Pronouncing your own name eccentrically isn’t always a sign of snobbery
Time. A Dance to the Music of
All my life I have been battling with the problem of whether to pronounce my surname with an “ow” (as in trowel); or with an “oh” (as in “troll”). Powell or Pole, that is the question. So many assumptions about class and politics ride on that single syllable. How beautifully British. Even brothers do not always agree. Charles Powell, foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, is firmly in the “oh” camp. Lord Pole. But his brother Jonathan, Tony Blair’s first chief of staff, is an “ow” man. My grandfather, the novelist Anthony Powell, was very much a Pole. So much so, in fact, that if I choose to introduce myself as Georgia “Pole”, I am usually asked if I’m “any relation to Anthony?” Yes, I reply, hence, of course, my confident trilling of “Pole” – a correct and ancient pronunciation of a name which can be traced back, according to my grandfather, to the early kings and princes of Wales. Pronouncing the name “Pole” is like a Masonic handshake for readers of No fan all things Powellian (pronounced “Poe-ellian”) would pronounce the “ow”. Beyond that somewhat rarefied company, however, the entire Powell versus Pole debate must seem like some kind of ridiculous snobbery. Yet I’m not sure that is the case. General Colin Powell (whom my grandfather used to refer to as “Cousin Colin”) pronounced the “ow” in his surname and then confounded us all with “Cole-in”. There is some pleasure to be had in having a “difficult” surname. And there’s definitely a pleasure in knowing how to pronounce it correctly. In my case the truth is that, like the late David Bowie (pron. Boeie?), I really don’t know how to say my name. I am particularly pathetic when it comes to introducing myself on the telephone. I mutter a feeble mixture of both versions with people thinking that I’m the far more exotic “Georgia Pearl”, which sounds as if I’m from one of America’s southern states. Sometimes I simply spell it out, leaving my listener to choose their own pronunciation. It’s not snobbery that makes me persist with “Pole”. Rather, I have a certain attachment to my grandfather’s pronunciation and I’m unwilling to relinquish it. It was so much part of him and it does keep his memory alive. But I’m not wholly convinced by his Welsh history. True, there is an old Welsh fairy tale that refers to the King of Fairyland and father of the clan of Powell being called Pwyle. But I’m afraid that I find myself pronouncing his name as “Pile”. Which is altogether worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if future Powells simply opt for the uncomplicated “ow” sound. My father, meanwhile, has mastered a subtle “Poe-well”, which seems to satisfy everyone. But my poor children will suffer an even worse fate than I have had. Their father’s surname is Coke – pronounced Cook, obviously.