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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why American place names "sing" and British ones don't

American place names work in songs in a way British place names don't, which is often attributed to the geographical charisma and new-world associations of the former.

I wonder if it's also because a lot of American place names end in a vowel and hardly any British ones do.

Thirty-two of the united states have names ending in a vowel, including euphonious regions like Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee. Many have Spanish names such as Sausalito, Amarillo and El Paso. Others, such as Takoma, Tallahassee and Tampa, are native american in origin. Many of them have the additional benefit of beginning with a T, which is how Lowell George came to sing of going from "Tucson to Tucumcari, Tahachapi to Tonopah" in Willin'. On the other hand a huge number of British place names end in "n" or "r".

I asked songwriter Boo Hewerdine if the terminal vowel made the word "sing" in a more open, appealing fashion. He agreed that multi-syllable words ending in a vowel "sing very well". One of the few songs to make a success of invoking a British place name is Waterloo Sunset, which involves a word that isn't English and finishes in a vowel.

I asked Boo to name the best British place name to sing and he came back with Piccadilly. "It's perfect. Four syllables. Hard-soft, hard-soft."

It also derives from the Spanish word "picadillo" so I'll consider my theory proven.