names used in Virginia that were not brought from England. Indian words like: Powhatan, Appomattox, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Totopotomoy, Rappahannock, and Shenandoah are a few examples of such non-English words which figured prominently in the Civil War.

And then, there are the family names. Bob Krick gives a classic example from the Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier General Lewis Armistead commanded a brigade of Pickett’s division in the famous charge at Gettysburg. He was immortalized by leading his men over the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge while waving his black felt hat above his head on the point of his sword. As Bob points out, the name Armistead was pronounced at some variance from obvious phonetic version in typical Virginia fashion: Armistead thus became Um’sted, with the middle i clearly being silent. Another version is Um’sta-ed. (By the way, my spell-checker picked up Armistead as a misspelling and suggested in its place the word Armpits. That’s going too far!)

Another well-known Virginia family is the Brockenbroughs—as in the artilleryman Major John Bowyer Brockenbrough, and Colonel John Mercer Brockenbrough of the 40th Virginia—the name being pronounced as follows: “Brock” becomes Broke and “brough” rhymes with throw—like Broken-in-bro! Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford of Fitz Lee’s Cavalry was called Mumford; and the numerous Carters in the Confederate army were frequently identified as Ca’ah-tahs by the Virginia gentry.

How about Major General Henry Heth, the general who precipitated the Battle of Gettysburg, and who is said to have the distinction of being the only officer in the Army of Northern Virginia whom Lee addressed by his given name? His family name was pronounced as Heath, or Heeth. General Benjamin Huger, one of the commanders in the Peninsula Campaign of early 1862, and a descendant of French Huguenots, pronounced his name U’gee. Finally, there is ultimate Virginia dialectical anomaly in the name of Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro. Not English, but of Florentine origin, the name so twisted Virginia tongues that the descendants were always called Toliver in the Tidewater.

There were two Confederate generals named Garnett, both of whom died in battle. Richard Brooke Garnett, who had trouble getting along with Stonewall Jackson, was killed at Gettysburg. His cousin Robert Selden Garnett, the first general to died on the battlefield during the war, was killed on the Cheat River in what is now West Virginia. The two men were descendants of an old distinguished Virginia family, and according to Bob Krick, the name should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable as Garn’ett—rhymes with darn’it.

The literature of Civil War campaigns and battles in Virginia is also filled with numerous examples of peculiar place names and localities which have unique pronunciations. Two examples come immediately to mind, the names of both being derived from old Virginia families. The first is Fauquier County in Northern Virginia, the scene of many battles during the war, which is pronounced Fawkeer. The other is Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg where Ambrose Burnside was brutally repulsed in December of 1862 during the Battle of Fredericksburg, and where Mary Washington College is now located. The family name Marye is correctly called Maree‘s or Marie‘s.

Finally, how many times have you heard the question about the origin of the name “Cold Harbor”? Today Cold Harbor is nothing more than several houses at the intersection of three roads in Hanover County. In June of 1864, however, it was the scene of a bloody confrontation between Lee and Grant, and where Lee was to win his last battle of the war. But, what is a “Cold Harbor”? According to the “Word Book of Virginia Speech,” a Cold-harbour is a protection at a wayside for travellers who are benighted, where they found shelter and a lodging place; no food was supplied, but means to cook what the traveller had; he used his own bedding, and feed might be had for his animals. Such places were established by the Romans on their military roads in England, and occupied by travelers until inns were use. Sounds like an early version of a Motel 6 to me!

This is just a sampling of some of the names and places in Virginia with interesting pronunciations and derivations. If you know others, let me know.