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Geography

Are You Mispronouncing the Names of These U.S. Cities?

By Daily Passport Team
Read time: 7 minutes

We get it: “Worcester” really does look like it ought to be pronounced “war-chester,” and many agree that the city in Washington state should sound like “spo-CANE.” But, alas, spoken language is a mutable and non-empirical thing. And when talking about the proper, correct pronunciation of place names — especially tricky ones — the locals always know best. But fear not: Avoid embarrassment and eye-rolls by learning how to pronounce these nine commonly mispronounced U.S. cities.

Schenectady, New York

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Upstate New York has its fair share of hard-to-pronounce names, like Canandaigua (“Cannon-DAY-gwuh”) or Skaneateles (“Skinny-ATLAS”). Schenectady might take the cake, though. Pronounced by a native New York state resident, the name sounds like “Skin-ECK-tah-dee.” Pronounced by anyone else, it might sound more like “Shen-ekt-ADDY.” The original name of the Dutch settlement at present-day Schenectady was even more complicated. The local Mohawk tribe called the area Schau-naugh-ta-da, a phrase meaning “over the pine plains.”

It’s worth getting the name right, however, because Schenectady is one of upstate New York’s most historic cities. Wander the streets of the city’s Stockade Historic District, which features houses and buildings dating back to the 17th century. Take in views of the Mohawk River or spend an afternoon in the city’s own Central Park. Schenectady is also a part of the metropolitan area of Albany, making it a great day trip if you’re visiting the New York capital.

Spokane, Washington

A picture of the city of Spokane perched on a small bank overlooking a rushing river
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It’s not “Spo-CANE” — those in the know say “Spo-CAN.” The second-largest city in Washington is outdoorsy with plenty of skiing, hiking, rafting, and more both in and around the city. It’s always earning titles like “Bicycle-Friendly Community” and “Tree City U.S.A.” As the home to more than 40 arts organizations, the city allows you to balance your athletic outdoor life with your creative side.

Although Washington has a reputation for being rainy, Spokane is on the east side of the state and receives far less precipitation every year than on the coast. For example, Seattle gets about 37 inches of rain a year compared to Spokane’s less than 17 inches.

Spokane was incorporated as a city in 1881 and was originally called “Spokan Falls.” Two years later, the founding folks decided to make the name simpler by taking off the “Falls” part and simultaneously make pronunciation more confusing by adding an ‘e.’

Worcester, Massachusetts

A picture of a city street leading up to an illuminated bell tower at night
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If phonics taught you anything, the name of this Massachusetts city must be “WAR-sess-ter” or maybe, “WAR-chest-er” like the sauce. Contrary to your expectations though, “WUSS-ter” is the correct pronunciation. Located near Boston, Worcester proudly calls itself the “most vibrant and livable mid-size city in the country” according to central Massachusetts’ official tourism page. More than 180,000 residents seem to agree. Despite its size, the city boasts nine colleges and universities.

Visitors will love the excellent museums and exploding dining scene. The entire area is lush and green, and with Boston barely an hour away, it’s the perfect day trip from the big city. The area is apparently well-known for its unique settlement names since nearby Leicester is pronounced “LESS-ter” — if you ever want to say it out loud.

Louisville, Kentucky

A picture of downtownLouisville, featuring several restaurants and a pedestrian area
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Don’t even think about enunciating that one ‘s’! Depending on who you’re talking to and where they’re from, you’ll hear the city of Louisville, Kentucky pronounced a variety of ways. And if there’s a Louisville in your state, it’s probably pronounced differently anyway like Louisville, Colorado.

The city in Kentucky is called “LOO-a-vul.” “LOO-a-ville” may also be acceptable, but “LOO-ee-ville” or “LOO-iss-ville” (à la Colorado) could earn you an eye roll. This is a good one to practice, though, because it may come up in conversation. Louisville is the biggest city in Kentucky. It’s home of the Kentucky Derby and the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats. The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory is a fun stop for baseball fans — you can even take a few swings yourself and see the signatures of the many players who signed Slugger contracts.

