Plymouth and Cape Cod

Massachusetts is notorious for its peculiar pronunciations, especially of place names. For example, there are Gloucester (GLOSS-TAH) and Worcester (WOO-STAH). And there are confounding inconsistencies:  on Cape Cod, there are opposing pronunciation rules for Chatham (CHATUM) and Eastham (EAST-HAM), two towns within minutes of each other; closer to Boston, the president John Quincy (QUIN-SEE) Adams was born in Quincy (QUINZ-EE). No threat of “a foolish consistency” here.

However, we all know (thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday) not to pronounce Plymouth as PLY-MOUTH but rather to say PLIM-UTH ( /plɪməθ/ in the dictionary). But, a short hop from Plymouth, just over the Sagamore Bridge, there are the Cape Cod towns of Yarmouth and Falmouth. How should we pronounce these town names? Does the Plymouth pattern apply? One would think so since all the towns are close to one another but then there is the example of Chatham and Eastham. So should these Cape Cod towns be pronounced YAH-MUTH and FOUL-MOUTH, whatever?

In point of fact, the Plymouth rule does apply to both names and MUTH wins out and MOUTH loses again. But how can it be that these three towns have such special names, all ending in “mouth”? Mathematically, it’s not really possible that this could happen by pure chance. Mystère.

Since all these towns are on the coast, a first guess is that “mouth” could refer to the place where a mighty river reaches the sea; however, none of these MUTH towns qualify. Towns in New England are typically named for a town or city in Olde England and this turns out to be the case here. An internet search and the mystery is solved: back in England all three namesake towns are at the mouths of rivers. And the names of those rivers?  The Yare, the Fal and (this is the tricky one) the Plym. The Yare flows into the North Sea; the Fal and the Plym go to the English Channel.

Field research has shown that Cape Codders from Yarmouth and Falmouth both are blissfully unaware of all this. For Plymouth, more research is required.

In the end, Falmouth and Yarmouth might have all those beautiful beaches, but Plymouth has that rock .

Weymouth and Dartmouth are left as exercises for the reader.



5 thoughts on “Plymouth and Cape Cod

  1. Hi Ken, checking out your post as promised! Fascinating stuff. Never knew about the rivers in England. In my experience, the Eastham one really gets people.

  2. I’ve lived in Yarmouth my entire life and I’ve been blissfully unaware of the rivers in England!

  3. thanks for at least partially lifting the veil from these geographical mystères … but why did you leave “Fal” / “Plym” / “Yare” shrouded? –

    1. One school of thought is that the river Plym is named for Plympton, literally “plum-tree farm”; Plympton is now a suburb of Plymouth (England). Others trace the name back to Celtic roots. The Fal is likely Celtic (more exactly Cornish) in origin and, as per the internet, “may refer to a prince, or may perhaps refer to a spade or shovel” – your choice. The Yare is likely Celtic in origin as well but Saxon and even Latin names come up as candidates for the root name.

  4. I understand what you are saying but I am one who says EastHAM and ChatHAM, plimMUTH, YarMuth, etc. I pronounce certain things like car as sounding like I came from Boston area even though I was brought up in Western Massachusetts.

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