Sunday, July 9, 2023

How to Correctly Pronounce Names Like Cabell, Dunsany, Machen, Powys and Tolkien

The Literary Digest was a weekly American magazine published by the Funk & Wagnalls Company of New York. It began in 1890, and by mid 1937 it was evidently stumbling, for in February 1938 it folded.  One of its editors in the 1930s had responsibility for a filler column called “What’s the Name, Please?” This editor, Charles Earle Funk, wrote to various prominent or up-and-coming people with names that could be easily mispronounced, asking them how their name should be pronounced. A number of the responses appeared in issues of The Literary Digest, and the column was reportedly popular. Funk decided to make a book of the responses, including names which were yet expected to appear in the future issues of The Literary Digest. The book was titled What’s the Name, Please? A Guide to the Correct Pronunciation of Current Prominent Names, published by Funk & Wagnalls Company in May 1936.  A second printing came out in June, but the overall sales were evidently small, for the book is rare today.

A number of writers of fantasy with easily mispronounced names appear in the book.  (I do not know if their notes ever appeared in The Literary Digest.) Here are the entries for James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, John Cowper Powys, and J.R.R. Tolkien.  

I've written about the pronunciation of Cabell previously on this blog, here

Here's is Lady Dunsany's reply:

Arthur Machen's entry (which crosses over two pages) also includes notes on the American J. Gresham Machen, who had a different pronunciation of his last name:

John Cowper Powys's entry includes his brother Llewellyn Powys:

And it seems early for Tolkien (here, in the never-used form of "John R.R. Tolkien") to have appeared in such a formulation. When Funk's book was published in May 1936, Tolkien was six months from delivering his landmark British Academy lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, and The Hobbit wouldn't be published in England until September 1937, and in the U.S. in March 1938.





  1. A very nice find, Doug. I think I'd heard Rayner Unwin pronounce JRRT's name with the accent on the second syllable, so it is good to see the man himself directing us aright in a contribution -- hitherto not recorded? -- to a reference book.

    Dale Nelson

  2. I'm rather fogged
    about van Vogt
    Some have talked
    of van Vaukt
    But maybe it ought
    to be van Vought
    And surely it's not
    van Vott?

    - Walt Willis, Slant #1 (1948)

    1. Ah, David, but this ditty doesn't tell us which pronunciation is correct!

  3. The Dunsanys were free to pronounce their name how they liked, but as their ancestors took it from a placename in Ireland it should be noted that it is Dunsany with the emphasis on the first syllable, which shortens the second syllable from a long 'ay' to a short 'e'/'eh' sound.

    1. The people who live at that place pronounce it the same way as His Lordship did.

    2. (anonymous 1st to anonymous 2nd) You're right ! Just checked that on Egg on my face.

    3. Some pieces of folklore on Dunsany;