All Systems Van Gogh” was the headline in the US online magazine Air Mail. It was published to tie-in to a new touring exhibition.

It’s a clever pun, but it’s lost on Americans. The British pronounce Van Go, which is the American pronunciation of Van Go.

Both are, of course, wrong. I discovered it several years ago that the Dutch, who know it best, pronounce it as ‘Fun Khokh’. Each ‘kh’ is pronounced like in ‘loch’.

Who knows? Maybe the Dutch way of saying it sounds too corny to English-speaking ears. This is why the Americans, British and others prefer to modify it.

Even though I know that I shouldn’t say “Van Goff”, it’s what I do. It’s what I’m used to and what other people have come accustomed to. 

All Systems Van Gogh' ran the headline in US magazine Air Mail, to tie-in with a new touring exhibition (pictured in Hong Kong). It's a good pun, but lost on those who are not American

All Systems Van Gogh’ was the headline in US magazine Air Mail to tie-in to a new touring exhibit (pictured in Hong Kong). It’s a clever pun, but it’s lost on Americans.

Degas is still pronounced Degas ‘Daygar,’ to rhyme with radar. I did however learn that Degas should be pronounced as ‘Duhgar’. Some people insist that the last’s’ should be silent.

It is hard to resist the pressure to conform when it comes to pronunciation. 

Everyone used to say the last syllable of Edward Elgar like it was’sugar’. But now everyone emphasizes the ‘gar’ to rhyme to far. We’d be laughed at if we didn’t.

This is why I always admired a great-aunt of mine who lived in Majorca, and insisted on pronouncing it exactly as it is written — Maj to rhyme with cadge, followed by ‘or’ to rhyme with door — rather than Mee-yor-ka, which is how most Britons say it, imagining themselves cosmopolitan.

My great-aunt explained that the Spanish spell it Mallorca and pronounce it Maryor-ka. However, we Brits spell it Majorca so we should pronounce it accordingly.

It was difficult to understand the Spanish pronunciation. It was worse than calling it “Mee-yorka”, as it was neither one nor the other.

The English language is full booby traps that are designed to embarrass those who aren’t careful. 

Many of our place names were not spoken in the original spelling until recently.

Hergest Ridge is Mike Oldfield’s follow up album to Tubular Bells. Its title comes from Hargest, the hill at the border of England & Wales.

The majority of these pronunciations have been abandoned except by the upper classes who like to show their exceptionality. A few people still use ‘weskit’ for ‘waistcoat’ or ‘goff’ for ‘golf’.

The English language is full of booby traps. Many of our place names were, until quite recently, never spoken as they were spelt, among them Cirencester (pictured in 2016) and Daventry

There are many booby traps in the English language. Many of our placenames were not spoken the way they were spelled until very recently.

Posh surnames can be a trap for those not familiar with the whimsy of the well-to do. Thus, you will need to learn how to pronounce Cecil to rhyme by whistle, Featherstonehaugh “Fanshawe” and Cholmondeley “Chumley”. I like to imagine that they feed their labradors Pedigreecholm.

America is, however, just as dangerous in many ways. Arkansas is Arkinsaw. La Jolla and La Hoya are La Jolla. Yosemite is Yosem-ite. Schenectady, Schenectady, and Poughkeepsie are Ski-nek. 

Mexia, Texas is correctly pronounced Muhhay-yer. But its citizens are very open-minded to outsiders. The official slogan of the city is “A great place to call home, regardless of how you pronounce it.”

The American ruling classes can be as snobbish and petty as the English. Diana Vreeland, fashion guru and style guru, decided that she wasn’t quite wealthy enough to change the pronunciation of her christian names to ‘Dee-ah’.

Margaret Thatcher’s classmates used snigger at her father’s Lincolnshire pronunciation of ‘ew’ (‘a foo noo pooils this year’). 

The Kennedy clan in America was just as bad. They held JFK’s vice president Lyndon B. Johnson hostage in what Robert Caro, Robert Caro’s biographer, called ‘a contempt remarkable with its depth, intensity, and severity’.

The Kennedys made fun of Johnson’s Texas-born inexperience and, when he left the room they tried to imitate his mispronunciation of ‘hors D’oeuvres’.

Times change. In living memory, it was correct to drop the “h” from all kinds words, but keep it in other words. 

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage 1926 edition advises that it is almost as bad as not to sound the h of Hunt and hurt and his in the sentence “Hunt has injured his head”.

Today, anyone who said “Hunt is as hurt as head” would be laughed at. We are all floating on the seas of time. Every time someone says “vulnerable” instead of “vulnerable”, I wince. But I know that in a few decades, I will be the sad old fuddy duddy.