What’s In a Name? A Lot, Apparently, So Say It Right

by Billy Palumbo
Wednesday Jul 14, 2010

The battle over one of the South End’s thoroughfares

Right now, one of the very things that makes the South End what it is and helps define the neighborhood is also ripping it apart. It is impossible to envision the neighborhood without this important feature, but it is so divisive that the very uttering of its name brings scowls, jeers-- and corrections.

I’m talking about how to pronounce "Tremont."

(This isn’t an easy topic for a column. Not because it’s too emotionally charged, or because I’m afraid I’ll get hate mail if I advocate the "wrong" pronunciation. No, I mean it’s hard, logistically, to spell out the ways people pronounce the word.)

After taking an unscientific survey, I heard three pronunciations, pretty much equally: tree-mont (long e, rhymes with "we-mont"), tray-mont (rhymes with "they-mont"), and treh-mont (with a short e, rhyming with "them-mont"). I was glad that nobody said truh-MONT, but then I think only French people would say it like that. Or hoity-toity Back Bay-ers. Among the three pronunciations I did hear, there was nothing near a consensus.

Of course, it’s no surprise that people mispronounce a place name in New England, where our forefathers were either pulling a prank on future generations, or they had marbles in their mouths when they named our cities and streets. There’s universal disdain for out-of-towners who fall back on lessons from kindergarten and foolishly sound out "Worcester," but the debate over Tremont is different. It isn’t as simple as pointing out when someone doesn’t say it correctly; first, we have to determine what, if anything, is correct.

In the search for the right way to say Tremont, I spoke to Peter Drummey (that’s Drum-me, not Drum-may), at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and without hesitating, he said, "Treh-mont." As the Society’s Librarian, you can bet he had research to back it up. Tremont, Drummey told me, got its name for the tri-mountain area that Boston once was. The "tri" sound eventually turned into "treh," got passed down, and that’s why Drummey, a lifelong New Englander, says "Treh-mont."

So that should settle it, right? I mean, a librarian, with maps and books and everything should be the end-all to this debate, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, no-- it gets more complicated. Obviously, there’s no way to know exactly how anyone said "Tremont" in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Drummey told me that the pronunciation likely evolved and changed generations ago, maybe even several times over for many reasons, including accents and speech patterns of early Bostonians. Also, some old maps of the city have the street labeled "Treamount," which not only offers possible different ways of saying the first syllable of our beloved street, it also calls into question the pronunciation of its better half-the mont/mount half. But even this is flimsy evidence, as it may have been a cartographical error. If it’s not an error, it still proves nothing about pronunciation-- people used to throw extra letters in words all the time back then (Did someone say Worcester?).

So it looks like there may never be a satisfactory answer as to how "Tremont" is pronounced, other than "That’s how I’ve always said it, that’s how my parents said it, and so on." But that won’t stop people from arguing about it. I asked Drummey if he’s noticed more people saying it different ways in recent years.

"No," Drummey said, "But there’s more of an urge to call people out on it" when they say it differently.

People adamantly believe that they are right, as I learned while taking the survey, and I saw some get quite riled up about it. I am glad that, though it came close, none of the arguments I inadvertently started came to blows. In some circles, a Bostonian saying "Tree-mont" is as blasphemous as one rooting for the Yankees. I could tell that people would never look at each other the same after I asked them to say Tremont. I wonder: Did I venture into a taboo subject? Is this something to add to the list of things not to talk about-- religion, politics, Tremont St.?

And why is it such a big deal?

Well, I suppose it’s because of people like me, who come from out-of-state and take wild guesses as to how we’re supposed to say things (I swear I have never said Cope-ly). The city’s natives take a position of defensive possession, and when they correct someone’s pronunciation, it’s also their way of casting them out as an outsider, not in the know, a non-Bostonian. The problem is, not every native Bostonian says it the same. So maybe we shouldn’t be judging or ostracizing people based on the way they say Tremont if we can’t even figure it out amongst ourselves.

Yet, we all know what we’re talking about, whether we choose tree, tray, or treh.

Let’s set aside these petty differences and work proactively to come together. Let’s all do a little experiment. Try saying Tremont another way for a while. If you’ve always said it one way, try out some of the others. Use them interchangeably. You might be surprised at how it rolls off the tongue, or that they may sound better in different contexts. "Across Treh-mont, down Tray-mont, on Tree-mont."

And if that doesn’t stop the bickering and arguing, then we may have to take drastic measures. The only way to stop the fighting is for everyone to agree not to refer to that street by its name. Just call it "The Boulevard That Shall Not Be Named." Or "You Know, The One Between Shawmut and Columbus."


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