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Why Is ‘Worcester’ Pronounced ‘Wooster’?

Worcestershire is not the only place name to be like this. “Gloucester” and “Leicester” both also have the “-cester” ending that isn’t pronounced like “cester.”

By
Mignon Fogarty,
August 10, 2017
Episode #581

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I lost the name of the person who asked me why we call the fermented sauce we use in Caesar salad, deviled eggs, and bloody marys “Worcestershire sauce,” but it turns out the answer is simple: it was first bottled in Worcester county in west central England. 

Worcestershire pronounced Woostershire

The story goes that a British nobleman came back from a stint at the East India Company with a taste for the sauce and commissioned two local chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, to recreate it for him in the 1830s. Supposedly, Lea and Perrins also made some sauce for themselves, but they didn’t like it at first. They set the jar aside and forgot about it for a while, and when they rediscovered it later and tested it again, they liked the aged version better.

Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce is still made in Worcester, and because the name “Worcestershire sauce” wasn’t trademarked, there are many different kinds of Worcestershire sauces today, many of which are also made in Worcester.

Because the name still refers to the geographic location, we capitalize the word “Worcestershire” in “Worcestershire sauce.”

Why Is ‘Worcester’ Pronounced ‘Wooster’?

If you’re only hearing me pronounce the word in the podcast, it would be nearly impossible for you to guess how it’s spelled based on the pronunciation. It’s pronounced “woo-stuh-sher” but it’s spelled W-O-R-C-E-S-T-E-R-S-H-I-R-E, so more like “whor-ses-ter-shire.” How did the pronunciation become so different from the spelling?

Well, first, it’s not the only place name to be like this. “Gloucester” and “Leicester” both also have the “-cester” ending that isn’t pronounced like “cester.” As some of you may know, in ancient times, England was part of the Rome Empire, and the Romans spoke Latin. That “-cester” ending comes from Latin and means “camp,” so it seems pretty likely that these were areas where Romans set up camp. Since that was in the 4th century, records aren’t perfect, but one map of the era does, for example, show a Roman army encampment in Gloucester.

Vowel Reduction

I couldn’t find an absolute reason that the pronunciations are so different from the spellings, but there is a linguistic phenomenon called vowel reduction that means that unstressed vowels tend to get dropped, and at least in some cases it’s more common in British English than in American English. For example, in American English we say “secretary” and “February,” but in British English, the words are more likely to be pronounced with vowel reductions so they sound like “secretry” and “Februry.” 

Haplology

And there’s another common way that words are shortened that’s at play with “Worcestershire.” It’s called haplology, and it’s the tendency for people to drop a syllable when it’s similar to the syllable next to it. For example, haplology is the tendency that caused the Old English name “Anglaland” to become “England” and the tendency that leads people to pronounce “probably” as “probly,” and linguists believe it may be why the middle “ces” in “WorCEStershire” disappeared, leaving us with “Woostusher.”

Place names in particular seem to be especially prone to shortening. The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics says that the pronunciation of place names is more likely to erode to an abbreviated form than the rest of a language’s words. And A Dictionary of London Place Names gives the example of how a street originally called “Candle-Wright Street” eventually became reduced to “Cannon Street,” although in that case it appears that the spelling eventually changed to reflect the new pronunciation. 

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