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Texas USA

Texas Tongue Twisters

From BEW-da to eye-ruh-ANN, here’s a guide guaranteed to keep you out of the pronunciation doghouse

Years ago, I worked as a newspaper editor in the back-then rural community of Buda just south of Austin. Whenever I had questions, I’d phone Annette at city hall. She kept me straight on local names and happenings. But most important, she taught me how to say Buda.

“Just remember—beau-tiful BEW-da,” she said. Her advice stuck. I never embarrassed myself in public.

That’s not to say I haven’t in other towns and places across Texas. Sure, I’m a native Texan, but that doesn’t make a hill of beans of difference when it comes to talking Texan. After all these years, I’ve concluded that unless you’re “from around there,” chances are you won’t say the name “right.” Even when the name looks easy. Say, for instance, Manchaca (MAN-shack), just north of Buda.

Or Leakey (LAY-key), Hico (HI-ko), Palestine (PAL-us-teen), Fulshear (FUL-shur), Eldorado (el-duh-RAY-doe). Try Gruene (green), Boerne (BER-nee), Llano (LAN-o), Bexar County (bear) and Joaquin (waw-KEEN).

How about Tow (rhymes with cow), Burnet (BURN-it), Tivoli (tie-VO-luh), Weesatche (WEE-sash), Humble (um-BULL), Waxahachie (wawks-uh-HATCH-ee) and Montague (mahn-TAG)?

Frustrated yet? Don’t fret. Help’s available online. Visit where travel writer John Bigley pronounces 106 Texas locales. Also, check out the online Texas Almanac pronunciation guide. The handy A-to-Z reference is based on one compiled in the 1940s by the late George Mitchel Stokes, then a graduate student at Baylor University who later served as director of the speech division in the school’s communications studies department.

Serious Texas talkers might want to search used bookstores for Texas Towns From A to Z: Pronunciation Guide by Bill and Clare Bradfield (1996, Three Forks Press). They wrote the 118-page reference—which covers 1,400 cities—in hopes of keeping broadcasters and politicians from embarrassing themselves in Texas.

Meanwhile, east of Waco (WAKE-o), folks in one town gave up years ago and simply made the pronunciation dilemma part of their city slogan: “Mexia—a great place to live, no matter how you pronounce it!” Indeed, Linda Archibald, the chamber of commerce’s executive director, reports that she hears a number of variations, even among locals: MY-hair, Muh-HEE-uh, MEX-ia.

So what’s the right way to say Mexia? “Muh-HAY-uh,” answers Archibald. She should know. After all, she’s from there.

At one library in West Texas, it’s not uncommon to get packages of books in the mail marked with huge block letters: USA. So says an assistant librarian, who grew up on a ranch east of Iraan. Yep, you guessed their problem. But pronunciation, says Linda Gage, wasn’t a big deal until relations turned tense with the Middle East. “Back in the early ’80s, when my brother was a professional roper, he’d get booed in the arena,” she recalls. “So he changed his address to Sheffield.”

Back to Iraan. That’s eye-ruh-ANN, if you please. “The town’s named for Ira and Ann Yates, who owned a nearby ranch where oil was discovered in 1926,” Gage explains. “A contest was held to name the new town, and Iraan was the winning entry.” Neat story, I enthuse. “Frankly, it’s a headache,” Gage laments.

I couldn’t resist calling Miami, northeast of Amarillo. Mayor Chad Breeding answered the phone at city hall. “Yeah, we get lots of funny looks when we say my-AM-muh,” he tells. “Then people ask how we spell it!”

Study Butte. Stumped? Jim Burr, justice of the peace Precinct 2 for Study Butte and Terlingua in the Big Bend region, set me straight. “Stew-DE bYOOT,” he says. “The town’s named after Will Study, who started a mercury mine on the butte.” Burr had more to share. “MAR-uh-thn, all drug together—that’s how everyone down here says Marathon,” says the Houston transplant. “And you know the difference between a butte and a mesa, right?” I didn’t. Now I do.

No commentary on Texas talk would be complete without mention of a bona fide head scratcher down south. “We get this all the time,” sighs Rene Mascorro, the county judge in Refugio County. “People ask how we get an ‘r’ in our name.” Mascorro’s from there so you can only imagine how many times he’s shared this story: “Back when the train came through here, the Irish conductor couldn’t pronounce Refugio the Spanish way so he said re-FURY-oh. The name stuck.” Boy, did it.

In my linguistic wanderings, I discovered an omission in the Almanac’s pronunciation guide: Pedernales. So I called Iris Neffendorf at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. She, too, was a bit surprised at the oversight but not at my pronunciation question. “The correct way is ped-er-NAL-is,” says the park manager. “It’s Native American for flint rock or arrowhead.”

“LBJ, though, always said perd-n-alice,” she adds. And, as most of us know, the president was from around there. Case closed.

Longtime contributor Sheryl Smith-Rodgers writes on all sorts of subjects at her home in Blanco (blank-O), Texas. She’s betting this hot topic generates a lot of mail.