Alternatively, if you follow NCAA men’s basketball, you’re bound to talk about the University of Louisville since the school is consistently ranked in the top 25 and has made many Final Four appearances.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

A picture of a small peninsular jutting into a large lake featuring rolling, pine tree covered hills
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And you thought Boise was tough enough. (That’s “BOYS-ee,” not “BOYS”.) Just 30 miles from Spokane, “Core-duh-LANE” is all about that ski life in the winter and that lake life in the summer. And just like Spokane, the city is named after a regional Native American tribe.

If you’ve been spending time on Duolingo and you’re thinking “Coeur d’Alene” sounds a lot more French than Native American, you’re right. Coeur d’Alene was the name given to the tribe by French traders. It means “heart of an awl” and is a nod to the tribe’s trading skills and business dealings. In the original tribal language, they called themselves “Schitsu’umsh.” So, if the city had gotten that name instead, it still would have made this list.

Norfolk, Virginia (Not Norfolk, Nebraska)

A tall steeple overlooking several red brick homes on a tree-lined street
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Now, you may be thinking, Why would I ever need to say Norfolk, Nebraska? It’s got fewer than 25,000 people. But just in case, you should know it’s pronounced “NOR-Fork,” as in the North Fork River, where it got its name. It went through several spelling suggestions before locals settled on the one that made the least sense.

Norfolk, Virginia is a world away in terms of both geography and pronunciation. You’re more likely to find yourself in this Norfolk, a city of about 245,000. Unfortunately, this city’s pronunciation isn’t completely agreed upon. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper dug up material from the Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity, a book by William S. Forrest, which claims “NOR-foke” is the correct way to say it. Locals often utter “NAW-foke.” Best practices? Say it fast and hope for the best, or at least be ready to reference the work of William S. Forrest.

Boerne, Texas

A picture of tall, bare-trunk trees growing out of a watery bog
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Roughly 22 miles from San Antonio, the city of Boerne, Texas is often so mispronounced by visitors that even the official city website offers an audio clip to clear things up. That’s some fine Texas hospitality right there. (Unlike most every other hard-to-pronounce city’s website we’ve come across, which offer no assistance to the word-conscious traveler.)

No, it’s not “BORN.” Instead, it’s “BER-nie.” Boerne is located in the often-overlooked Texas wine country. But wine tastings are only the beginning. Proximity to easy-to-pronounce Austin and San Antonio aside, Boerne will keep you busy with hiking, horseback riding, good barbecue, the AgriCultural Museum, and more.

Des Moines, Iowa

A picture of the Des Moines state capitol building illuminated with lights at night
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It’s not “Dez-Moy-nez.” The Iowan capital gets its name from the nearby Des Moines River, and both city and river are properly pronounced “Duh-MOYN.” Yes, the name is derived from the French. However, we don’t know exactly what it refers to.

Des Moines is home to a growing cultural scene and gorgeous outdoor spaces. For a quintessential Great Plains experience — complete with 4-H livestock, carnival rides, and more fried food than you can shake a stick at — check out the Iowa State Fair in the summer. Year-round, you can also explore the city’s wealth of parks along various rivers or check out the indy shops and restaurants of the East Village neighborhood near the gold-domed capitol building.

La Jolla, California

A picture of purple flowers growing along a beach with rolling waves
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“Luh-joh-la,” “La Holla,” “Lah Jolly” — residents of this San Diego community have heard it all. Make their day with your perfect pronunciation of “La-HOY-yuh.” Known as the city’s “Jewel by the Sea,” La Jolla is the perfect addition to any beach lover’s itinerary. Explore the rugged coastline along the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, swim or snorkel in the warm Pacific waters, or hang out with the seals along the coast. If you time your visit right, you might even catch sight of migrating whales.

You can also explore the city’s myriad upscale boutiques and cafes or play a round at the renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course. Feeling intellectual? Check out the campus of the University of California – San Diego in La Jolla, with its Brutalist Geisel Library, named for one of the area’s most beloved residents, Theodor Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss.

Featured image credit: Michael Shannon/Unsplash

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